12.30.2012

four walls too many.

Churches confound me.

Nowhere does the memory of my deceased father come so close to solidity.  The personal joy that his faith brought him, a Grace Brethren minister come to religion only in adulthood, seems to swirl about the room, threatening to take physical form in the body that I watched in its broken and withered state for the weeks and months before we laid that body to rest.

But it isn't a joy that finds its way into my own body and, otherwise, these rooms, filled with gathered worshippers, are without a warmth that I can discern, despite smiles and verbiage that profess to its existence.

I'm not sure why I question the fervor of strangers (I shouldn't), but I do, especially in an environment that speaks not to me.

If there is a higher power and we believe that that higher power is for some reason reaching out specifically to "us", why do we close ourselves away from the natural world that we espouse as "his" perfect creation?  Why would we construct walls with doors to pass through and close behind us before uttering praise?  It defies all logic and seems to add a "yeah, but" asterisk to those perfection proclamations.

God created the world in all its splendor but, oops, forgot to erect structures within which proper homage could be paid for that most miraculous of miracles?

I too have wanted to raise my arms skyward in exaltation, but not indoors.

Never there.

From the tops of high peaks, under the canopy of solemn trees, while knee deep in the rush of spring runoff, shadowed beneath towering canyon walls, yes, but never indoors.

Walls, with the aid of roofs, protect and shelter, but they also block vision, muffle nature's music and cloak beauty that cannot be improved upon.

Even amidst a civilization endowed with infinite capacity to manufacture fear, I welcome the darkness of night, the punishing glare of sunlight, the whipping of the wind and weather's bombardment over the stale suffocation of enclosure.

12.23.2012

but the music pervades.

The kids had nabbed my phone, their two little heads fighting for best position as they huddled around the 2" x 3" screen.  I knew what they were up to immediately.

I don't have any games loaded onto my phone, but I do use the maddening little device to snap photos and handily capture the movements of my children that I want so desperately to be able to view whenever the mood strikes.

As it often does.

The girls too like to revisit their adventures, the mysterious sounds of chirping voices that they refuse to believe as their own.  I know just how they feel.  To hear your own mutterings cast back from a recorder instead of filtered solely through your own skull is to know distortion.  Lily and Piper are truly mystified by this disconnection and I, after nearly 4 decades of pondering, still often wonder what I "really" sound like.

And so they giggled as they replayed over and over a short clip of the two of them darting about a nearby park earlier in the year.


I asked them, for the thousandth time, if they enjoyed running and they dutifully recited the "yes" that they expect I want to hear.

Later Lily asked me, also for the thousandth time, why I like to run so much and I stumbled through the clumsy responses that I have offered her before but that always fall short of fully conveying ALL of my reasons and by doing so fail to actually answer the question.  

Regardless, I know Lily doesn't actually doubt that I love running, instead, as with everything she encounters, she simply seeks a thorough explanation and a deeper comprehension.

Her follow up question was a puzzling beauty.

"Daddy, what does if FEEL like to run so much?"

There are so many words in our confounding language and endless, truly endless, combinations in which those words can be positioned, making it that much more aggravating to be unable to select the right words and/or juggle them into the appropriate order to properly express something you know so intimately.

I tried.  I really did.  But, the knit brow and pursed lips were giveaways that Lily hadn't been brought any closer to understanding.

And then I heard the answer.

And that answer answered another lingering question.

Music.

Our entire household is captivated by the music of Iceland's Sigur Ros.  Their music had helped me make sense of my existence, or at least cope with not being able to make sense of my existence, through my father's accident and eventual death as well as the subsequent slow dissolve of my first marriage.  Years later, a recording of the band had served as musical accompaniment as Lindsay progressed down the aisle to an anxious-to-marry-her me.  The odd soundscapes have proven for me to be the only lullabies capable of delivering restful sleep on long continental flights.

The music infiltrates, brings tears, cleanses and in the end elicits smiles, even inexplicable but welcome laughter.

And late in long runs, certainly in the final hours and minutes of races that have truly tested my endurance, I hear this music.


I FEEL it.

As do my daughters.

Learning that by closing her eyes and REALLY listening to the notes of Olsen Olsen she could experience what it feels like to run so much, Lily unfurrowed her brow and a smile spread across her face.  She even flushed a bit.

She felt it.

She's loved Sigur Ros from the first time that we played them for her, but she's always asked why we like it.  The dilemma is that there aren't words to explain why, only feelings, only emotional reactions not describable, not really, in words.

There is just the music.

And there is movement.

Euphoria.

Joy. 

The same joy that I experience while watching my girls run.  And smile, And laugh.

And be.

12.07.2012

on the moving of mountains: an interview with gary robbins

I first became aware of the name Gary Robbins in the Fall of 2010.  A shoe junkie, I'd caught wind of the soon to be released Montrail Rogue Racer, a stripped down offering from a brand that hadn't rolled out anything even remotely "minimalist" before.

