All this rugged trail running is making me tough and leathery. I feel stronger. Gettin’ dirty. But being so often bombarded by nature’s beauty is also leaving me emotionally vulnerable. It’s hard for me to not stop, to soak in my surroundings, to dissociate from time and to just be in the moment.
I think that’s a perfect mix of cojones and heart.
My running club organized a 50K (31 mile) fun run through Wisconsin’s southern unit of the Kettle Moraine forest yesterday. With the Ice Age Trail 50 Miler just 7 weeks away, I knew logging some long hours on the actual route I’ll be running during the race would be nothing but beneficial, so I took the whole day to really immerse myself in the trail.
Holy bejeebus. It’s as beautiful as it is tough.
The elevation gain from my forest adventure only totaled about 2,400 feet, but the constant up and down rolling nature of the moraines (a result of the last ice age glacier melts, thus the name) is so relentless that I never could find a consistent rhythm to my stride. Walk up hill a little, fly down hill a little, walk up hill a little, fly down, and so on. WHERE ARE THE FLATS?
I never found them, but I did find out that Wisconsin is home to one of the most luscious forests I’ve ever seen. It was like running on Endor! I kept anticipating an Ewok ambush or stumbling across one of the Empire’s hidden bases. Green, green, green!
And the sounds: loons, bullfrogs, crickets, swallows, robins, my tired footfalls.
There were several moments along the trail when I thought, Man this is hard! How am I ever going to run 50 miles on it if I’m struggling through 31? I had moments where I felt awful, but I also had moments where I felt euphoric, and the switch was made within minutes.
At one point I looked down to notice I’d “run” a 15 minute mile. That’s some real humbling shit right there, especially to a guy who touts himself as a regional class speedster. 15 minute mile!?! Good grief.
But I later realized, if having to suck up some slow miles is what it takes to become part of nature’s truest gifts, then I’m all for it. In the end, it took me 6 hours and 21 minutes to complete my 31 mile Kettle adventure. That’s the longest run I’ve ever logged to date. To put that time in perspective, my current 50K trail PR is 5:15, and I barely gave any effort in attaining that time, as it too was just a fun run.
Yet I can’t help but think 6 hours and 21 minutes still isn’t enough time to sufficiently gallivant through such luscious forest. It surely didn’t feel like I was out there that long. And despite the aches in my glutes and the pains in my quads, I didn’t want to escape the canopy. I wanted to stay in there as long as I could.
Time stops in there. And in a world where time is often my enemy, suddenly I don’t mind reevaluating my expectations.
Yes. 7K. Your very non-standard 4.34959835 mile race.
Since my recent 5o mile training has focused mostly on tough, hilly long runs, a short distance race seemed like a nice change of pace. Besides, when well rested, running fast is fun! The 7K distance made it so I would PR no matter what and the Get Lucky! schwag (a kelly green zip-up hoodie) was pretty sweet.
My goal going into the race was to just run hard from the beginning and hold it as long as I could. I wanted to focus on high leg turnover and a smooth cadence throughout. With nearly 800 registrants, I didn’t figure I’d have much of a chance at a top three finish, so the thought never entered my mind.
Until I lined up.
There was a half marathon (The Chicago Get Lucky! 21K) run in conjunction with this race. 20 minutes after the half marathon began, the 7K racers were told to line up.
Wanting to run smooth 6:30s, I got in the 7 minute per mile corral. It was the fastest one next to the one labeled “elite” — one that, astonishingly, no one was standing in. I quickly looked around to see that indeed, I was standing alone, that most people were lined up way behind me. Then there was an athletic looking youngster dressed in green who approached and confidently stood ground next to me. We smiled and said “hi” to one another.
I think both of us knew that we might be in for a special day if we were the only ones in the front of the pack. You could almost see the both of us salivating, sizing each other up. Then along came a Mary Keitany lookalike. I quickly let her in front of me. Just a few minutes before the race was to start, it looked like only the three of us would start out at the front.
Competitive spirit override. Race strategy chucked.
Hell no. If I have a chance to win — AN ACTUAL CHANCE TO WIN — I’m going for it.
The horn blew and we were off, the three of us in front along with a guy dressed like a leprechaun, whom if beaten in the race demanded an ancillary cash prize.
The starting pace was about 6:20. Not too bad. The Mary Keitany lookalike made it appear effortless though, so I immediately figured she was my main competition.
We hit the first turn and boom, there took off the leprechaun and the athletic dude in green. I wouldn’t see them again for a while. Mary Keitany lookalike gave chase, I looked down at my watch to see I was under 6 minute pace and thought, nah, I’m gonna stick with 6:30s. I eased off but kept her in my sights.
For the next 2.5K I slowly reeled her in. But before I did, I looked behind me to see… um… no one! I was way out in front of everyone else, virtually guaranteed a top three finish if I just didn’t crash and burn. I kept a steady pace and it seemed pretty easy. Cruise control.
