Thursday, August 4, 2016

The 2016 Angeles Crest 100 Mile, Men's race preview (live tracking Saturday is available at )

The wilderness exemptions have dried up with the new Forest Service supervisor and increased scrutiny of the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, leaving the race flatter and more paved through its tough 26-49 mile section. From my experience running the course, I admit it is 30 minutes (+/- 15 min) faster that before, but also hotter than before. Temperatures are looking favorable with highs around 79-85, which puts a reasonable winning time in the 17-19 hour range. Races in the San Gabes are full of character, so no guarantees are ever given. The race for the win generally starts between Shortcut and Chantry Flats (miles 59-74), so pay attention to the feed around 2pm!

Jorge Pacheco has finished AC 9 times, won it 4 times, and DNF'd 4 times. To put a trend line on the 48 year old Jorge and predict his 2016 race is impossible when you look at his solid training and race results this year. Generally though, he is guaranteed to win if he is leading and feeling well at Chantry (mi 74)

Guillaume Calmettes has 1 finish and 1 DNF under his belt, but they don't tell the full story of this champion in the making. In 2014 his quad cramped and tore so badly that he had to limp the last 11 miles downhill in 4 hours to a 22:43, taking away a rightful sub-20 finish and possible win. In 2015 he mysteriously developed kidney problems at mi 45, and limped to a DNF at 59. Those events pale in comparison to the raw number of good long runs the 32 year old has completed for the race, and his ability to find bottomless energy deep within his adrenal glands. He is a favorite to win if he can find ways to ease back when the adrenaline is pumping too hard. 

Ruperto Romero is a 9 time, sub24 finisher with 1 win and zero DNF's. Most out of town folks are surprised to not know of him each year, but the locals know the 52 year old "Speedy Gonzalez" as a humble and determined competitor that uses his small size and infrequent racing well to be able to lay out epic finishes year after year. He is a favorite to win as a former 2014 champion. 

Jerry Garcia is a 38 year badass National Forest Firefighter (former hotshot) that is a second generation ultra runner (Dad, Manuel Garcia also ran AC in 2003). The local folks in the San Gabriel mountains have seen some great training and racing from Jerry in the 50k-50mi distance, and his first 100mi at Chimera last year was a learning experience over 22:29hours. That said, Jerry would be tough to bet against if he is leading at Sam Merrill, mile 89. He'll have to execute a cautious and calculated race to get there first. 

Joel Frost-Tift is making his 100 mile debut at AC, which is a tough race to start with. Undeterred, he's been training on the course all year, putting in hard miles covered in jackets and extra water. His 1:08/2:26 times in the half/marathon should make his pace of the paced and fireroad sections unmatched, but the rest of the field will be gunning for a technical blood bath over the last 25, where PR's will be about as useful as a microwave.

Your's Truly, Dominic Grossman has ran 4 sub 24 finishes, enjoyed 2 wins, and no DNF's. The year started off moderately well at Avalon 50, then suffered a scare in adrenal fatigue at Lake Sonoma, before some hamstring issues came up after high mileage/high heat training in June. The Mt. Disappointment 50k put those worries to rest after my PT cleared out tightness in my sitbone and allowed me to race pain free and fast. The result is I know what not to do at AC, and am primed for a 18-20 hour finish. This race is the best I've felt all year in terms of optimism and general fitness. I locate my true north in the San Gabes, and the race is my favorite place to run hard.  

Monday, June 20, 2016

Finding Finesse in the Heat of the Summer 100

This weekend I spent some of my more energetic waking hours running through the San Gabriel's in the hottest temperatures seen this year. There's plenty of posts from folks (myself included) that argue the finer points of what specific "secrets" or "tricks" are important to know for navigating these mountains, ridges, canyons, and creeks with the greatest joy and minimal amount of unnecessary pain. As far as running through challenging terrain in fiery heat goes, there sometimes isn't any way to sidestep the inherently difficult task at hand.

Miles that make you think twice..

When the general public is notified of "the toughest endurance event" through various mass media outlets, there's ample hyperbolas to describe the heat, distance and/or combination of unique, one of a kind obstacles found only at Kona or Death Valley. Still, if one finds themselves out in the exposed and sun drenched Cooper Canyon at mile 35 of the Angeles Crest 100 Mile Endurance Run, there's another level of challenge that other "internationally recognized pinnacles of endurance" can't quite replicate. There's the terrain itself which bucks upwards and downwards at 20% in sections; there's the perfectly still 95 degree air that awaits competitors with a money back guarantee to roast them like a Thanksgiving Turkey; there's the sheer distances of  4+ miles of climbing to the next aid station and the 4+ miles behind them from the last one that they came from leaving their body in vulnerable drought conditions; and there's the simple fact that just getting through the first 26 miles of pre-heating requires 7,000 feet of climbing before entering "the oven" which means the average runner is already in some degree of extremis. The mind bakes, the legs ache, the trail climbs, the air is still, and the next 75 miles of racing still have more heat, longer stretches without aid, more climbing, and plenty of bone jarring terrain that will demand much more than just running from the competitor. The challenge is distinct and undeniable: move quickly through the hot spots, manage fluid/electrolyte/calorie intake, use whatever tools you have available to keep cool, and don't lose your mind as it bakes in your skull.

I suppose the last point above was the toughest part of my Sunday run from mile 52, Chilao to mile 68, Newcomb Pass. I've felt the burn of the Badwater, and experienced my kidneys slowing down to a near complete stop due to overheating, but the difference at Badwater was that I had a crew vehicle available every mile of the 135 miles of paved road. Midday Sunday, in the 95 degree heat of the San Gabriel backcountry, I didn’t have a car and attentive crew monitoring me every 8 minutes. The exposed and reflective heat of the Silver Moccasin trail was a technical and searing frying pan, and I was a 150 lbs spat of tissue trying to unload heat in engulfing (metaphorical) flames. Now, had it have been a nice day, I would've trotted along enjoying the sights and sounds, but it was over 90 degrees and climbing, and I was sweating faster than I could absorb water from my stomach into my bloodstream. Indeed, it was something to be worried about since the day was only getting hotter, and the next stretch would be some 12 miles without water. 

The "secret" or "trick" for me today wasn't in the little tricks like running from shade to shade like an ant being burned by a microscope, or sitting in the water of the (sure to be dry by race day) Westfork of the San Gabriel River, or the ample use of salt. No, it was already apparent the day before when I ran the first 38 miles of the course, that I needed something more than just combating the heat. All these things individually were less important and effective than the overarching concept of finesse.

I will admit- I've had plenty of laughable moments in my time in the mountains that have shown I have an utter lack of finesse. However, my bones don’t move with unrestrained vigor as they used to thanks to running in said steep, hot, humbling mountains for the last 8 years. I'm on the exposed and burning hot "Edison Road" that hides hot pockets of air easily over 100 degrees, and I start to recall memories of my worst moments in this canyon. Not a complete thought forms, but I slightly turn my toes inward to ease the impact on my knees, I shift my pack to adjust the load of my water, I listen to my breathing and hold it in for an extra moment to avoid tight and sore lungs, I sip my water when my mouth is just dry enough to earn a swig, I ingest a salt and a gel when the trail and I agree that my heart rate can slow for a moment to divert extra blood to the stomach, and I keep my mind solely focused on moving as efficiently as possible to the top of the climb through a combination of running and hiking that match the slight variations of my core body temperature. 