I asked the internet to tell me more and YouTube introduced Gary's grinning face after a few moments of ridiculously demanding Northwestern uphilling.  Gary, then sponsored by Montrail, offered up his first impressions of the Rogue Racer before bombing back down the 3,000 vertical feet he'd just climbed.  The terrain revealed by the headcam that he was wearing was a preposterous tangle of roots, ruts and rocks that almost required a redefinition of the term "technical".


Forget the Rogue Racer.

I didn't know who this guy was, but I sure liked his style.

Six months later while visiting Escalante, Utah and nursing a minor Achilles issue, I discovered that Gary Robbins was in town too and just getting over an injury of his own.  He'd suffered a Jones fracture in late October and it had laid waste to the tail end of his very successful 2010 and all of 2011 up to that point.

It was April.

Basically, he hadn't run at all, much less tackled anything like the trail I'd seen on YouTube, since that Rogue Racer video had been filmed and posted.

I'd never heard of a Jones fracture.  As a textbook would report, it is an injury to the fifth metatarsal bone (located at the base of the small toe where it meets the foot) and occurs on the top of the bone in the midfoot.  More simply, it's more or less a runner's worst nightmare in that it is located in an area of the foot that is greatly impacted by any and every given footfall.  Worse yet, this type of break can show a stubborn unwillingness to knit.

But the fracture had, at last, healed and as I sat and talked with Gary he was beaming with the anticipation of his first post-break long run that very next day and the looking forward to training for and racing the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) in the Alps that August alongside a field that was already stacking up to be the strongest assemblage of North American, European and other international runners to ever toe a 100-mile starting line.  His relief was evident and, even having just met the man, I was immediately excited for him and sure I'd be rooting for him later that summer.

In some small way Gary's enthusiasm and optimism on the immediate heels of the challenges he'd faced over the previous months of rehab made my injury seem insignificant and completely manageable.  I'd been feeling pretty low as I'd been unable to run during the couple of weeks leading up to the trip to Escalante and even my activities while there were limited by the very strong suggestion of my physical therapist.  My spirits were lifted after just a few minutes of getting-to-know-you with Gary.

In the days after I'd returned to the East Coast and Gary had made his way back home to North Vancouver, British Columbia, I decided to reach back out to him to see if he'd be willing to let me interview him regarding overcoming injury and remaining hopeful during rehabilitation and periods of not being able to run and, after the fact, coping with the lingering memories of having been let down by one's body.

He agreed, but completing that interview took a lot longer than either of us expected.

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.*

Gary Robbins does not possess an ultrarunning background.  He doesn't even have a running background.  None at all, in fact.  As he told me, "it was 2009 before I had even done a 100-mile running week ever in my entire life and, prior to 2004, I had run less than 100 miles in my then 26 years on the planet."  That last bit might have been an exaggeration, but, based on the sound of the voice on the other end of the telephone, I didn't think so.

Regardless, by 2007 he'd run a handful of ultras and won North Vancouver's Dirty Duo 50K that May.  In August of that following year, having switched gears to make ultrarunning his primary training focus, he won the first 100-miler that he entered, crossing the finish line of Squamish's Stormy Trail 100-Miler in a blazing 17:39:03.  Several 50K and 50 Mile podium finishes followed over the next year-and-a-half and the only performance that really fell short of his expectations came on a tough day at the 2009 Western States Endurance Run.  He'd become one of the top ultrarunners in British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest but needed a breakthrough performance to bring him broader recognition.

You won't lag behind, because you'll have the speed.
You'll pass the whole gang and you'll soon take the lead.

The H.U.R.T. Trail 100-Mile Endurance Run, more commonly referred to simply as the H.U.R.T. 100, is a notoriously punishing race that takes place in the tropical, volcanic mountains above Honolulu, Hawaii.  Consisting of five 20-mile loops, the course touts its roots, rocks, puddles and "mud wallows" (yes, mud wallows) and 20 total stream crossings.  The trails are narrow, sometimes treacherous and teeter along exposed ridges and dizzying vertical drops.  The highest point on the course is only 1,800 feet above sea level but the total elevation gain is an intimidating 24,500 feet.

Long story short, it's a beast of a course and has been won by some big names since its inception back in 2001.  In 2009 eventual Ultrarunner of the Year-winner Geoff Roes had shaved an astonishing 15 minutes off of the previous fastest finish, lowering it to a 20:28:00, a time that still very much confirmed how H.U.R.T. stacked up against other storied 100-milers with significantly faster course records.

As evidenced in the footage I'd seen, Gary liked technical courses and he loved attacking downhills.  There's just as much "down" as "up" at H.U.R.T., so Gary liked his chances.

He should have.

He found a way to peel another 16 minutes off of the course, blowing away Geoff's one-year old record with a 20:12:00.

