Friday, August 23, 2013

The everyman's desire for a frontier

I'll admit it. I've been watching a lot of Hell on Wheels lately. For those unfortunate souls that aren't familiar with Hell on Wheels, it's a TV show about the building of the railroads across the plains to the West. This also prompted a re-watching of my favorite movie of all time, the Last of the Mohicans. What isn't there to love about watching sweeping views of the Blue Ridge Mountains (yes, it was filmed mostly in North Carolina... not upstate New York) and Daniel Day-Lewis running through lush forests and jumping off of waterfalls.

With my heart heavy with nostalgia for my favorite forest trails of Wisconsin (the Ice Age Trail) and Pennsylvania (the Laurel Highlands Trail) I started contemplating what it is that draws me to these movies and shows. Then I realized that it doesn't just stop with film. My favorite book list is full of titles like Dances With Wolves and The Holy Road, Call of the Wild and White Fang, The Horse and His Boy, The Alchemist, Till We Have Faces, and The Jungle Book. These stories don't all take place in the world as we know it, or even on this planet for that matter, but what do they all have in common?

Well, it took me a while to figure it out. There are surfacey things like a sense of exploration, a deep connection to nature, a grasping for a higher purpose, and an overall life of badassery on the main character's part. But I think the overwhelming feature that draws me to these stories is that each character chooses to push the known limit for their lives. They all come to a point of realization: "Who says I have to live this way?" Cora shouts it in Duncan's face in The Last of the Mohicans. "They [the colonials] do not live their lives 'by your leave'! They hack it out of the wilderness with their own two hands, bearing their children along the way!"

Can this theme be summed up by one word? Yes! Frontier. My favorite definition according to Merriam-Webster: The farthermost limits of knowledge or achievement in a particular subject. Whether or not phrases like "The American West" or "uncharted wilderness" evoke a sense of longing in your heart, I can guarantee that every human being on this planet has at one time desired to explore their own frontier. Maybe it's through a career or through higher education. Maybe it's through parenting or owning your own property. Maybe it's through creating a sustainable lifestyle.

Naturally, right now you are probably starting to question what your own frontier is. Frontier exploration is all-consuming and exhausting. You probably don't have the energy to push the boundaries of more than one or two frontiers in your life at any given time. The more mountain and ultra-runners I meet, the more I start to see our similarities. We have an overwhelming need to find our physical limit, the frontier of how far our bodies can be pushed. And I also start to see how the need to explore this frontier interferes with the rest of a person's life. Parents struggle over how to train but still have time for their kids. Professionals struggle over how to be a good employee/employer while still finding time for the trails.

The natural conclusion that most people come to is that running, especially ultra-running is a selfish endeavor. My heart aches when I hear that, though. That can't be the answer. Once when someone was trying to convince me to become more involved with a volunteer opportunity, they said, "I don't understand why you can't just run for a half-hour every day out your back door. Why do you have to go to the mountains and run for hours? Think about all of the extra time you would have to help people." It hurt. I didn't have an answer and I also stopped talking to that person. I have been thinking about it a lot, though.

I've been reading this book, Roof of the Rockies, that I would highly recommended to the explorers among you. It chronicles the history of the Colorado high peaks starting with the Native-Americans and progressing through the miners, the surveyors, the adventure enthusiasts, and the technical climbers. Reading these stories of exploration, you would never think to accuse these people of being selfish with their time. I wouldn't ask Mary Cronin, the first woman to summit all of Colorado's 14ers why she was so selfish to take time away from home-making, though you can bet many women in her time did.

It's hard to justify my own time exploring my chosen frontier. I'm no Mary Cronin, after all. Adventure history books might remember people like Kilian Jornet. There might be a few Americans listed in the ranks. The fact is that most of us are not going to be remembered for our contribution to exploration. The books might say something like, "And then there was a large trail- and ultra-running boom and many people challenged the conventional wisdom of efficient movement through wilderness territory." Someday your grandkids might pinch your sun-weathered skin and ask you about why you have had so many knee surgeries and you will be able to tell them that you were part of the boom. You pushed the boundaries and traveled distances that people once believed were not humanly possible carrying only the bare essentials on your back.