The Cajon Pass
The finesse isn't in doing all those things, but doing them with grace, timing and synchronicity of the heart, body, mind, and terrain. The people that do this exceptionally well look like freight trains climbing and descending the Cajon Pass; an event that transpires dozens of times a day with great ease and insane amounts of well-placed force. Trains typical weigh in at 15,000-20,000 tons (on the 2.2% grade Cajon Pass, 33,000-44,000HP would be necessary to get over the grade). However, there aren’t always 7-10 locomotives available to do the work of pulling a train straight over the hill. Momentum is used to get a running start that allows the train to coast over the 2 mile hill. Even just to start from a standstill, cars are linked together with slack to allow for a slow build up as momentum necessary to get up to speed. The tractive force of a single locomotive is only 180,000 lbs, but spread out over a long gradual pull, a single locomotive can move an unfathomably large amount of cargo up to speed using the low rolling friction of rail to its advantage. 

The same ideas apply to getting my body from Wrightwood to Altadena under my own power. The question isn't simply how much effort can I give, but how much finesse can I use to make a arduous journey a thing of art. Form is low rolling friction, momentum is getting through hot sections quickly after I've cooled myself at an aid station, and patient, consistent, guarded force is how I survive sections in excess of 100 degrees that threaten to stop me dead in my tracks.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Marriage or Something Like It

It's no secret that over the past 8 years of knowing Katie (7 of dating her) that I've grown and matured to appreciate her a lot more than I initially did. In fact, I appreciate her so much now, that I married her this two weeks ago under the pine tree cathedral of the Grassy Hollow Amphitheater. I was thoroughly convinced that each and every word of my vows was meaningful and true, yet 7 years ago I wouldn't have believed I would ever say them to Katie. I believe that we've both grown, but within my own mind I've left behind former conservative impressions of what a wife should be. Below is a letter to myself and to any other young adult contemplating the idea of a life long marriage.

"I thought that a wife cooked every night for their husband."
 Though Katie might argue that I only marginally "cook", I have ended up preparing more meals for the highly valid reason that she is a brilliant writer that adds a lot of interesting and funny stories to the world (and makes pretty good money off freelance writing). I love reading her work in magazines or online and it makes me want to heat up even more TJ's frozen pizzas and Quinoa burgers to keep her at it.

"I thought a wife always had to be put together"
Katie refers to her loose hairs in her run bun as "stragglies", which usually is used when she's looking at a picture of herself and saying "Boy, I had a lot of stragglies, I must've been working hard." That right there is the exact definition of what makes Katie a great wife: she works really hard and doesn't hold herself back with insecurity about her hairdo or make-up status.

"I thought wives had to be perfect"
Watch a traditional American sitcom, and there's usually a wive that is constantly making all the right moves, taking care of the kids and the comedically irresponsible husband, preparing a dinner that makes Martha Stewart look sloppy, making completely infallible decisions, and keeping her perfect streak of being a perfect wife going strong. Even still in hipster terms, perfection might be having a passion for volunteering for human rights programs or having a high paying job or leading a new workout class. I wouldn't say that Katie doesn't do some of those things, but sometimes she sleeps in and misses a run, makes a bad decision, or forgets to pack something for a trip. Be that as it may, she generally doesn't go nuts that her streak of perfection or impressive accomplishments is broken. When I was looking for a lady, this short sided idea of perfect living actually made me blind to a lot of other great things she does well like forgiving, being supportive, making fun of me, joining me on runs up big mountains, and cuddling me after a long day which is a lot more valuable than "perfection".

"I thought a wife always had to follow the lead of her husband" 
There's several trips that I personally plan each year, but there's also a ton of races or adventures that Katie pulls me towards and helps me discover. She's my equal, and I don't tell her to be quiet (unless there's a bear outside our tent) or tell her she doesn't know what she's talking about. I learn things from her, and I love the adventures she's taken me on. If I didn't have someone uniquely adventurous like her, I'd miss out on a lot of really interesting stuff.

Photo by Vinny Grossman

"I thought a wife was supposed to be shy and polite"
Katie is a ball of joy. On a rare occasion she can be quiet, but she's generally chatting it up with friends or razzing me about my Dom-isms. Sometimes she's fiery, and sometimes I get burned by her in a really funny joke, but she generally just speaks to me with no fear of judgement or criticism. Those unique Katie-isms like the cute way she talks or the sharpness of her Missouri "D-aaah-mm" are worthy of being shouted from a ridge mid-run.

"I thought wives had to always be sophisticated and elegant"
Katie definitely was exceptionally elegant at the wedding, but she spends most of her time in t-shirts and jeans or running gear. She is my best friend, and that usually means conversations consisting of lame jokes and extra nerdy puns. She's not afraid to heckle and be heckled for days on end even if she isn't conservatively lady-like. Through it all, even if she isn't elegant in the moment.. it's an undeniable truth that she can clean up pretty damn well.

"I thought a wife would never match my affection and love because I'm a crazy Italian guy."
Perhaps the biggest constant about Katie is her unconditional love for me. I get it that sometimes my hairstyles and behavior don't make me the most attractive guy, but she doesn't ever stop letting me know that she loves me. She has quieted an insecurity in me that used to cause me to constantly stoke the fire in a relationship through all sorts of insane antics. It was a major vice that made me difficult to be around, but she's the first to have fulfilled my daily need for ample love and affection.

"I thought wives had to be judgmental and condemning matriarchs"
Katie and I do judge right and wrong in the world, but we spend a lot more time in the Buddhist mindset of accepting that other individual's pursuit of happiness (though possibly destructive to others pursuit of happiness) is not an invalid request. We believe everyone should be allowed to find happiness, and we have sympathy for those that do so in ways that hurt us. Having someone like that who is a free-thinker and capable of having very difficult empathy is such an important foundation for me to keep hope in our crazy world. Call her a hippy for it (but also call Kate Martini Freeman or Krista Olsen hippies) but it's genuinely a necessary key to happiness.

So, if any of that above makes sense to you (whether you're a guy or girl), I can generally state that you've got a shot at happiness in matrimony. Take it from me, a married man of 11 days, partner of Katie of 7 years, the quotations "I thought wives were supposed to..." above are the furthest thoughts from a happy mind.

Photos by Jayme Burtis

Thursday, April 7, 2016


After a few false starts in the past year, I've finally started to believe I'm not just running better because I say I want to run better and get over my OTS (which is necessary), but because I'm actually doing everything it takes to stay healthy and run well, AND I've had enough time and experience between me and 2014.