"I flew to Hawaii and at that point I was a relative unknown.  I was known in my local community but I wasn’t even the favorite to win the race and I broke Geoff Roes’ course record.  Personally, that was my goal.  That’s what I went there for and I believed I could do that, but, I remember that people weren’t picking me."

That June Gary returned to Squaw Valley for another crack at Western States.  On the historic day now memorialized in J.B. Benna's film Unbreakable, Gary avenged his disappointing performance the year before with an impressive 6th place finish of which he remains extremely proud.

Photo courtesy of Glenn Tachiyama

"It’s funny, because I actually remember it more like a victory than I do a 6th place finish and part of that was because the year before I went to Western States all piss-and-vinegar having done one 100 miler and tried some things and blew up and walked the final 20 miles to the finish line to finish 49th.  A year later I went back with the desire to improve upon a mistake that I’d made and that 6th place...I remember speaking of it numerous times, and my brain going 'you didn’t win that race, it just feels like you did because you won something  in yourself'."
Shortly after Western States, he established the fastest known time (FKT) on Canada's West Coast Trail and followed that up with a corresponding FKT of the East Coast Trail in his childhood home of Newfoundland.  While doing so, he raised $5000 for Right to Play, an international organization that uses sports to educate and empower children facing adversity.


"I was really just on top of the world in terms of where I wanted to be and how I wanted to go about things and I was building continually on successes."

Those successes had garnered several sponsorships, most notably that of Mountain Hardwear/Montrail.  In October, Gary was flown to Oregon as part of a Mountain Hardwear running conference and learned that the company had decided to include him in more of their advertising and better promote him among their retailers.  It was the first real evidence of his increased exposure, the success of his running and the fact that he was being rewarded for it.

"I was in with Max King and Geoff Roes.  They’re buddies of mine but at the same token I have such a massive level of respect for them as runners.  Geoff was THE man…I mean he was undefeated in 100-mile races.  It was just a culmination of a lot for me and I felt like it couldn’t have gotten any better."

Wherever you fly, you'll be the best of the best.
Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.

Except when you don't.
Because, sometimes, you won't.

The very next day, October 26, 2010, Gary broke his foot.

"It was such a weird experience because I was running with Max and Geoff and didn’t want to be the weak link.  I slipped on a snow covered rock, folded my foot in half and was in excruciating pain but I didn’t even make a peep.  I ran another 2 miles with them before we stopped.  That was supposed to be our turn around and Max said 'I think we should go a bit further' and I said 'I think I broke my foot'.  And I remember Geoff just looked at me and was like 'what do you mean you THINK you broke your foot?  You haven’t even said anything?'"

At the hospital in Bend, x-rays were taken and a nurse confirmed that the foot was broken.  Her exact words were "and it's kinda bad."

Well respected orthopedic surgeon Dr. Dory Boyer made it clear that the healing and recovery period for a Jones fracture could be lengthy and strongly suggested surgery.  After initially leaning that direction but reading conflicting reports that raised concerns about issues with the screw and the flexion point of the foot, Gary chose to go the route of immobilization until the two break points united.

"As a teenager I always felt that surgery and war wounds were cool but now as I was getting a bit older I was like 'no, I have to think this through, this is my body and I need to prevent anything foreign from going in it if I can.'  It’s not cool to be able to say I have a pin in my foot if I don’t need it in there.  So, I was adamant about not getting surgery if I didn’t have to."

That decision would be questioned throughout the process.

"Even when I broke my foot, I thought  'oh, whatever, it’s October, it's November, I’ll take a couple of months off.  It sucks but I’ll get through this.'" 

Gary prepared to be on crutches for 6 weeks, but repeated x-rays showed no healing and crutches remained a necessity.  Six weeks crept to eight weeks, two months became three.

He'd embraced running late in life and had never had any intention of it being his sole identity.  The severity of the Jones fracture and its refusal to improve made it that much more imperative that he not lose himself to the disappointment of not being able to run at all much less competitively in the short term. To stay positive and reconnect with a life not defined solely by sport, Gary reached back out to friends and family that knew him as far more than just a runner.

"Basically when I first was sidelined, I made a list of all my very good friends that I hadn’t seen, had not taken the time out of my training, out of my day, out of my life to spend time with.  I made a list of all the people that I truly have great friendships with and I went 'I’m gonna see every single one of these guys in this process.'"

He revisited Banff, where he'd lived for several years, and caught up with a number of old friends.  He flew home to Newfoundland and spent Christmas with his family.  The human interaction pulled him through and helped keep him from focusing solely on his injury, his not being able to run and his loss of fitness.

But he still longed to get back at it.

Though it took far longer than predicted, the non-union finally did begin to take and on February 1, 2011, Gary was off of crutches and back on his own two feet.  He was still registered for both Western States (June) and UTMB (August).

Having gone from a non-runner to a successful, competitive runner in such a short period of time to begin with and possessing a mentality that allowed him to go far and fast, he jumped right back into training and training hard.

