Thursday, May 23, 2013

What does it take to be a winner?

I think a lot about what really distinguishes the front pack from the mid pack. When you look at a "champion" what is it that makes them so successful? Their genes? Some special training secret? Experience? Some killer competitive drive? Obviously it is a combination of things and every winner wins for different reasons. But something I've noticed is that rarely does a winner end up winning by accident. They know that they belong there.

As my first 50k looms closer and closer, I've been trying to figure out what a reasonable time goal is for myself. With 8,000 feet of elevation gain in 30 miles, it's safe to say that I've never done anything so challenging and I have no reasonable benchmark for predicting my performance. On top of that, a few important people in my life have made comments that I'm just not cut out to be an endurance athlete, that I don't have what it takes. This shows a belief that some people have it and others don't and that no amount of work and training will help someone who just doesn't have it.

I was particularly bothered when I took someone out on a 14 mile section of the dirty 30 race  course. There was still a good bit of snow and since he wasn't acclimated or trained to go that far, I was happy to adjust my expectations and walk the uphills. No one likes to feel like they are holding someone back and so I didn't want to push things. That wasn't the point of the workout. But while we were bouldering in a particularly gnarly section, I commented that I couldn't believe that anyone could run this part. He commented that I just don't have what it takes and that I probably never will.

I tried to just let the comment go. Who cares what other people think. But then when I was out running 16 miles of the course this past weekend with Cory, he commented that maybe I should adjust my 7 hr 30 min goal pace back by half an hour to an hour. Maybe he's right. Maybe I should play it safe. Maybe I'm not as strong as I think I am. I know he said it to protect me. He doesn't want me to be hurt physically or emotionally if I don't meet my own expectations.

But I come back to my original question. What makes a winner a winner? If you were to ask someone, "Who is the ultimate champion of ultra-running?" 9 out of 10 people worldwide, without needing any time to think would probably say Killian Jornet. Well, Killian is coming out with a book this July and thanks to Trail Runner Mag I was reading some excerpts here. I was fascinated about his account of winning his first race as an adult. Instead of paraphrasing, here are his thoughts:

The race started off at a very fast pace, and I was immediately left in no-man’s-land between the trio of favorites who were 40 or 50 seconds in front and the group in pursuit that was a minute behind me. All of sudden, on the last climb, I joined the leading trio. “What’s happened? Why have they stopped?” I wondered. “Why are they waiting for me?” I couldn’t grasp the fact that I had caught up with them. I was completely at a loss for a few minutes. How could I possibly be with them? My body was numb. I couldn’t stop thinking about how I was now running alongside my idols, the real people in those photos that filled my folders.
When my head started to function properly and I recognized the real competitive situation I was in, I didn’t hesitate for a moment: I overtook them and went on the attack with all the energy I could muster. I continued to wonder, Why don’t they come after me? Why do they lag behind me? I couldn’t understand, but I pressed on to the finish line, where I hugged the team selector, crying and jumping for joy, unable to believe that I had beaten Florent, the best Swiss runner, whom I partnered with years later in various races and who became the closest of friends.

And after reading that I was back to the drawing board. Here's an account from the greatest trail ultra-runner in the world saying that he didn't think he would win going into the race, but somehow it happened. There were some other factors in play, of course. He had a great coach who
had total faith in him and told him frequently that he had the ability to be a champion. He had put in a lot of hard work during his training and he was fueled by a passion for the mountains. And ultimately he does have good genetics. Now Killian knows he has what it takes to win and he hardly ever finishes less than first place.

I've been thinking about some other ultra runners as well.  Here in Colorado, there's woman who has been on fire torching course records and making Cory run faster (and occasionally chicking him if she has enough miles). Her name is Kerrie Bruxvoort. I've never met her personally, but I am fascinated with her story. You can see how successful she's been here. I first saw her when I was cheering Cory on at Breck Crest. She finished shortly after him as the 2nd place woman. Then I saw her in Trail Runner Mag as the 2nd place woman in the Speedgoat 50k, giving Anna Frost a run for her money. And then two weeks ago, she blew past Cory in the Quad Rock 50 setting a new women's course record and looking damn happy doing it.