The metaphor that I think best sums up OTS is that it's like falling off a cliff, surviving, and then mentally and physically getting back to hanging out on the edge of a cliff (which is oh so mentally and physically difficult). The falling off is straight forward: the endocrine system is shocked and everything is out of whack from sleep to mood to metabolism to adrenaline production to psyche. If you're in a bad mood, you might not train, or if you're optimistic and want to go out and have a good run, it just might not happen for awhile as the adrenal glands give you the silent treatment. I had this happen last year trying to train for Sean O'Brien and Gorge Waterfalls, neither race had any memorably great training runs, and my last run stateside before UTMB was pretty freaking miserable. Then, as far as metabolism goes, you might gain weight or feel very weak during runs, and when you try out diets or test theories, nothing is consistent. I tried to eat very little meat, and felt super weak but also bloated, and then even when I started to eat more meat I felt weak and hungry. Finally, I got to a point of being mostly plant based (some fish, chicken, and eggs here and there), and plenty of greens, grains, and plant based fats. The consistency of a balanced diet is chiefly focused on sustained energy levels, but to get to this point, it took some bouts of trial, error, confusion, and eventually confidence. To sum it up best, OTS makes the body a spoiled brat and that messes with you so it can stay home from school and eat spaghetti O's. At some point you just have to Mom up and figure out what is normal staunchly decrying no soda, no internet before bed, more veggies, less dessert, dishes washed, homework done, pajamas on, and mandatory bed times on school nights.

Being a good boy

As far as reformulating my training goes, I'm at a place of acceptance, patience, and organization. I accept that more mileage doesn't get me in shape as much as hard workouts, and I am more patient with setbacks that are warning signs of relapses. I think I still can run higher mileage weeks, but I know my body responds better to shorter, harder runs that require as much rest as a longer easier run. Also, there's the necessity of taking cross-training seriously and engaging in AIS stretching daily, which has done a lot for my stride, injury prevention, and overall speed on trail. I even (shameless product plug) started heart rate training with a Suunto Ambit Peak watch that tells me how much rest I need to be back at 100%. Usually this is a little silly for ultrarunners who (supposedly) require 100+ hours of recovery for a hard 15 mile run, but it's actually really nice because it rewards you with less recovery hours if you run really easy (which you're supposed to be doing anyways!), and it's generally pretty accurate with recovery time necessary to be able to run at your peak HR, performance, and efficiency. When it comes down to it, I have more memorable runs this spring because of using HR and listening to the recovery function and running harder and faster when I was fully recovered, rather than just working out on a hunch of capacity and ability. My last workout last Friday was at full recovery, and allowed me to crank out some fast miles over rolling terrain without fear of burning out or OTS. This would be the part of the metaphor when I'm back to walking along the edge of cliffs and knowing again what all the warning signs of falling off are (because it's 2016 and I listen to data).

My goals for Sonoma are simple, run to my capacity and develop a plan for HR based racing at AC based on how long I can hold different zones. I already know I can hold 150-165 for a couple hours, the goal is to figure out if I can do a few more hours, and to evaluate recovery for going into my final block of training for AC. It should be interesting to see what I can do on a largely fair course of singletrack and gradual climbs. Any specifics about racing other runners isn't going to come into my mind until the last 10 miles, so it should be easy, right?

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Feb 8-28

In a perfect world, I'd never get sick and running would always be fair. Unfortunately a couple of weeks ago, I got the flu and had to take my first sick day in several years. The runs after the flu were absurdly hard on my lungs and body. Luckily, I now appear to be turning the corner with a decent sub 36 Temescal-Green Peak yesterday.

I think the big lesson from the humbling past few weeks is to appreciate the long and patient process. I actually ran better on my climb up Green Peak due to finding higher and higher gears where I could keep my effort level below extreme but maintain a running stride.

Being sick actually gave me a better sense of commonality with my community of coworkers and friends that were getting sick. In that sense of the matter, I understood what it was like to be so vulnerable and human while experiencing a painful variant of the flu and the overly dramatic burning feeling in my lungs and legs while trying to learn to run uphill again.

The humbling feeling made me realize how weird and crazy this sport is, and how crazy it is that so many people do this for fun.

Watching the election (aka government reality tv) during my flux between civilian and athlete made me understand a little bit better how such contrasting ideas of entitlement are being sold (on both sides, but I undeniably lean liberal). I understand what some people feel entitled to, because the alternatives appear to sound as crazy as running up a mountain. I'm not referring to one party in particular, as all have different demands of government, but I feel like the day to day pandering of votes is not to the crazy individuals that work hard for the sheer enjoyment of working hard.

I do admit that I am lucky to work where I do, and have the skills to do my job and be compensated enough to have my basic needs met and allow me freedom to work and run for enjoyment, which is such an abstract concept for the most of the electorate. I guess my point is that maybe the gainfully employed, safe, and balanced budget households in this country are actually well off regardless of the car they drive or items they own, as long as they can find happiness in their job. I understand how they might poll with large numbers saying the country is getting worse, but I don't agree because I see such opportunity in the basic gifts of being an American citizen, regardless if I am as well off as my parents were. I find that my path to happiness isn't through a candidate's ever changing words, but through enjoying the gift of opportunity of sport and career (but I get all the complaints!).

So, thank you flu for coming and teaching me a deeper level of empathy that the endorphins and pine trees blind me to. Although, I'm not too bummed though to be back sweating and feeling the burn... 😌

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Feb 1-7

I posted the below excerpt from David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest and found it to be topical to so much of what this blog has tried to explain (always in vain), about why I compete in sports/life/anything.

Perhaps the tennis coach Schtitt, could be seeking an idealism of sport that is impossible to hone in on without sooner falling victim to the sirens of ego, greed, over-rationalized cheating and overt abuse of one's body. There indeed is a hefty amount of quotations in sport of players speaking of the magic of applying themselves to the challenge at hand, all the while showing an addiction to ego and greed for awards and respect, surpassing the limits of their abilities by thrashing their bodies with irreversible trauma, and the all too common psychopathic actualization of the opportunity to attempt to get away with cheating.

This section of the novel also mentions that C.T. the new headmaster of the tennis academy oversaw the change in the motto that hangs over the boys' main hallway: "When a man knows his limits, there is nothing he can't achieve" which contrasts the romantic views of the former. The central point of this section's explanation of Coach Schtitt is that he finds excellence in being acutely aware of physical limits and also seeing that the way one plays the game allows for countless unseen permutations that only require the right creative decision at the right moment to not merely win, but to make for an actual beautiful game! I wondered to myself on Sunday night as Peyton Manning won his second Super Bowl, did he really savor the sloppy offense, the multiple fumbles, the lack of creativity from his opponents who played predictably as they had all season?

The point that DFW drives through Schtitt is that the human mind working within the "boundaries of self" in the moment is the main reason to play the game. Perhaps the true answer to my question above is a layered answer from the player himself, that there are indeed moments of pure love for the game as we swirl around and dive through the commercialization of heroes. When we ask why we're engaging in these contrived competitions, we're experiencing the knife edge of idealism of the competitor spirit and its limits. To put it in layman's terms: go run a long way in the mountains to get that sweet taste of working within your limits and pushing your body and mind to their limits of effort and creativity. Accept that you might not win, be popular, earn any respect, or receive any compensation - but when you get the chance to play the game, PLAY WITH EVERYTHING YOU'VE GOT!

Monday - Off

Tuesday - 8mi, Tempo up Temescal - though I was far off my PR, I was really excited to have a bit of good form in my stride and experience a fluid push from the no-dogs sign to the top. I think I was really excited by it for the sake of it hopefully translating to a better effort on raceday when I climb up Acorn (without needless nervous red-lining, but noticeable speed).

Wednesday - 10mi, Easy loop around Westridge and Sullivan. I finally got to catch up with Guillaume who was stoked after his experiences at HURT100, yet still excited in a much less technical go again at the AC course with more structured speed work and cross training (everyone always sees the light;) I also attended a cross training class at my work, which I found out fits into my XT running needs (cool!).