"I didn’t contemplate getting injured again.  I was told that pain should be my only indicating factor of if I’m doing too much and, realistically, I didn’t have a lot of pain in my foot."

Immediately, he was consistently doing more sooner than the timetables provided by his doctor would have suggested or advised.  He ran a 10K four weeks earlier than the doctor said he should.  He logged a 20+ mile run the day after we first met in Escalante and finished 3rd at the Capitol Peak 50-Miler in Olympia, Washington the following week.  And did it all pain-free. 

He was back.

You can get so confused
that you'll start to race
down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace
and grind on for miles cross weirdish wild space,
headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.

"And people around me who were outspoken were saying the same thing:  'I don’t think this is smart.'  And then I think a lot of people were biting their tongues because they didn’t have the place to say that.  But the people that had the right to say that to me said it.  More than once."

But he didn't have pain in his foot and he shelved all of the other advice and input and clung to that one easy-to-measure guide given by the doctor, "if you have pain in your foot, slow down and don’t run."  He didn't, so he didn't.

Two weeks after Capital Peak, Gary and his girlfriend and fellow ultrarunner Linda Barton flew to Hawaii for a mix of vacation and training.  The plan was simple;  get up early every morning, log 10-20 daily miles of technical, mountainous running with a goal of 100 miles for the week and then retire to the beach after training each day for relaxation and recovery.  They stuck to the plan and it was everything they'd hoped it would be.

On day 6 of their 7 day stay, Gary and Linda were running separate sections of the H.U.R.T. course that Gary knew so well.  In the midst of his 85th mile of the week, Gary rolled his foot and quite literally heard the bone snap.

And this time the diagnosis wouldn't be a surprise.

"I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt, I KNEW it was the exact same fracture line."

But getting to that diagnosis would require some significant work.  He didn't have his phone and he didn't know when or even if Linda would pass through that section of the course.  He wasn’t even certain that there was anyone else in the vicinity so all he could do was begin inching his way toward the nearest trailhead.

Crawling and hobbling, Gary needed 45 minutes to navigate a single mile.  Reaching a main intersection, he was finally able to call out to some volunteers who were busy with trail maintenance.   The volunteers called search-and-rescue and Linda was contacted.  There'd be no ambulance waiting to whisk Gary away from this remote section of the island.  He was shuttled instead by a basket dangling beneath a helicopter that evacuated him to a point at which an ambulance could then transport him to the hospital.

Gary had been wearing his GoPro when the injury occurred and he'd kept right on filming.


"I went through a period of almost shock and I actually had to delete a lot of the video footage because I could only watch it once and I didn’t want anybody to see some of the things that I went through because what happened at that moment wasn’t just the pain of breaking my foot.  It was the overwhelming, flooding knowledge of what I was gonna be going through again and I was watching all my running dreams just dissipate and disappear before my eyes and the biggest and hardest thing to take in in those nano-seconds of processing what’s happening was having to ask 'how can I ever trust my own body? I don’t know if I’m ever going to get past this.'”

His first thought was UTMB.  The race that he'd been dreaming of for a couple of years, the race that was being billed as playing host to perhaps the most competitive 100-mile field ever, a race that he'd intended to train for specifically and single-mindedly in the hope of having another one of those magical days that met his expectations and far exceeded the expectations of others, was gone.

And that was only the most immediate of the dreams that had slipped away.  For all Gary knew, he'd never race competitively again.

After flying home to B.C., Gary paid an all too familiar visit to Dr. Boyer.  Surgery was again prescribed and even scheduled before Gary decided to forego it for a second time.

"I was going to give it one more shot and I was really going to rehab it properly once it finally healed."

Once healing occurred, it could be determined if competitive running would be possible.  The doctor had planted the seed that Gary might eventually need to revisit what he'd been doing, consider lower-impact options like cycling and possibly even avoid mountain running entirely.  The reality was that the type of technical downhill running that he loved the most delivered a tremendous amount of stress on joints, tendons and ligaments and his foot had obviously given beneath the strain of that punishment.

The second x-ray, taken a few weeks later, was worse than the first.  Deja vu.

Getting a non-union Jones fracture to "take" is not a guarantee.  Gary knew this, perhaps better than anyone.  He still wanted to avoid surgery but he was going to need help.

Dr. Boyer suggested that Gary try Orthofix, a bone stimulation healing device that introduces an electro-magnetic current to trigger both "sides" of a fractured bone to begin to fuse.  It basically serves as a mediator between two non-communicating parts of the body and gets the healing process back on track.  It wouldn't necessarily be quick but it was progress and non-invasive.  Another x-ray, taken a few weeks later, showed improvement.

The physical process was underway, but there was psychological healing required too.

This second go-round really made Gary question his running mortality.  Had he given too much to a sport where success can be fleeting even without injury?