But that's not why we do it. History is being made here and we are certainly a part of it, but we do it for internal reasons. These reasons vary from person to person, but this breed of mountain and ultra-runners have a unified addiction to seeing the limits pursued. And here is a question that I have for you. What is so wrong about admitting that you run for selfish reasons? You run to explore yourself and to know yourself. What is so wrong with that?

Why do people feel this overwhelming need to veil their motivations by proclaiming that they do it to help other people. To that social worker that feels noble about helping people: if you aren't willing to admit that you personally gain from your work you will burn out. To that doctor that justifies the time away from their family because they are repairing people: If you don't admit that being needed and knowledgeable feeds your sense of self-worth, you will never be able to be able to live without guilt. To that business-owner who feels good about impacting their community: You will never be able to let go and retire unless you are willing to admit that you like being in control and in charge.

I see runners do it all of the time. They run for a cause, they raise money doing it, they coach others, they start races. These are good things, but you don't have to do these things just to excuse your "selfish" desire to run or you will never fully enjoy them.  Once you admit that you run for yourself you will start to see how your running influences others for the better. The additional benefit is that you won't give a shit about what other people think of you. At the end of the day your running is about what your body can bring physically and what your mind can handle mentally. Sounds a lot like living "by your own leave."

So here goes nothing. Running is my frontier. I do it for myself to see what I can do. Simple as that.

Here's a picture of Daniel Day-Lewis running...

...and another one...

... and another...

... and here he is running uphill while shooting guns.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The funk

We all get it from time to time. The funk that we just can't shake. It makes us not want to get out of bed in the morning. It makes us want to complain about the little things. The funk gets in your bones and makes your body ache. It makes you want to sit around all day but simultaneously makes you restless.

When the funk gets a hold of one part of your life, it's important to do damage control and contain it before it gets to other areas. It's like a cancer that threatens your entire body. It's like an oil spill that threatens and entire ecosystem. It's like a brushfire that threatens to devastate an entire forest. As soon as you first detect it, you've got to fight it.

This funk I'm in now, I've got to remind myself that it's nothing compared to the depression I once had, and nothing is worth going to that place again. It's one thing to have negative thoughts, but it's my own fault if I decide to listen to them. I've got to keep on keeping on.

You see, for the first time in a while I just don't want to run. I've tried all of my normal inspirational tools: watching Salomon trail-running videos on Youtube, reading, looking up race reports. But it hurts... not just my body but my spirit. There's something humbling about stopping 9 miles short of the finish line and it just takes a while to come back.

On top of the running apathy, I've just felt a little lost about what I'm supposed to be doing with my life. For most of my (albeit short ~5 years) working life I've been in the outdoor industry and I'm just feeling a little burnt out and confused. I have a drive to do something that makes an impact in my community which seems to be increasingly revolving around other athletes, but I'm just not sure where my next step is supposed to be.

When I get work reviews, I'm told that my biggest problem is that I care too much. It's true. I get really passionate and excited about things and when they don't go as planned I am crushed. Over time, after losing things and people that I'm passionate about I've developed this coping mechanism that I call the apathy button. When I start to realize that something won't work out, I push the apathy button and suddenly all motivation and desire is gone. It's scary.

But I've come to realize over time that it is not healthy. I don't want to push the apathy button on running. It's not necessary. Things will bounce back. I've tried hard to resist it and things are already starting to get better. I have a running buddy now in the form of a live-in sister-in-law. With very little training she keeps up with me and never ceases to amaze me. I have races coming up but I have no training plan in place right now. I run hard when I can and I take it easy when it's been a rough day. I give my body what it needs.

I know the funk will go away. It always does. You've got to have the lows to enjoy the highs.

And completely unrelated... the story of Old Gregg and the Funk. May Old Gregg never die.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

DNFing and the 5 Stages of Grief

How do I start. Well I didn't finish the Mt. Werner Classic this weekend. This was my first trail DNF and even though DNFing is a humbling experience usually not worth writing about, I ended up feeling 100% confident in this decision to call it quits. I also learned a lot of things in the process.