Thursday - 6 mi, Intervals at Temescal - 15x45sec. Not an easy workout to do on technical terrain, but definitely a good step in the right direction of building uphill power and efficiency.

Friday - Off, did a bit of Wharton Stretching and cleaning

Saturday - 15 mi, tempo up Winter Creek Climb - again another non-PR, but a fulfilling consistent hard climb. Practiced focusing on my downhill footwork on Sturdevant, which has painfully reminded me before that the price of lazy foot placement is sprained ankles and Supermans. Not falling or rolling an ankle was quite an accomplishment!

Sunday - 11 mi, recovery run with Timmy, Krista, Kate, Katie, and Bob. Good times with everyone in the group, there couldn't have been a more fit, clever, and optimistic group of runners in Malibu that day.
Photo by Kate Martini Freeman

51 mi, 9hr, 13,500 feet climbed
I finally got what felt like two good weeks out of my body, and am happy following up with an easy recovery week that is easy running, stretching, cross training, and a few strides here and there.

Monday, February 1, 2016


Perhaps my favorite thing about ultrarunning is its culture. Sure, there's an argument that there's a good amount of liberal "soft-ness" as most runners are highly educated, motivated by a pursuit of transcendentalism, and generally exhibit a minimal amount of competitiveness/maximal amount of niceness with other runners in the community. There's also a conservative values that prioritize hard work and the individual enduring and toughing out a bad patch that earns ample respect among peers regardless of whether they've won or lost a big race. I suppose as someone who's ran these races for eight years, I understand and appreciate the diversity of thought and commonality of respect.

When people talk about the worry of our sport changing, I generally shrug off the topics of races filling up too fast and sponsors ruining events. If the new faces in races have an agenda of sharply breaking from the sport's central values of respect, humility, and instrinsic motivation, then the law of distance regulates their ambitions for disrespect, bragging, and monetary pursuits. Simply put, no one lasts forever running hard, long races without learning the said qualities that make running ultras sustainable.

Respect is required to develop relationships, appreciate the dificulty of races, and be able to run with a clear perception of the challenging at hand. Humility is very easy to learn, and required to allow for a career that lasts longer than a couple of bad, soul-crushing races. Intrinsic motivation is all that keeps a runner going when every pain receptor is firing making quiting seem like it is worth all the money in the world; no external motivation can keep a runner coming back each year for 15-30 hour battles of the mind and body.

That said, it's far from a vanilla sport, and outliers are the norm. I simply believe that those violating the law of distance seem to disappear or at least get drowned out in the steady stream of good people. To me, that's what ultrarunning culture is, and why it's so sustainable.

Monday: Rest, enjoyed it! I did a bit of cross training over the weekend and felt the need to rest after remembering how weak my glutes and hips are.

Thursday: 10x1min on Sullivan Ridge - I've been harping on myself to get my form back to the sound and trully athletic place that makes it possible to hit blazing splits uphill. I don't have any other workout that helps me focus on this like 10x1min, so I'm going to keep doing it until it starts to click.

Wednesday: 13 mile with Katie/Peter/Andy. Easy run from Los Leones to Trippet and back gave me a chance to focus on recovery without being bored out of my mind.

Thursday: 7 mi coyote westridge. Couldn't say I felt good after the past couple nights in the altitude tent. I initially decided to make it another recovery day, but found a burst of energy when Jimmy came by tempoing. I joined him for 15 minutes, enough to make it feel like a fair compromise for my body. 10 min cross training

Friday: Spent the afternoon running errands for work and the car, so by the time Katie was ready to go to Wrightwood, I only had time for 3 miles and some pushups and situps.

Saturday: The woeful lack of cross training seemed to possibly be the cause of a rather bland long run on the road. I accepted the state of my body in exchange for the stunning views of the San Gabriel high country. Also found out that doing my Wharton stretches for the first time in a few days doesn't save a run.

Sunday: 10x1 in the sleet. Wrightwood generally exists somewhere above or below the snowline depending on the particular storm. We started in snow at the cabin, ran intervals on the dirt road by the 2, and ended up back in snow at the cabin. I spent a good amount of time chopping wood and shoveling some heavy and wet snow, making for some demanding domestic cross training on my back.

Overall, I'm happy with January. I know I have more cross training to do this year to maintain mileage, but I feel a bit more confidence and less fear in my training goals.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Jan 18-24

Listening to a blurb at the start of This American Life's podcast "Family Physics", a man recounted his feelings on being upset when his father (who was enamored with New York City) pulled up the family from the Midwest and moved to NYC where they were poor, hustling, and out of place. The Dad had thought that New York was "the center of the universe" and that it would be so great to live there, so much so that all the other costs would be worthwhile. The son went on to gleefully explain a philosophy concept that he had found applicable to his childhood, "the mediocrity principle" which when applied to space, considers locations to be more likely to be a member of a numerous category rather than a rare category. I.e. New York isn't all the center of the universe, it's just another big city.

Relative to life, it's the principle that spending time thinking about how special some place is can blind you to whether it really is in fact a special place. Relative to running, it's the question of whether where you're running is really intrinsically fulfilling versus communally important. Do you enter races because of what is considered important or what you enjoy?

These aren't the first time I've asked these questions, but I'm glad I have good answers for myself.

Monday: Rest

Tuesday: 7.7 mi, 2000ft, 1:17, Easy Temescal - body still not feeling spry after Avalon, some lingering hip and glute pain in my right leg. Cross training: Wharton stretching and 6 min abs

Wed: 4 mi, 0ft, :31, Did 15 strides with Katie following on the bike. Loosening up the hamstrings is going to be a process. Did more Wharton stretching

Thurs: 7mi, 1000ft, :60, Workout: 10x1min, perhaps it was running in the dark, but I felt good and strong, clearing out some carbon from Avalon.

Fri: 14.8mi, 3400ft, 2:22, Ran up Echo mountain and down the Sunset Trail and Arroyo. Friday afternoon runs are tough when my energy levels are usually their lowest, but making them easy runs allows for my body to come alive gradually on its own. Plus, being on the Sunset Trail at sunset (a life long race dream) is good motivation for the soul to strive to reach for a little more in training.

Sat: 12mi, 2700ft, 2:30, Ran in the snow with Katie, Sarah, and Dean from Vincent Gap down the Manzanita trail and back up. The snow was firm but misshapen putting my hamstrings and hips to work, which seems to be necessary after Avalon. I'm much more aware of these muscular issues than I used to be, or they're weaker than they used to be. Either way, I finished up with a road run, and 30 minutes of cross training glutes, core, and arms.

Sun: 16mi, 2000ft, 2:5, Ran the road from Vincent Gap towards Islip and back. Body felt better once I got going, but stride felt tight and short. Ended up only getting in one good workout for the week, but doing another full body XT session made the week seem less weak.