"As much as I’m passionate about it and I love it, I didn’t even have this in my life in 2003.  In 2004 I got into it and now, in 2011, I’m struggling to remember who I actually am without being a runner .  I decided that I was going to have something positive, long term, that came away from being sidelined. I was going to focus my energy toward something else and accomplish something else and utilize the time so that I could eventually, hopefully, look back on it and say 'this positive came from this negative.'” 

He still very much loved running, loved trail running, loved mountain running and knew that he wanted to be a runner, in some fashion, for the rest of his life.  But even if he could get back to performing at a high level, he understood that at best he likely had a 3-5 year window of  strong, competitive running ahead of him.  He intended to stay connected to running far longer than that.

He accepted a course management role with Five Peaks, a regional trail running series.  He soon began doing the same for MOMAR, an adventure racing series.  That led to the decision to start a 50-mile race of his own (along with co-Race Director Geoff Langford), the Squamish 50.


He turned to a mentor, John Salmonson, the RD at H.U.R.T., for race directing advice and received far more than that.

John had run a staggering 95,000 miles over many, many years of ultrarunning and had done so at an extremely high level.  After a major knee injury, he had been told by doctors that surgery was required and could not wait.  John figured he could sneak in one more 100-miler, did so and was then told by doctors that there wasn't anything left of the knee to salvage.  He never ran again.


“His advice to me was simple, ‘Don’t fight this…let yourself heal and take the time you need.’"

A much needed fork in the road had been reached.

Gary was still working toward a return to elite racing but was gaining perspective and fostering and nurturing a long-term connection to the running community.

I asked if that would have been possible or, at the very least, infinitely more difficult if his prognosis had been as final as John's had been.

"It’s almost impossible to answer because I wasn’t actually confronted with that reality. I never entirely lost faith in the idea that I would get back to where I was.  Ever.  It was never a question in my mind no matter what I was hearing from doctors or anybody else that I would get back to where I wanted to be.  I was just realizing that the process was incredibly longer than I ever gave it credit for initially."

This time around he had spent 4 months on crutches and a couple of additional weeks in a walking boot.  All told, his ankle had been immobile for 8 months of 2011.

Stepping out of the boot and setting aside crutches in October, Gary emerged far more wary.

"I was on edge all of the time, I didn’t trust my own body.  I was hyper-sensitive, hyper-aware.  I didn’t want to chance anything.  It really was the polar opposite of the first time around."

His confidence was shaken and his body was going to struggle to heal the rest of the way without it.  Enter Luke Nelson.

A competitive runner, a ski mountaineering racer and a physician's assistant well-versed in Jones fractures, Luke offered to review Gary's x-rays, give his second opinion and help develop a rehabilitation program.  The plan he mapped out was slow and conservative, but Gary knew that it came from a fellow endurance athlete and a kindred spirit who fully understood what Gary aspired to at the end of the process.

He was allowed to run a single kilometer in the first week of physical therapy.  The second week he was allowed to run a single kilometer twice.  For an ultrarunning champ, it was a maddeningly slow build, but Gary stuck to the plan.

Finally, on January 1st, he ran a full 10 kilometers.

"I customized the distance in a local 50K race that happens on New Year's Day that I had done 5 times and had won once before.  That for me was one of those celebrations…even though I ran 10 while everyone else ran 50, I ran 10K and I felt like I had finally gotten something back at that point."

With Luke's continuing guidance, Gary slowly tacked on mileage and received regular follow-up x-rays.  Those films, thankfully, repeatedly confirmed healing and his body sent nothing but positive reports to support those assessments.

Surely Gary would have liked a do-over for 2011, but he'd gained an immeasurable amount of perspective over the full course of sustaining and fully rehabbing his injuries.

Both he and Luke made it to the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc this past August.  Linda came along too and high up in the Alps the week before the race, she answered "yes" to a certain popped question and made the trip, race or no race, one to remember.


Photo courtesy of Gary Robbins
As has happened on several occasions during its short history, the race was modified just before the start due to nasty weather predictions, especially at the highest elevations, and subsequent concerns for the safety of its participants.  A hundred miles was reduced to 104 kilometers and a couple of top registered runners, frustrated by the decision, even pulled out of the race.

But Gary had overcome too much and traveled too far to NOT run.  Nearly 14 hours after starting from the French village of Chamonix, he crossed a finish line that he'd dreamed of for so long.  He wasn't standing on the podium, but sometimes dreams-come-true are sweet even if different than first imagined.

And, after all that had transpired, "there's always next year" probably has a pretty nice ring to it.

"There was an appreciation through being sidelined that I never would have possessed otherwise.  I always would have slightly taken it for granted without ever realizing it.  I always appreciated it, it was never lost on me, but you really don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone and when it was gone I just realized that this was a true love of my life, running, and it came to me late in life and I don’t ever want to be without it and it’s not lost on me now that I am incredibly fortunate to be able to run.  Period."

Welcome all the way back, Gary.

Kid, you'll move mountains!