The first lesson is to not eat Chipotle for dinner and camp at 9,330 ft the night before. We are cheap people so we decided that the $10 camp sites on Rabbit Ears Pass sounded good to us. We ate burritos in the car as we drove up. I had started feeling sick on Thursday and in denial had stocked up on Emergen-C immune boost. It gave me a wonderful placebo effect as we feel asleep in our tent with Mayla crammed in the corner by my feet. Needless to say we didn't sleep well. We both woke up numerous times, which is normal when you are not used to sleeping at elevation. I woke up drenched in sweat at one point and shed some layers only to wake up freezing later on.

At 5am we finally started to roll out of our sleeping bags, eat breakfast, and pack up camp. As we drove down from Rabbit Ears pass and saw the sleepy town of Steamboat Springs below us, we realized how high up we had been and that we were going to have to run even higher than that. We arrived at the start at the Gondola in Steamboat and joined a small crowd of people. It was a pretty relaxed atmosphere and the sun was nicely hidden behind a thick layer of clouds making the temperature pretty ideal.

We didn't really know what to expect pacing-wise since it was only the second running of the race and it's not super competitive. Cassie Scallon was there to rep Salomon and enjoy the run, so I knew she was going to crush the rest of the women's field. As we lined up at the start, none of the women wanted to move to the front and as I stood there next to Cassie I got shy and kept myself from nerdily saying, "I'm from Wisconsin too, I love Salomon, and I think you are awesome!"

The race started slowly and all I knew was that we were going to climb about 3,500 feet in the first 9.5 miles. I'm a pretty good climber, at least I feel like I'm better at the uphills than the down hills, and so I went out strong thinking that it would be good to maximize my time on the part I would be best at. The problem was that my legs weren't on board with this plan. I just didn't feel the power that I normally have. At mile 4.5 I was starting to get these weird spasms in my shin muscles but I held on to the top and I think I was the 5th women to the Storm Peak aid station in about 2:20. I felt pretty good about that because according to last year's splits, people that finished in about 6 hours got to the top in that time.

And this is where I started to realize that my mental game going into this race was all wrong. By the numbers this race seems easy compared to the Golden Gate Dirty 30. So to come up with my goal time range of 6 to 6.5 hours, I took my time from the marathon in Salida which has roughly the same amount of elevation gain (a little less) and tacked on about an hour or so. I knew that Becca Hall had won the race last year and though I kept up with her on a 7 mile snowy DTR run, I knew that she was much more talented and that her time was not remotely attainable for me. Maybe I was a little cocky going into the race, but I felt like my fitness was pretty good. I normally think too little of myself and so I never push the limit and I was determined to be more sure going into this race.

What should my mental game have been? If I were to describe the race to someone who was familiar with Pikes Peak, I would say it was like running the Barr trail to A frame (with less of the Ws maybe), then running 12 hot but fairly flat miles, then running down from A frame. If I had thought this going into the race I would have respected the course a lot more and made some different decisions. Along the way I met another guy named Chris who did the Dirty 30 and we realized that the up-down, technical course of that race was nice because as soon as you were sick of going up, you got to go down again and there were also sections that everyone had to walk a little.

So after reaching the top, we embarked on the rolling section out to Long Lake. This is where things started to get tough for me. Mentally after reaching the top I just wanted to head back down. It had been cool most of the morning and I had hydrated appropriately and had focused on taking in calories. About 2:40 into the race I realized that I had not peed. I ran off into some bushes and there were some unpleasantries. I could hardly pee and it burned. This made me nervous because I hadn't been sweating very much and I had been drinking a good bit of water. I continued on, unsure of what was going on with my body, and willing myself to start feeling better.

Things started to spiral downward from there. My morale was low, but I was looking forward to seeing Cory since it was an out-and-back course. I was talking to this one woman when out of nowhere this guy comes bursting out of the trees yelling, "That's my wife!" It was Cory and he was in first place! I decided not to tell him about burning pee because I didn't want him to worry. He was looking strong and second was a good bit behind him. I was so happy for him, that I stopped stressing for a bit. He eventually had a puke fest and fell back a few places, but he finished.

When I hit the turnaround, I was feeling pretty awful.  I drank a bit of water and soda before heading out. I usually hit a low point around mile 18 and so I just told myself that this was normal and that things would get better. Unfortunately they got worse.  A few miles down the trail I felt like I was going to hurl. You know when you get that awful feeling before you throw up where your mouth starts to water a little? Well I had that for two miles but nothing came up. I did everything I could think of. I drank, I took electrolytes, I ate some more gels, and I walked a lot. Though I felt like I needed to pee, nothing came out. Additionally, my kidneys started to ache.