Total: 61.6 mi, 10,866ft, 10:08

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Avalon 50 Mile Recap

As mentioned previously, I signed up for the Avalon 50 miler with an honest expectation of experiencing ultrarunning's stern and bitter adjudication for the undertrained. Perhaps I could have meditated about my 2008 Mt. Disappointment 50 miler (a truly brutal death march through hell, climbing up Edison Fire Road in 100 degree heat, a painful descent down the technical Silver Mocasin Trail with IT bands screaming, before a crushing final climb up Mt. Wilson with 46 miles on my virgin legs). Maybe that would have reminded me how capable and consistent Jorge Pacecho is in every Southern California ultra, and how to respect distance and terrain. I'd been going agnostic on ultrarunning; forgetting about the magic and joy of a well-executed race, working 12 hour days, and focusing on everything else in my life (Katie, work, sleep, holidays).

As I gazed upon the race in December, I felt a heavy expectation to train more and execute a disciplined schedule, but there was nothing tactile or sensually alluring about the race. There were few photographs, no personal memories besides snorkeling at Fourth of July Cove in middle school, and no instinctual urge to go for 20-30 mile runs on gradual fire roads. I wasn’t completely lazy though-I did need to run to soothe my twitching legs and screen burnt eyes with a few miles. In St. Louis, the rain fell relentlessly for 4 days, and I ground out a few track workouts to make small advances in fitness to get ready to race. When I returned to LA, the race was already upon me, but I still got out for another workout on Blue Ridge with Peter. Whatever training I had done, it would have to suffice. 

 When race day finally came, I sheepishly lined up at the starting line at 5 AM, certain that I would follow Fabrice and Jorge for as long as I could until my lacking fitness was painfully made apparent (likely at 3-4 miles in). As predictable as it would have been to see the SoCal legends dash off into the early morning dusk, I lead for 2 miles, and was joined not by either luminary, but by Paul Sinclair and Neil Feerick (local podium masters runners). They chatted, I figured out my pace, and we alternated the lead until I started to pull away sometime around mile 16.
Mile 18, Photo by Elsie Noemi Lopez

I didn't know where Fabrice (Did Not Start) or Jorge (6 minutes behind at mile 18) were, but I was running hard and focused. The drop bags did not make it in time to mile 18, so I had to make due on coke and rationing my 4 VFuel gels for 33 miles. I made a quick stop in the porta-potty, and was now in second chasing Paul who was within striking distance with no one behind us. I finally caught up to him on the descent into Twin Harbor, but lost him for a moment when I saw Hal Winton hiking uphill like the abominable snowman, with Gary Hilliard in tow. 

There's something about Hal Winton that inspires endurance in just about anyone who meets him. Perhaps it's the fact that at age 50, he decided to run ultras, and hasn't stopped since regardless of having a pacemaker installed and all the other ailments of old age. Or maybe that he still leads trail work crews for AC100 all over the San Gabriels at the ripe old age of 84 years old. So, I indulged in a PEH (performance enhancing hug) and I stopped to bear hug the 33 time (soon to be 34) finisher of the Avalon 50 Mile. I quickly caught back up to Paul and strode into the lead as we approached the turnaround at the isthmus. 

I counted 45 seconds on Paul and 3 minutes on Jorge as I made my way back. The rest of the field was stretched out for a few miles, and I enjoyed the cheers from fellow runners despite running dangerously low on calories and electrolytes. Ultras are a small family, and I recognized probably 80% of the runners heading the opposite way. After I got to my drop bag at mile 33, I downed a recovery drink and set back out towards the finish hoping to keep Jorge and Paul at bay for as many miles as possible. Running back over the rolling hills around Little Harbor, I expected to see one or both of them across the canyons, but somehow I managed to hold a lead despite having to slow to process calories. I wish I had known I had a 9 minute lead to stop and let my calories process correctly, but instead I kept grinding on trying to keep relentless forward motion.

The slow going dragged on as I couldn't run and process calories well enough from my short training stint (hint, these are real skills you develop during proper training). Eventually I made it to the Eagle's Nest aid at 39 just ahead of Jorge. He finally overtook me at mile 40 with a "sorry hero!" as my slog dragged on for another mile with weak hamstrings. I finally began to start feeling better and tried to keep him in eyesight, but Jorge was already gone and on the way to another strong finish. Though I had wanted to win after leading for so many miles, I kept in context how lucky I was to finish so well on so little training. 
49.1 miles, Photo by Katie DeSplinter

Needless to say, I was grateful to come out of the race with such a relatively positive experience. I had the taste of possible victory again, and I was grateful to get let off with a mere 13 miles of painful slogging. There’s some pain as I run beyond 30 minutes in my right hamstring and hip, but I’m okay with cross training and stretching being tangible remedies to the pain. Up next (as of now) is Lake Sonoma 50 mile, which should be as competitive as any ultra in the world. 
3-1-2, photo by: Don Feinstein

Needless to say, I was grateful to come out of the race with such a relatively positive experience. I had the taste of possible victory again, and I was grateful to get let off with a mere 13 miles of painful slogging. There’s some pain as I run beyond 30 minutes in my right hamstring and hip, but I’m okay with cross training and stretching being tangible remedies to the pain. Up next (as of now) is Lake Sonoma 50 mile, which should be as competitive as any ultra in the world. 

Thanks to..
New Balance for a sample pair of the Fresh Foam Gobi (basically a trail zante
VFuel for gels that went the extra mile when my drop bag was late
Injinji for a blister free day with the Run Midweight Crew Waves
Julbo for the simple and functional Corina Sunglasses

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

End of an Off Year

One of the hardest things to admit as a runner, is that as much as you might want to think of your running as an idealistic and virtuous endeavor in the realms of hard work and courageous determination, the raw truth is that you run for the pleasure of a good run. All the training and disciplined and diligent work put in, is part enjoyment and part greedy planning for an even more pleasurable run. We have our flavors of enjoyment: big mountains, roads, trails, long runs, short and fast runs, but they're all chosen for purely personal preferences of which run leads to the most enjoyment. When I look back on my "off year", it's undeniable that I suffered through injuries and lower energy levels because I was greedy with my pleasure seeking, there's nothing else to say about it. Greed is real.

I write this now with not only a revived running body, but also a healthy and honest appreciation for the how and why of self restraint with my running. It's easy to slip and let my greedy side take hold and leap blindly into training hard again, but the amount of restraint enforced upon me by the setbacks of the year make me see what I do with much wider eyes.

Right now, the best runners in the sport are receiving awards for their performances (UROY), and from my perspective there's nothing discriminating the applause between runners that abused themselves and are burnt out (or about to burn out) or runners that exuded restraint and maintained a healthy relationship with their running. It would be difficult to explain your voting as a judge if you denied a UROY vote to someone that ran incredibly hard and fast 5-6 times a year, yet it would also go a long way towards making the sport more sustainable.

I will admit that I can't deny the excitement I feel watching another runner crush their busy schedule, but I also hear a voice that has grown louder in light of the lonely and depressed moment when I realized I wasn't having fulfilling or enjoyable runs at all. The moment is almost the definition of a non-runner: when you realize all the truth in the standard critiques of "it just hurts and it's not fun at all". Having worked through those heavy thoughts for months at a time, I'm really grateful that I do believe in running again.

All this doom and gloom wasn't for naught, as I now feel these very distinct emotions of "now is a good time to rest" or "those core exercises are critical right now" or "this run is going really well because I'm doing x, y..woooo-hooo! Giddy up!!!" I'm grateful for that clarity because understanding my body does a lot for my personal satisfaction. I enjoy tinkering with my muscles and form, (while intimately aware of failure mechanisms to avoid) and running with a vast awe and wonder for what I'm capable of when everything comes together.