------------------------------------------------------

*During the weeks that I was transcribing my phone interview with Gary and doing my best to properly tell his story, my girls pulled Oh, the Places You'll Go from their bookshelf and added it to our nightly before-bed reading rotation.  It's a book that I can't remember NOT remembering, but the words took on new meaning in light of Gary's journey and begged to be included (or maybe I begged them).  My thanks and pleas for forgiveness to the timeless Dr. Seuss for letting me repurpose his words here. 

12.01.2012

it rains a lot this time of year.

Ain't November no more and that's alright by me.  I've got nothing against the month itself.  Giving thanks happens far too infrequently so the last thing I want to do is wipe away the one month that demands we all at least go through the motions of recognizing whatever it is we cherish the most.

As the years go by and I watch my children already being better versions of me, as I continue to add names  to the list of people I wish lived closer, led lives that managed to overlap now and again with my own or, worse yet, were simply still living, I get better and better at being mindful of all there is to appreciate.  Focus drifts for periods of time, moods darken and the weight of day-to-day existence shrouds the holding up of all the good things now and again, but few days pass without my remembering my blessings.

This month my health failed me and only slowly and very recently did it begin to return.  Running didn't happen and, insignificant as that seems in the grand scheme (is there such a thing?), my spirits reeled in its absence.  I despise being ill--who doesn't--and struggle mightily when the rest of my household is sick at that same time because I feel that much more defeated and incapable.  It's made the recent weeks difficult and, illogically I suppose, the whole mess ends up unfairly and arbitrarely associated with the current month. The turning of the calendar page feels like starting over.

And today, or the day that ended just minutes ago, November 30, felt like a headstart.

Minor miracles happen daily, I'm convinced of it, but on the best of days, on hyper-receptive, eyes-wide-open days, those miracles are unmistakeable and nearly constant.  Don't even get me started listing all that I think is taken for granted every second of every day, especially in a country as privileged as our's.  Next time you're grumbling your way to work think about the fact that you just climbed into a wheeled metal enclosure that is safely and speedily whisking you from where you were to where you're going in a manner absolutely inconceivable only a handful of generations ago.  Call it what you will but I put it in or very close to the miracle category.

Back from the tangent.

I woke up today and I felt fantastic.  Without the sickness of the last few weeks, I likely wouldn't have noticed, but I sure did this morning.  Nothing ached.  This didn't hurt and neither did that.  I actually wanted to drink my coffee and when I did it tasted, damned if it didn't, just like coffee.  Beautiful.

I'd learned yesterday that I was going to need to duck out of work early today because our babysitter needed to attend to family matters and Lindsay had clinicals.  Some people love getting out of work and seemingly spend a good bit of their time devising (perhaps that's the grand scheme) ways to do so.  Not me.  I love my job and even if I didn't, I'd still feel compelled, having agreed to employment in the first place, to show up and put forth my best effort.  Knowing I have to bail early on my co-workers doesn't sit well and when it has to be the case it often casts a shadow on my entire day.  But today was a day where I managed to accomplish all that I intended during my short stay and actually knocked out a couple of to do's I didn't expect to get to which certainly qualifies as miraculous.

As far as the girls were concerned, I'd played hookie expressly to come home and play with them.  It wasn't exactly true but who was I to strip them of that interpretation?  Instead, I embraced the concept and we spent every last second of autumn daylight playing outside, rolling in the leaves, chasing each other to there to here and back to there, clambering around a local playground, reenacting and reinventing parties and picnics of seasons past.

The girls laughed, smiled and forgot that getting in spats with each other is part of their normal schedule.  They posed, without prompting, for photographs, something they, and especially Piper Bea, rarely agree to do.





There were countless little nudges to remind me that these moments really are fleeting and that my task (and privilege), beyond nurturing, teaching and protecting my daughters is to BE with them.  I don't mean physically having them near to me, though I suppose that's part of it, but being there, right there, while they do what they do without steering, directing or advising from me.  They are children and it's nearly impossible for them NOT to find adventure and unearth new wonders unless I get in their way or allow someone or something else to be the obstacle.  Obstacles like too many hours in a work week, chores, bill paying/fretting, railing against mankind instead of turning down the volume and listening.

I need to let my children be children, comfortable and sure in my presence.  Today was one of my better days at BEING with them and it was lovely.



After the fading light and falling temperatures drove us indoors, we ate together and then read books until both Lil's and Pipe's eyelids began to resign themselves to sleep.

Soon after tuck-ins, Lindsay returned home and urged me out the door to run and run I did.  It was the first time back on a trail and beneath a headlamp for several weeks and the return was pure joy.  I truly am without words to properly express how right the world was for those few miles alone in the woods after a fulfilling day and so I will leave it at that.

Tomorrow I'll get the girls up and we'll see what new adventures await.  Later in the morning, I'll be helping to moderate iRunFar's coverage of the always competitive The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-Mile Championships being held near San Francisco in what looks to be incredibly wet, nasty conditions.