I caught her on the weird downhill just after the aid station between 3K and 4K. On the Lakeshore Path, it’s the abrupt bridged hill before going under the road, south of Illinois Avenue. I’ve run that part of the path about a bazillion times in my life, so I knew I could fly on the short downward section. I made my move and BLASTED DOWN past her. She didn’t counter, seemingly content with the idea of a 1st female finish rather than 2nd place overall.
Sounded good to me! I kicked it up a notch.
But then I encountered a series of weird, poorly marked turns and… yes, no course marshals. Not long after seeing a 4K mark banner, I came across a mess of oddly grouped orange cones, but no people. The leader and the leprechaun had already started the back portion of the out-and-back-esque course, so I wasn’t sure where the turnaround was. Is it still ahead? Is it here? Oh shit.
I was flying. And starting to panic. I made it about a quarter mile further before I realized there was no one around and I’d definitely gone off course. I stopped, turned, and boom, there was Mary Keitany lookalike. We both threw our arms up in the air. Confused. She said, “that must’ve been the turnaround, back there.” I nodded, said, “Sorry”, and dug deep in a concentrated spurt past her, back to the right spot, back to those oddly grouped, messy orange cones. Back on course.
To my horror I saw: NOW TWO PEOPLE IN FRONT OF ME!
Competitive spirit override. Again. Harder.
DIG DEEP. Vrrrrrroooom.
Zoomed by the first guy, unsuspecting. Clearly, he did not care. “Good job, buddy!” he yelled. Thumbs up, I gave. Head down.
The second guy in front of me was moving slow. I knew I’d catch him. “Lookin’ good”, he said. Thanks, bro! I passed. I focused further down the line on… the bike!
The leader and leprechaun were too far ahead to be seen, so course marshals (who magically appeared after my detour) responded by sending a bike out to lead second place. At the 5K mark, that was me. I wasn’t even looking at my watch now. I could care less about my time. All I wanted to do was finish strong with nothing less than second place. I was content with that.
Until I saw the leprechaun in my sights with 1 kilometer to go.
Did not think about it. Just dug in and told my legs to catch him. I turned off my mind and let instinct kick in. I was surprised at how easy it seemed. I passed him on the first of a couple sharp right turns in the last half kilometer, got a huge buzz from the cowbell-ringing, shamrock-clad crowd who came out in strong numbers cheering and clapping. I slowed a little, soaked it in. Crossed the finish fist pumping with a smile. I was handed a medal and a mug with CASH MONEY in it from beating the leprechaun. I’m told a top three finisher prize will be in the mail.
I’ve said it before, but it’s still true so I will keep saying it: I’ll never take a pitch in the big leagues, or drive the lane in the NBA. The NFL will never see my touchdown dance. But today I ran the Chicago Get Lucky! 7K race and finished 2nd out of 797 competitors, and for that I’m claiming baller status.
The area around Malibu is home to some beautiful peaks. And though none of them would be considered overly “mountainous” to someone calling himself a mountain runner, the bottom of a 2,000 foot climb looks pretty damn mountainous to this flatlander. Hell, we Chicagoans run parking garage platforms and bridge spans to get in our hill work. Swallow Cliffs, part of the Palos Hills trail system outside the city, features the gnarliest hill we have around these parts: Big Bertha. And even with her, you gotta run up and down, up and down, over and over again to simulate even the slightest mountain route. And it still doesn’t simulate. Not well anyway. Honestly, there’s really no good way for flatlanders to practice running/power hiking/slogging up a mountain other than just running/power hiking/slogging up a mountain.
Thanks goodness for vacation!
While a great deal of my time was spent exploring Malibu Creek State Park, my first encounter with running closer to the sky actually came on the trails of the Zuma/Trancas Canyon. In order to maximize my time (remember, this was not a running trip, allegedly), I got up before dawn and started the four mile trek along the Pacific Coast Highway to reach the trail head. The weather called for sunny, clear skies and a high of 70 degrees. Holy hell I would be running in heaven and I didn’t even know it yet!
By the time I reached the trail head, the sun had risen, and I was totally aware of just how beautiful everything was around me. Before I started my climb up the Zuma Ridge Trail, I took in a deep breath, surveyed my surroundings and admired the silence. Believe me, no matter how many times I use the word “beautiful” to describe this adventure, it will never be accurate enough to relate what I saw.
Up, up, up!
After a quarter mile on the trail, ahead of me I saw the one (and only) person I would see out that day — an elderly lady, grandma-fit and truckin’ along — whom I apparently scared when I approached. Turns out power hiking up a hill makes for less foot noise. That and the fact that she was rockin’ an iPod are probably why she didn’t hear me coming until I was right next to her.
AH! she screamed. You scared me!
It’s okay. Just not used to seeing people out here this early. (Swigs her water bottle) You trying to scare away the mountain lions with that shirt?
I was wearing my SCREAMING fluorescent green St. Louis Marathon tech tee from 2011, mostly so I could be clearly seen by motorists while I ran along the PCH, but I didn’t feel like having a long conversation, so I smiled and just kept going past her. Before I got too far along, I couldn’t help but ask: Are there really mountain lions out here?