Going into 2016, I might run more or less each day, and my average splits could be faster or slower, but the path to my goals will be more clear and resolute than previous years . I plan to race the Avalon 50 mile on January 9th with the pure goal of re-calibrating my training, and testing my intuition. With the results of the race, I should have a lot to think about (and hopefully write about) going into my 2016 training for Lake Sonoma 50 and Angeles Crest 100. A whole year of healthy and consistent running isn't a pipe dream, it's a powerful reward after learning so many lessons the hard way. With that, I might delve into some cognizant training that makes me a better runner!


Sunday, September 20, 2015

UTMB 170k

Pre-Race Build Up 
I would describe my mental approach to and through UTMB as a roller coaster of mind and body:

In January, a large respect for the challenge ahead of racing in a foreign country and admittance of fear for not understanding the terrain and unique challenges.

In February, a hope to race another U.S. 100 miler to take off any expectation for an optimal race in Europe. I race Sean O'Brien with a body that wasn't ready, and I couldn't finish the race after a sharp ankle sprain 10 miles in.

In March, an acceptance of UTMB being the sole goal, and realizing my opportunity before me. To be honest, the acceptance of it as my "A race" was due to lingering OTS issues and fatigue through the winter that kept me from being able to race well in early season Western States qualifiers. Eventually though my mind came around full circle to accepting the benefits of not over racing this year.

In April and May, a steady increase of my mileage and workouts in hopes of peaking in August. A string of consistent workouts and enjoyable runs let me start to believe OTS was disappearing.

In June, a tangible confidence in my abilities to race hard in August, with a certain and highly present joy.

In July, a soleus injury that shook my confidence and limited my mileage for weeks. Before the month ended, I completed the Speedgoat 50k, which was an accomplishment for my psyche and durability. It was at least an hour slower than it should've gone, but I wasn't bitter about it after spending weeks wondering how I was going to board a plane to Europe with a bum soleus.

In August, a couple of long test runs before heading over to Europe. My fitness was clearly not what it was in May, but the legs did move with determined consistency. I went to Europe and hiked with Katie, enjoying the experience as the days counted down to the race. Considering the injury and demands of the race, it took everything I had to finish the race.

Every race in the world has its fair share of hype, excitement, and general hysteria. UTMB though is a whole other imaginary world where runners are super stars. It features the French competitiveness that boarders on "do or die patriotism" that shows up in the theme music of the race: Vangelis - Conquest of Paradise. If you listen to it echoing through the streets of Chamonix, with 2500 runners amped up and ready to go, you get a distinct feeling of the sanctity and importance of your sole mission: to attack UTMB as hard and bravely as possible..

So, there's the best runners in all of France (which is already a very competitive and well organized mountain running country) going out as hard as they can, along with the Spaniards that have some of the best endurance talent in the world, the Scandinavians that have some of the strongest legs in the sport, the Italians that can run and chat extremely fast, the Germans and Swiss that work the hardest of anyone, the Argentinians that hit on my girlfriend, the fiercely proud Asians that walk with their chests puffed out and UTMB gear prominently adorned, and the Americans that don't want to take things too seriously, but secretly are going out a little hard because we're Americans and we're a big deal. If you brought only the feisty, athletic, proud and competitive people of all the first world nations to the UN, you would have the UTMB field.

Go! Photo by Katie DeSplinter

The Start

As we took off through the streets of Chamonix, I felt like I was running with the bulls. I was trying to be mellow and low key all day, but the pre-race atmosphere was exhausting to endure before the gun went off. I put my legs in a low gear as we headed over the first climb to St. Gervais, but it seemed like everyone else was still rather energized from the start as they streamed past.

I felt a bit of hesitation in my legs as I made it to the first crew access point at Les Contamines at 31k (19 mi). I already had some hesitation about my race, as I hadn't made any mistakes eating and pacing myself for the first 3 hours, but I was feeling tired and overwhelmed by so much of the field surging past me as the sun had just set. Katie tried to cheer me up telling me how wrecked people looked in front of me, and I made a resolution to myself to force myself to always get up and go out of every aid station, and only allow a DNF with a backwards walk of shame. I was trying to keep my mind strong, and I thought it would work well until I left the aid station and saw 5 runners in the next mile walking backwards to drop at Les Contamines..

The Night

The climb up Croix du Bonhomme was long, dark, drawn out, and just what I was waiting for in the race. The early race fervor had taken it's toll on the field, and I started to slowly pass a runner every half-mile or so. The descent was another issue as I had some issues with my ankles and knees and had to be cognizant of the 75 miles ahead. After a quick gear check at Les Chapieux at 49k (30mi) I ended up linking up with Darcy Piceu and made a consistent and conversational push up the next climb to Col de Seigne. The moon lit up Ville des Glaciers, and we ran and hiked briskly into the breeze at the pass at 8,000 feet.

This would prove to be some of the most challenging terrain in the race, but a new addition for the year that sent runners up a talus field again to 8,000 feet and then down another one at 2 AM. If your friend asked you go run over this talus field at 2 AM on the Col des Pyramides Calcaires, you'd probably say no because it's absolutely beautiful and arduous terrain that should only be done during the day, but the race course wasn't negotiable.

I didn't anticipate the section being as technical as it was, and began to run out of water (the night was cool and dry). I bummed some water off the checkpoint at the pass and cautiously made my way down to Lac Combal at 64k (40 miles). I met up with Michele Graglia who was having chest pains at the aid station. He had been racing (quite well) in Europe leading up to the race and was primed to turn heads for reasons besides his usual reasons (underwear modeling). In characteristic annoying engineer fashion, I gave him contrasting advice to try to drink water to lower his blood pressure and continue on, but also to not do anything that would make his wife a widow, but to at least to try to  make it down to Courmayeur, but not to go too far to be a liability.. I bid him adieu and continued on into pitch black valleys and passes, following a spread out train of headlights and spandex.

Once I final made it to Col Checrouit at 73k (45 mi), I began to learn about how descents would characteristically go on the course: I read the sign that said 4km/-880m to Courmayeur, which meant 2.5 mi/-2800 ft. That's -21%, so I figured it would be something fun, steep, and run-able. That would be the case if it was a consistent descent, but instead there was a gradual start and finish to the section. So, what really happened was the main descent of 1.5mi/-2300ft. If you followed my math, the steep part went from -21% to -29% which is something fierce at 5AM in the pitch black dark after 45 miles. It was a rush, and I had a blast charging down to Katie despite all the risk of blowing out my quads.

The basic jest of it all, is that the race works each year to do things in a more challenging way, that keeps runners on their toes (literally) and keeps the course in a constant state of increasingly diverse challenges. There's no way the course lets a good road runner flourish, or just great mountain runners dominate. The course wants runners that can hit the jets when the terrain opens up, and rein in their stride when it gets steep and technical.

I finally made it to Courmayeur just before the sun came out to illuminate the Aosta Valley, and happily worked with Katie to get my pack restocked and ready to go. I had some extra dead weight I was carrying for her, and I had some really special moments running into the aid station searching the crowd for her beaming eyes to greet me and tell me that our exhausting endeavor was just as worthwhile for her as it was to me.