And if you can't see the miracle in my being able to fully immerse myself in a rain-soaked race taking place on the other side of the country (from the comfort of my own home) and converse in real time with folks from all over the planet doing the very same thing, well, then I think it's fortunate that Thanksgiving is behind you and you can spend almost an entire year without having to begrudgingly conjure up something for which to feign appreciation.

As for me, I'll be sitting right here on my couch, thankful as can be for all that life is.  Until that race is over and then you can bet your ass I won't spend another second sitting inside.

For now, it's time for bed and even for that I'm thankful.  I'd nearly forgotten that sleep doesn't have to be simply an escape from sinus pressure and the fatigue of illness.  Sometimes it can just be refueling for whatever tomorrow is about to bring.

Bliss.

And to all my dear scattered, detached and/or departed friends and everyone headed out into the wind and weather of Marin County tomorrow morning, dogspeed and a nickel in the jukebox.




10.23.2012

textimonial.


Photo courtesy/copyright Klaus Fengler
Me:  "How you feeling?"

You:  "Better than I've felt in weeks!"

Me:  "Never underestimate the restorative powers of movement....sedentary life sucks."

Us:  :)

10.20.2012

fi-los-uh-fee

My good friend, Jefferson, accompanied me to Titusville last weekend for my first 100-miler.  

The first time we'd ventured out to this part of western Pennsylvania together, we had attended out our first beard competition, had an absolute blast and made a ton of lasting friends in the process.  All of which was quite a surprise, as we had arrived in Oil City unsure of what to expect.

This weekend actually felt similar in that regard.  The difference this time was that we already had friends waiting for us.

The longest race I'd run previously was a 54 miler.  I'd started but failed to finish a 70 mile race earlier in the year, so there were plenty of internal question marks.

Jefferson had paced for me and another friend at the Labor Pains 12-hour event but that course was held on a 5-mile loop that provided nearly constant access to food, drinks and friendly faces.  Oil Creek would be less accommodating.

Because this post isn't specifically about the race, I'll jump ahead and say that Jefferson had a few growing pains during the "crewing" portion of the race, but I deliver that news with a grin on my face.  He did just fine, but crew chief extraordinaire Jo Agnew, in doing her best to give Jefferson a crash course on crewing, actually managed to cast a spotlight mostly on what he wasn't doing "right" (whatever that means).

Hell, he'd never crewed before and I'd never been crewed for before.  How smoothly were things gonna go?

Once he could lace up his own shoes and get out on the trail as my pacer, Jefferson shined.

He didn't get to do nearly as much running as he expected to as pain in my feet converted me to more of a power hiker than a runner over the last 30 or so miles, but I set a pretty mean hiking pace (yes, I did say so myself) and he stuck with me, in the process surpassing his previous longest distance by a good half marathon, logging nearly 38 miles.

He was everything I needed him to be which was mostly just a calm, comforting presence, a by-my-side friend who didn't say a single thing to lower my spirits or shake my confidence.  I felt pain, for sure, but never  enough to pull me completely into a solitary place of suffering and I believe having Jefferson there with me was a huge factor for staying out of that place.

Jefferson never delivered my favorite stolen-from-Deadwood "the world ends when you're dead" reminder, but he didn't need to and it wouldn't have made sense if he did.  He didn't quote any Neitzsche either even though it must have been tempting, considering the fact that Friedrich had penned quite a bit of content that might seem relevant in the dark of the night AND had sported a moustache eerily similar to the one that currently resides on Jefferson's upper lip.



No, there weren't any specific quotes offered up in the middle of the night, but, after the fact, Jefferson did hand me an interesting passage from Neitzsche that I'm now going to share with anyone still reading along:

"There is as much wisdom in pain as there is in pleasure:  both belong among the factors that contribute the most to the preservation of the species.  If pain did not, it would have perished long ago; that is hurts is no argument against it but its essence.  In pain I hear the captain's command:  "Take in the sails!"  The bold seafarer "man" must have mastered the art of doing a thousand things with his sails; otherwise he would be done for in no time, and the ocean would swallow him.  We must learn to live with diminished energies, too:  As soon as pain gives its safety signal the time has come to diminish them; some great danger or other, a storm is approaching, and we are well advised to "inflate" ourselves as little as possible.

True, there are people who hear precisely the opposite command when great pain approaches: Their expression is never prouder, more warlike, and happier than it is when a storm comes up; indeed, pain itself gives them their greatest moments.  This is the heroic type, the great pain bringers of humanity, those few or rare human beings who need the very same apology that pain itself needs--and truly, one should not deny it to them.  They contribute immensely to the preservation and enhancement of the species, even if it were only by opposing comfortableness and by not concealing how this sort of happiness nauseates them."

Now I'm not going to go so far as to side with the bit about comfortableness making me nauseous but I do like the idea of facing the storm head on, weathering it and then taking the time to restore those diminished energies after the storm has passed.