The kidney pain started to make me really afraid. It's ok to push through nausea and muscle fatigue, but kidney pain and burning pee usually indicates that something is really wrong. Everyone that passed me was so nice and helpful, but there was nothing they could give me at that point that would have helped. At around mile 17 I started to think about dropping out, the problem was that it was still another 5 miles to the next aid station. During those 5 miles I went through the 5 stages of Grief. Not familiar with those stages? Let me explain. For those of you who have dropped out of a race before, I think you will understand that quitting is only marginally less difficult than losing a loved one (note: sarcasm).

Stage 1: Denial and Isolation. I told myself over and over that this was just a stage and that it would pass. I was going to get a second wind and come back to hit my time goal.  People tried to talk to me, but I was a little gruff at this point. I was having a deep internal monologue that I didn't want interrupted.

Stage 2: Anger. I was so disappointed in myself. I was not ready to give up and I kept bullying my body to run when I didn't feel like running. Overall I just kept telling myself that I was a horrible person because I train so hard but I can't deliver on race day. When I get angry and overwhelmed like that I start to get asthma-like symptoms and as I started to feel my throat close up and the tears come, I tried to calm myself down and move into the next stage.

Stage 3: Bargaining. I started to think of all the things that I had done wrong. If only I had eaten a different dinner. If only we hadn't camped. If only I had gone out slower. If only I had trained better. If only I had gone into the race more mentally prepared.

Stage 4: Depression. As I realized that this DNF was actually going to happen, I started to get really apathetic. Every time someone came up behind me, I would step to the side like I was even in the race anymore. I sat down briefly. I thought about how maybe it wouldn't be so bad to never run again. I thought about how much of a hassle it was going to be for the volunteers to drive me down.

Stage 5: Acceptance. Around mile 20 I tried a few short stints of running to see if anything was better and every time I tried to run my kidneys ached more. So I just accepted that the safe and responsible thing to do was to stop. I had brought enough water to run this section but not enough water for the time it took me to walk it. I started to get more dehydrated and dizzy and at times I'm sure I was moving 1 mph. I stumbled and tripped but I just didn't care.

When I finally got to the aid station and told them I was done, they were surprised that I was so ok about it. Shake Me Down by Cage the Elephant was playing on someone's iPod and I had just had it stuck in my head for the last few miles when there were "not a lot of people left around." Not to be depressing but the lyrics were pretty fitting of my predicament... "taste the blood, broken dreams, lonely times indeed, with eyes cast down, fixed upon the ground." I took it as a sign that I had made the right choice. At that point, it had taken me 3 hours and 40 minutes to go the last 12 miles. I have never moved that slow in my life and I didn't want Cory to be worrying about me at the bottom.

As the race director's brother-in-law took me down on the ride of shame, I was embarrassed but I was confident in my decision. When I saw the medics at the bottom, they suggested calling an ambulance to which I almost replied, "Do I look like I'm made of money?" As a Wilderness First Responder I probably would have recommended the same thing to someone I was helping, but I'm stubborn. They filled me with these amazing electrolyte popsicles and even though I was finally able to pee for the first time in the entire day, they still urged me to go see a doctor.

We stuck around for the awards ceremony because Cory was King of the Mountain. We got to meet a lot of great people and I got to talk to Cassie. I have to say that she is the most humble and approachable elite runner I have ever met. I realized that the real point of racing these events isn't to get PRs and receive awards. The point was to have an adventure and to develop community with other runners and even though I didn't finish the race I had been on an adventure and made great friends doing it. I even got a sweet Smartwool skirt in the raffle.

Cory has been forcing me to drink liquids. I felt awful last night, but I feel a little better this morning. I don't think I have rhabdo (kidney failure) or anything. It is strange to think that I only ran 22 miles and I feel so beat up. I've been trying to pinpoint what caused all of this to happen, which is of course impossible as I'm sure it is a combination of things. I think things are on the up and up. I still haven't seen a doctor, but if I'm not feeling better tomorrow I will get checked out.