Legs up at Courmayeur to keep the blood fresh in the legs. Photo by KD
I say "our", because the driving between aid stations amounted to almost 10 hours, and she rarely got a chance to sleep. If there was ever a question of whether I was carrying a panda engagement ring for a deserving lady, she always affirmed it with a big smile and supportive enthusiasm. To be honest, I only expect that type of support from her, and even still I know it's a significant burden.

Leaving Courmayeur, notice the sadness in my eyes. Photo by Gabi Schenkel

From Courmayeur to Champex-Lax, Miles 45-76

Leaving Courmayeur knowing I wouldn't see her for 30 miles wasn't easy. I felt like the trail's steep and inconsistent terrain has already taken a few pounds of muscles from me, but my combo of PowerBar Blasts and Protein Bars as well as aid station salami and Coke kept the legs in the game. I had no clue what my place was, but I did know that runners were still passing me. In reality, I was passing a few runners in every aid station due to drops or other reasons, but I was getting passed on the trail, so I was actually slowly moving up the field even though I thought the opposite.

I saw Sage coming down into the Refugio Bertone aid station to catch a ride on a helicopter. Racing means taking risks, and he had cut open his knee coming into Courmayeur. He left with stitches trying to save his race, but they wouldn't hold on the downhills and he had to make the long term decision to save his knees for more than just this one race. As one might expect, there was a bit of regret and relief in his face which was fitting in this land of heaven and hell.

The terrain leveled out on the way to Refugio Bonatti, and I started to realize the full circle of terrain on the course. If I had been racing up front, I would have had to charge this flat section right after grinding up a steep climb, and then prepare myself for a quick descent before another long climb to 8,000 ft. I jogged along with a few other sleep deprived runners, and began to realize the hard work that put the leaders on the Grand Col Ferret (mi 63) at sunrise.

Fernando charging up Gran Col Feret, me being stoic
Eventually I linked up with Fernando, a bay area runner at Arnuva and followed him up the long climb to the top of Grand Col Ferret that we reached late morning. The ascent is full of false summits, and I felt proud to earn it as simplistically as I did, so I stopped to take my one picture in the whole race for Katie (who only got to climb it in a storm).

The view Katie missed out on at the top of the Gran Col Feret
The descent was another issue though as my knees were tightening up and making a gentle descent very haphazard. The predictably eclectic terrain continued as we floated along a narrow traverse before making a steep and sudden descent into La Fouly at 108K (67mi) where we'd run a long a hot and flattish descent for 6 miles before a run-able climb to Champex-Lac at 122K (76mi). The heat of the day was taking its effect on the field, but I felt at home and started to really enjoy the race like a summer 100 in the U.S.

La Fouly was a great place to drop after the last section, but I had a special package to deliver

The Last 38 Miles

Champex-Lac, notice the love growing Photo by Gabi Schenkel
Seeing Katie at Champex-Lac was the reward I'd been promising myself for hours since I had left Courmayeur. The runners I'd spent time with on the course that morning were a mix of "hung over stoics" and "1000 mile stare PTSD mountain runners" so her bright big smile was uplifting to say the least. I knew that at Champex-Lac, I was in the "nice" part of the course that lavished me with shorter climbs and more crew access. I hadn't yet seen the chin-scraper Bovine climb at 134k (83 miles), the exceptionally steep Vallorcine descent at 149k (93 miles), the drawn out final climb at 155k (96 miles), or the involved 12km (7mi) descent, or the glorious final k, but I was in good spirits as I left Champex-Lac at mile 76 with a mere 29 miles to go.

The afternoon stayed warm and I had started to feel at home on the gentle trails that let me run and get into a good consistent grove. That abruptly ended at the Bovine climb which was something out of Rambo I. After 21 hours on the course, I accepted that this climb was necessary and good. The section was relentless but it petered out, and I began to pick up momentum again moving ahead of my fellow zombie competitors that had marched the climb with me. At Trient, with 29k (18mi) to go, I saw Jesse again for a moment on the in-n-out of the aid station. We had both dreamed of this moment for what felt like years over the course of the first 88 miles. To see him on his way to redemption in this impossible to believe moment was something special. Jesse is a simple guy that works hard without any fanfare, and he was more than deserving of this beautiful experience after being denied a finish at La Fouly last year.

Trient is a great place to be before sunset! Photo by Gabi Schenkel
Though I had been on the hunt for scalps in the last several miles (Inglorious Bastards reference), I had reached a few talented runners that would keep me working hard all the way to the finish. There was a lanky Scandinavian runner that had run 50 miles in under 5:30, but at this moment we were identical twins. The descent into Vallorcine had us limping downhill like old men, but in our own minds we were duking it out like it was the Rumble in the Jungle.

I saw Katie again at 7PM and took in my final supplies for the last 19km push to the finish. I would've been optimistic of an easy final climb, but Topher and Dylan reeled me back in with intel on the everlasting nature of the climb and the thoroughly punishing final descent. Without much more thought, I kissed Katie one last time and hiked off into dusk, prepared to do whatever it took to get the last 11 miles done before midnight.

Leaving Vallorcine, heading up to the shelf in the background Photo by Gabi Schenkel
The magic of UTMB started to become more palpable as locals lined the trail to the base of the climb; excitedly cheering us on, knowing full well of the impending glory awaiting us at the finish line. It was a worthy final climb that gained elevation quickly and then leveled off near the top, floating along above the atmosphere above Chamonix, giving a moonlit view of the massif I had been impossibly running around for 27 straight hours. Though I wanted to immediately be at the final aid station at La Flegere at 160k (99mi), the trail wound about the canyons for a few more kilometers before reaching it at 11pm.

The Final Descent and Finish

I walked through the aid with confidence and calmness of my chances of finishing the last 5 miles in under an hour. I drank my broth and coke, and left accepting whatever the course would throw at me. A steep ski slope straight down to right hand turn onto a road covered in rocks to a sudden hard left into the trees onto a singletrack that felt like a glowing magic carpet. I knew what I would have done 10 miles ago: a conservative and calculated descent that focused on foot placement and security. I let go of the fear of not finishing, and I let my ankles relax and absorb the rocks and roots as my quads pressed down with gentle consistency, and my hips cruised along like a sailboat on a gentle day. I whooped and wailed as I made my way through La Floria which still had a few hardcore race fans cheering in the dark. The single track turned to rocky fire road, then to pavement, and finally to the lit streets of Chamonix. I ran along the roaring river that seemed to carry my spirit along, and into the town that was wide awake and ready to welcome me.

Just 29 hours after I left and went around Mont Blanc.. I return.
I gathered up all my brainpower to try to absorb the memories of the moment and came across the line to embrace Katie, finally without the need to be hurried out of an aid station after 104 miles of running. I told her I had to ask her a question, and I dug into my pack and slowly got down on one knee. She immediately started to seize up and cover her face like the moment was a sleep deprived hallucination, but I opened my mouth and said the words "will you marry me?" After gasping for breath, she stopped breathing and I asked "well, is that a yes?" and she finally burst out "YES!"