And so, having done my part to preserve and enhance the species (who knew?), I'm savoring this recovery week, pondering endurance and...

...wondering who would be a better ultra-runner, Neitzsche or Al Swearengen?

10.17.2012

close to the face of god.

I've spent a good portion of the last year and many minutes this past weekend soaking up sage advice from my good friend, Kelly Agnew.  He throws me some curve balls every now and then to keep my ego in check (or something), but mostly he freely shares what wisdom he's compiled during numerous ultramarathons.

I look forward to his race recaps and I guess he gets a kick out of mine too.

After dragging my feet for a few days in the wake of the Oil Creek 100 on Saturday and Sunday, I wasn't surprised to get a text from Kelly demanding to know when I was going to get around to putting up a post about the race, my first ever 100 miler.

And then, upon learning that I wasn't making any headway with my writing, he encouraged me to reflect back on the weekend and write about (and I quote) some "moment when you were close to the face of God...or some shit."

So, uh, here goes.

Having too little experience to have a solid idea of how long it might take me to travel 100 miles on foot, I'd guessed that somewhere between 27-29 hours sounded reasonable.  The race has a 32 hour cutoff but for whatever reason that sounded like way too long to be on my feet.

You know, cause 29 hours isn't long at all.

I came across the line (a point I'd left at 5 AM on Saturday) just before 9:00 AM on Sunday morning with a time of 27:58:59 feeling like one helluva good guesser.

First, let me say that 28 hours IS a long time.  Can't even tell you the last time that I was AWAKE for 28 hours straight, much less striving forward for that long a stretch.

But, frankly, I feel like I got a little shortchanged on calamity.

Considering the mayhem that has frequently followed me around race courses, I'm perplexed as to what went wrong at Oil Creek.

Er, um, went right, that is.

I did not vomit.  My bowels didn't loosen.  My gimpy arches didn't give even in the rain that held through most of the night.  Nary a cramp.  No chafing.  Not a single bee sting.

Nothing but wickedly sore feet and some fatigued legs.  I can't imagine that those are anything but par for the course.  In other words, I walked away with nothing to write about.

In fact, now that I think about it, one of the ways I've cheated myself is by meeting and getting to know men and women who've tackled these types of adventures before.

Some with frequency; with regularity.

Ho hum and such.

They've been there, done that, you know the cliches.

The throwing up, the diarrhea, exhaustion, cramping, injuries and even hallucinations are all part of the drill for that set and just simply going a long way ain't much.  Maybe I shouldn't have read so many race reports.  I could've turned the sound down low when folks started sharing their tales of suffering and endurance.  Then perhaps I could look back on the weekend and feel like I'd really accomplished something.

Instead, I kinda feel like maybe all I did was go from the guy who'd never done a 100 to the guy who has just done one and only managed a mediocre time in spite of having no real issues along the way.

Sure, I turned an ankle and took one good fall on my right hip, but really...?

Nothing.

The face of God?  Not even close.

I did see a possum, but he seemed not divine.  I've heard God works in mysterious ways, but that's not mysterious, just really, really weird.

Wasn't him, I'm sure of it.

THAT would've been a good story, though.  God in the form of a possum gives me a talking to as I stumble across an old railroad bridge at mile 76.

Wasn't him though.

It was just a possum in the form of a possum wondering who or what in the hell I was and what in the hell I was doing trip-trapping across his bridge at whatever in the hell time in the morning it was.

That selfish rodent could have at least done me a favor and given me a quick leg gnaw for later storytelling purposes.  Apply a few battle scars to thicken the plot.

Nothing.

The face of God?

I did spend several minutes during the first few frigid hours of the race trying to untangle my iced over beard from the drinking hose of my hydration pack.  A nuisance?  You betcha.  A hardship?  A monumental obstacle?

Uh.

Hell, it never even crossed my mind to seek the face of God.

I've read and heard so many tales of loneliness on long races but, truth be told, I spent all but 6 or 7 miles in the company of friends.  I loved every shared moment.  Each conversation, the laughter and even the long stretches of comfortable quiet with Jefferson in the wee, wet, slippery hours of the late night and early morning.

I certainly wasn't lonely.

If God had peeked down (up? over?) looking for someone to grace with his presence, he'd a passed right be me, seeing that I was in good company and hardly in need.

So, I walked away without having required any divine intervention.  Not one single instance of heavenly interaction.

Did what I set out to do and should be relieved that I've got my health on the back end.  I should be overjoyed that I met my goal and that a good bit of the reason that it wasn't more calamitous is because I applied the lessons that I learned in tougher races and harder times.

And, if I'm being honest, I guess I am.

But, NEXT time.  Next time, it's all gonna go wrong.

And when God shows his face, I'm going to wipe the vomit from my beard, grin a beleaguered but honest grin and say, "THERE you are, possum!"

Or some shit.