The crazy thing is, the first marathon she ever won was a little mountain marathon in October 2011. In the past year and half she has racked up seven first place finishes, four other podium finishes, and moved up to the 50 mile distance. This June she's signed up for Western States 100 and I'm guessing she's going to be pretty successful there.

After witnessing how strong she is first hand, I did some researching and found this intriguing, but somewhat dated, interview of her here. If you read that interview, I'm sure your thoughts are the same as mine. How did she get so successful so fast? From the interview, it seems like it is due to consistent training over the past few years and a passion for exploring the outdoors. But this can't be all, there's got to be something else to it.

This is where I would like to argue that the mental aspect of running is just as important as the physical. I think this is why a lot of competitive road athletes have been so successful in trail running. Yes, they have a great training base, but more important than that they know what it is like to win. They know that they belong in the front pack and they know how to run fast. Sometimes they aren't able to maintain it, but I think that's mental, too. When you are in unfamiliar territory, your brain tells you that you don't know what's going to happen next.

And I think this is a big factor in why I have always been a mid-pack runner, while Cory has seen greater success. When Cory goes into a race he usually has a time goal in mind. But if the field is especially competitive and he finds himself in 15th place or farther back, he throws his time goal out the window and let's the chase ensue. If I, on the other hand, find myself doing any better than 15th place, I will slow down because I feel that I don't belong there and because other people have told me I don't belong there. When Cory looks at a hill he confidently charges up it. When I look at a hill I walk because people have told me that if I run it, I will burn out later... which I've finally started to learn isn't actually true.

And I'm starting to adopt a new internal monologue. In the words of Fiona Apple, "Try not to let those bastards get us down... we don't worry anymore cause we know when the guff comes we get brave." Not that the people who caution me are bastards. They are just trying to help me in their own way. But finally after finishing the Run Through Time Marathon, running almost all of the uphills (there were 4,600 feet of them), and cutting almost an hour off my previous trail marathon time, I'm starting to learn that I am capable of being better than I think I am if only I can reform my way of thinking.

This week I was spending some time with a group of women and we were discussing the difference between being successful and being victorious. Most of them were thinking of it in terms of their careers, but I was thinking of it more in the context of running. I think being successful would entail winning races and getting sponsors. But when I thought about the meaning of being victorious - overcoming an obstacle - I realized that my biggest obstacle is my own self doubt.

Self-doubt is so much a part of every day life, that it's hard to imagine what life would be like without it. I think that if I didn't doubt my identity as a runner, I would be able to run free without all of this mind trash. It's not like we need any mental muck to slow us down during a race. Additionally, if I was confident in myself I wouldn't feel a need to compare myself to other runners - I wouldn't feel a need to dominate.

But isn't dominating a part of competition, you ask? Isn't the need to dominate the force that pushes a winner to win? Well, I recently came across a counter example while looking at Krissy Moehl's blog. During this Ted talk she compares and contrasts her experiences at Western States and UTMB in 2009. During Western States she focused on her competitive edge and forced herself to stay in the top three, but felt burnt out after the first 30 miles. She didn't enjoy the experience and took weeks to recover. When she did UTMB she made sure that she focused on the experience and the people around her. Near the finish she nonchalantly snacked and talked with her crew until finally they told her (to her surprise) that she was in first place and she should get moving. She doesn't even mention that she set the course record on that run and that Lizzie Hawker was behind her.

It seems to me that having a positive attitude, being confident in yourself, and enjoying the people around you are more game changing than a genetic ability or some sort of killer instinct. Of course, nothing can compensate for being under-trained or injured, but someone can be trained to perfection and still be tripped up by a variety of mental obstacles. What I really want is to be victorious.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The fine line between an epic adventure and being stupid

Due to a whirlwind of activity this weekend, I was forced to do my long run on Thursday, my only day off. Thursday morning was characterized with big clouds and ominous rumblings in the sky. I was not going to be deterred because I needed to do my last 24-miler before the dirty 30. I had picked out this great route that used some familiar trails and some new trails. I would run up Mt. Falcon, descend a little into the town of Indian Hills, and then wind back up through O'Fallon and Corwina Park until I hit Lair o the Bear, and then turn around.