104 miles, 29:39

She said "YES" - Photo by Matt Trappe

Post Race Thoughts

The last time I was this grateful to finish a race was Hardrock, but this moment was different in a foreign country with the love of my life as my true partner and biggest supporter. I'm starting to accept the innate magic of exploring and running for the sake of the experience, and not solely defining the experience by competitive outcomes. I'll be back racing in a few months, pinning on a race bib and letting the legs explode with energy and reckless abandon for shorter and safer races, but I think I do have a substantial degree of gratitude for the magic of finishing a meaningful 100 mile race every year, regardless of the competitive results.

I'm really excited to enjoy the simplicity of training for my home town 100 miler, Angeles Crest, next August, and I think if I can keep track of my energy levels and the need for rest along the way, I can do something fast and meaningful with the perspective of how much pain I was in during UTMB. The tools I used mentally and physically to keep going are tangible and real. Until then, I'm slowly letting my body re-discover the joy of running with just a pair of shoes and shorts, and the weightlessness of the feeling of only running as far as I care to.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Europe, Culture, and Wilderness

I spent 12 days in Europe and saw an intriguing contrast of how things are done across the pond versus America. Because the race was such a big deal in Chamonix, the words "immersive experience" will have to do even though I'd like to describe it in stronger terms. My race report will follow in a couple days to allow for a digestible and segmented recap.

I met Katie outside the Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX at 1PM on Wednesday the 19th, and we hurried inside the massive terminal to escape the cigarette smoke of international travelers. Most people don't smoke in California (or aren't allowed to in public places), and most people in Europe do smoke, all the time, everywhere, in synchronized succession, until they have to reload, which is a momentary pause.

A380, rich people on top, everyone else on the bottom

Though most of LAX is still undergoing small updates, the international terminal is essentially an brand new mall complete with 3 story LCD displays and hip boutiques. We enjoyed a snack and boarded the GIGANTIC A380 in less time it takes to board a 737 half the size, and flew for 10 hours (with only a 3 hour night) over the arctic. It was complete with two tasty meals, wine, beer, Irish whiskey, and more beer along the way. The plane itself is huge and has plenty of room to stretch your legs and stand about (giant relief because I hate being cooped up). Additionally, Lufthansa lived up to hype as one of the best airlines for in-flight service/movies/food/drinks/snacks.

Arriving in Frankfurt, we found out we needed to go through security again, and chase down an elusive gate that kept changing. We finally made it on board another Lufthansa flight for Geneva, and finally arrived 14 hours since we left LA. The feeling of jetlag in a foreign country is a unique and overwhelming one, as we got lost walking to the rental counter, driving out of Geneva, and finding our first hotel in Chamonix. We were like the tourists that come to LA that act like every detail of life is bewilderingly confusing*.

*We were operating at 25% brain power and didn't speak French.

When we made it finally to our hostel in Chamonix, we checked in and collapsed into a coma as our heads hit the bed. After 14 hours of sleep, we awoke the next morning to fully realize we were in a mountain paradise.

Welcome to France
In France, there are a few things you have to be able to do to be happy:

1) Pain is Bread, but bread is not painful. We ended up eating a lot of bread - which is impressive because we did get caught up in a gluten-avoidance lifestyle that had spread through the US. I actually consciously tried to work it back into my diet before the trip, but the amount of quality/quantity is totally different from the US. Essentially, everywhere you turn, there are baguettes of really fresh French bread that doesn't have more than a few ingredients in it. So, for us during our refugio hoping days, we ate a ton of it, but miraculously were not bound to the toilets.

2) Cheese, butter, and milk are farm fresh - you can run by the cows that make it, and (surprise) it tastes great and works as pretty decent fuel with bread.
Hi, cows.
3) European meat products are really, really, good. You can buy a pack of dried salami or prosciutto and snack on it without indigestion from preservatives or excessive fat. I ran a good amount of UTMB snacking on salami at aid stations, through all sorts of conditions. I'm sure part of it is that hiking steep hills at a slower pace makes it more digestible, but I'd still recommend it (with a glass of coke) to Americans looking for readily available on course fuel solutions.

4) In general, my diet got to be very consistent because this is what refugios offer:
Mornings: coffee, bread, marmalade, and butter
Lunch: bread, cheese, butter, and salami or ham sandwiches
Dinner: bread and butter with some meat and veggies

5) We learned to drive a stick shift like we knew exactly where we were going. There is no patience for cars that aren't moving up and down hills at the maximum speed limit or not using the #1 lane to pass. Most cars have tiny engines that are always in a low gear to push through the steep parts, so we had to get used to pushing our go-cart rental hard and focusing on shifting and navigating much more than in America (land of automatics and cell phone addiction).

Ski lifts! Everywhere!

We learned all of this in the first few days and slowly got our bearings driving to Le Chapieux, the southern most part of the course. The Mont Blanc Massif ripples outward for thousands of acres, in an unusually small but huge way. The tree line varies greatly across from region to region, but one constant is that man is allowed to develop almost every and any part of the massif. Chairlifts criss-cross the road which criss-crosses giant, steep passes. I'm speaking of these remarkable man made developments in contrast to the Californian Sierra Club model, which champions large swaths of mountain wilderness that have zero roads or private developments. In the Mont Blanc region, refugios and roads were built centuries before John Muir started crawling around the Sierras. Even after the Sierra Club became a force in conservation, Europeans still continued to champion great engineering projects like the tram up Aiguille du Midi and more expansive ski resorts.

Refugio Bertone perched above Courmayeur was finishing another remodel (it might be Hotel Bertone when we return)
There are a few wilderness areas today on and around the massif, but they're generally in less desirable terrain to develop, i.e. windswept ridges and less-ski-able terrain. I gathered that Europeans' approach to nature, is that man is smart and caring enough to not ruin nature.. Then again there are counter-examples (toilet paper and trash on the side of the trail) of imperfections of this ideal. The overall truth is that there's examples of animals still finding ways to thrive and co-exist and also animals going extinct (I've researched this for 30 minutes, there's examples both ways). In general though, the amount of people in the mountains is impressively less detrimental to the environment than in the U.S.

The overall trend with humans is that demand for places to hike/run/climb/ski/explore is higher per capita in Europe. As one might expect, those that wander out into this steep terrain on their own accord are generally more eco-conscious about what they're doing, but there's always an occasional fool. In the U.S. there's less demand per capita, so those that do go out into the wilderness are less eco-conscious and tend to do more foolish things per capita. In the end, the balancing act is that Europeans over develop trails compared to Americans, but the same amount of trash gets left in popular areas. Meanwhile, there are more places in America to escape everyone and be completely alone. I'm not afraid to say that I would love to see more funding for conservation in the form of education and cultural immersion in the U.S. with less red tape around wilderness areas, but I do respect the work that our environmentalists do to protect the land from the armies of fools.

Another way to contrast America and Europe is in terms of quality and quantity. America has higher quality wilderness and service industries, where Europe has higher quality trails/access and food. America has higher quantity (cheaper) food, fuel, and services where Europe has a much higher quantity of trail use and land use (hikers and farms are everywhere). Personal freedom is more monetary in the US where as in Europe it's more time based. The main take away is that both continents have much to learn from each other, but both look at each other with impulsive disdain for "stupid Americans" or "Creepy Euros". I understand the knee jerk reaction when someone walks into a restaurant and speaks the wrong language, but there's a greater opportunity to learn and make changes for the better. Heck, globalization and global warming mean we're all in it together, so cultural differences aside, we're slowly becoming one big happy family.