You bet! They’re all over the place! But don’t worry. They won’t like that shirt. Too bright!
She laughed. At my shirt? At the prospect of me getting eaten by a mountain lion? Too much coffee? Her shirt was white. Didn’t she want to scare the mountain lions? Where was her SCREAMING fluorescent green shirt?
I laughed back. Have a nice day! I told her as I dug deeper into the power hike.
I guess part of me knew beforehand that mountain running would require quite a bit of power hiking, but an hour of it? Two hours of it? I thought, gee, this isn’t really what I think of when I think of “running”. I wanna move! I tried running up the incline, even though I knew it was counterproductive. After 15 seconds I realized as much. But that didn’t stop me from trying it again. And again. And again.
I’m a stubborn dude sometimes.
Still, stubbornness is no match for nature. And every time I tried to do the impossible I was humbled back to the slow, slow, slow power hike.
It didn’t matter. The scenery… OH THE SCENERY! How can I even possibly describe it? First of all, it’s Malibu so, HELLO BEAUTY. Luscious, rolling green mountains with the ocean and the beach up against their side and multimillion dollar homes tucked neatly into pockets of pristine vegetation. The sea breezed air was refreshingly clean. The sky as blue as I’d ever seen.
I stopped. Often. Just to take it all in.
I’ve been sucker punched by beauty during long runs before, but never anything like this. I was so overwhelmed with love for nature and all that surrounded me that I broke down. I didn’t now what else to do or how to handle it. I was totally unprepared for such sensory overload, but I am so glad I got it anyway. A couple minutes of crying like a baby was all I needed to get my power hiking legs back on to go further up, up, up…
And then BOOM! A flat! And a downhill! Both of them brief, but utterly invigorating before… more power hiking. Up, up, up…
BEEP BEEP BEEP. My watch. Dammit. I knew what that meant. Time to turn around. I was, after all, in Malibu with other people and we had other things planned for the day. So after two hours of climbing, I knew it was time to turn it around, which meant….
With one of nature’s greatest gifts guiding me down the mountain, I thought here’s my chance to clock some 5:30 miles without feelin’ it. And I would be a total liar if I did not admit to screaming WEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!
all most of the way down.
It’s really difficult for me to think of something more fun than running downhill. It’s not even running really. It’s play. It’s fun!!! For a little while anyway. After 30 minutes of non-ntop flying on the decline, I realized it wasn’t always fun and my quads were not happy, nor would they be if I didn’t slow up and take it easy some.
The quads don’t know what to do going downhill. They’re doing the opposite of what they’re made to do (lift/extend the knee) and so they revolt by HURTING LIKE A BITCH. Like all the other pains, it’s just another truth about running — something that must be battled, defeated, pushed through.
Eventually it would go away.
I was celebrating that fact, and then before I knew it I was at the bottom of the canyon. Very, very sad.
Luckily for me, I had a nice (and flat!) four mile cool down jog along the beach and, literally, an ocean of cold water to soak my battered posts in. When I got back to the house, my friends were waiting for me. Smiles, all of ’em.
How was it? they asked.
I tried to speak but as soon as I opened my mouth I realized there was nothing I could say that would do the experience justice. As I struggled to give an answer, a great, big boyish grin consumed my face. I shook my head and quickly brushed away the trickle forming in the corner of my left eye.
They knew. They all smiled and they all knew.
I don’t get the runner’s high anymore. I haven’t for about a year and a half now. When I first started running, catching the “high” was a frequent occurrence, especially during hard efforts like long runs or speed work. But nowadays it’s something I’ve learned to do without. The only runner’s high I get now is after the run, when my knees are iced, my feet are up and I’m able to reflect on the satisfaction of having done work.
Of course, beer helps.
Oh how far I’ve come!
During my early running days, when I didn’t really know what I was getting into, breaking down on a desolate country road, overcome with emotion was rather common. I’d often feel like I made some poignant realization about myself. I’d get that warm, cozy feeling I used to get during my MDMA partying days. I used to think: if only EVERYONE were a runner, to know this special feeling!
Then, as soon as it came, it was gone. Forever.
I don’t know why. But I’m over it.
I’ve traded the high for zen, the emotion for being present. Of course, for me, catching the zen isn’t as easy as simply going for a long run or running intervals. It takes a combination of speed and distance for me to tap into it. It demands a pace fast enough to be uncomfortable, and a distance far enough to make maintaining that pace hard as hell. It requires supreme focus. Splits, muscle aches and what I’m going to have for dinner that night cannot jut into my consciousness. Everything must go, everything except the present.
And even then, reaching zen mode is not a given. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. I’ve found that when I think about it or try to force my way into having one of those experiences, it just doesn’t work.
The good news is, every run — no matter how present or how off in space — brings me happiness. Even after those really awful runs, the ones where I felt slow, felt heavy, felt off, felt crampy, even those make me smile.
Just moving, doing work, going forward in time… that’s awesome.