As I gathered my stuff together that morning, Cory suggested that I bring more clothes. I stubbornly told him that I would be fine in short sleeves and that I had my lightweight shell just in case. I would much rather be too cold than too warm. And off I went, into what would be my near doom... exaggeration will be a theme throughout this entry.

Things started off cloudy, but as I continued up Mt. Falcon, the temperature dropped. While I was running through Indian Hills, I got pelted with my first dose of hail. It was painful, but at least I dried off pretty quickly once it stopped. I heard thunder nearby, and I considered turning back, but I was finally exploring new territory. Finally after a few miles of road I found the trail I was looking for.

Running these new trails was everything I had hoped for! Rolling hills with meadows and rocky sections, tree cover for most of the way, and beautiful views of even higher peaks! My problem is that I always feel really good between miles 8-12 of my runs and want to keep pushing forward when I really should be turning around. After another bout of hail and some alarmingly close thunder, I started to think about how if I got struck by lightning it would be very unlikely that someone would find me. So I finally headed back.

This is when my stomach decided to revolt and get rid of everything inside of my body. I need to figure out a nutrition system that works for me, but nothing seems to do the trick. That's another story for another day, but suffice it to say that my energy levels were very low and I was nervous about putting anything else in my system.

Heading back up the roads to Mt. Falcon I embarrassingly had to walk. Just when I thought it couldn't get any worse, it started to pour and I had to get running again to keep my core temperature up. Darn it, Cory is always right. On the way back down Mt. Falcon hail came back into the mix for the third time but the rain didn't stop pouring. For the last 4 miles, there was no hope of getting dry. I tried to wait things out in a shelter for a little bit, but then my hands just turned into frozen claws.

When I get stuck in this kind of scenario, I get flashbacks to a trip that Cory and I were trip leader apprentices for. We were taking a group of new backpackers out on a Spring Break trip in Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina. It was rainy and 40 degrees every single day and when our weather radio reported a chance of snow on day 4, we decided to "evacuate."

In order to hike out we had to take unfamiliar trails with stream crossings. When we saw these stream crossings on the map, we assumed there would be some sort of makeshift bridge to cross them. As we descended to the first stream crossing we heard water roaring nearby and we all got excited. But there was no bridge and the "stream" was more like a swollen river with Class 4 rapids. Girls started crying, guys got quiet and we discussed how there was no other way out. Little did we know that there would be 3 more stream crossings, each more progressively difficult because they were lower and the water volume is higher the more you descend in elevation.

Cory and I were sent, along with another speedy guy, to go ahead and hike the extra 3 miles of road to get the van and bring it to the trail-head  When we finally got to the road,  we found that there was construction while we were gone and the road was closed to vehicles. This meant that Cory had to drive the van 45 minutes around town and up the other side of the road. After changing into dry socks, I was sent to run back to the trail-head and tell the group to stay put. When I got there I realized I had dropped my phone on the road somewhere and I had to run back to find it. And that was the longest day of my life.

So back to Mt. Falcon. Every time I am pre-hypothermic, my mind starts racing and thinking back to that day when I wasn't sure that we were going to make it. I start to get nervous, contemplating the difference between being adventurous and being stupid. I thought I had things under control, but if I had slipped and injured myself, I would have rapidly lost all the body heat I had left. No one would have found me, and I would have been in big trouble.

I don't know what the solution is, though. Bringing extra gear brings on new difficulties and is a waste of energy. Something unforeseen could happen at any time and it's impossible to plan for all scenarios. Furthermore, experiences that are "near misses" just reinforce bad behavior... thoughts like 'If I survived it once, I can survive it again.' As it was, by the time I got to the car my hands were so frozen that I couldn't unclip my key from my hydration vest. I had to jam the whole vest up next to car and even then my hand could barely turn the key enough to open the door and turn on the ignition.

I thought it was an epic adventure, but as I retold the story to others throughout the weekend, they didn't think it was so cool. Cory was mad at me and others thought I was crazy. I guess the moral of the story is when you have people that care about you, that line between epic and stupid needs to be readjusted.