Running up, over and through the cogs

Philosophy

Living the High Life: Pacing the 2013 Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run

If you aren’t living on the edge, you are taking up too much space.
— Jim Whittaker, the first American to summit Mt. Everest

western states 100 2013

Running opens the door to infinite adventure. Each test against the clock, each journey through the wilderness and every single foray into the unknown seems to hold the potential for being yet another pinnacle life moment — a time when I can truly disconnect from the busyness of everyday and just soak myself in the nature of epic, blissful surroundings.

Though my proclamations often sound like hyperbole, I assure you: they are not.

Running is real. The adventure spawned by this seemingly simple activity is real. And as long as I remain open to all possibilities — fighting through then learning from the lows while also allowing myself to soak in the ecstatic highs — as long as I stay within myself and embrace this simple way of living life, all the glory in the world is within me.

Few activities rival the profoundness I feel when I run.

Pacing my friend, Siamak Mostoufi (pronounced SEE-mack) at the storied keystone event of ultrarunning, the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, I knew was yet another opportunity to grasp at the skirt of greatness.

Pre-Race, Friday, June 28

I wake up feeling groggily fresh with the kind of excitement that comes from hours of flight delayed napping combined with more elevation than I’m used to and the prospect of seeing the Western States course with my very own eyes. The day before was rough, but once I landed in Reno, all travel frustrations ceased to exist. The only important task for the day is getting to Squaw Valley and fighting through this thin-air headache so I’m ready to go tomorrow.

Siamak has a bounce in his step and an edge to his gait signifying the countdown to epic adventure. His girlfriend and crew chief, Meret, whom I got to know a little bit during the drive last night from Reno to our hotel in Truckee, also exudes excitement. This is her first time experiencing (let alone CREWING) an ultrarunning event, and I playfully point out to her that this is like a 16-year old getting a Mercedes as her first car.

WE ARE AT WESTERN STATES!!!

And, just in case, I didn’t believe it, here at the Squaw Valley check-in, there’s legendary runner David Horton to remind me. And there’s Tim Olson. And Ian Sharman. And oh yeah, there’s Meghan Arbogast and Mike Morton and Dave Mackey and Rory Bosio and Karl Meltzer and Ann Trason and Gordie Ansleigh and OH MY GOD HOLY SHIT ALL THESE AWESOME RUNNERS ARE HERE FOR THIS AND YOU CAN FEEL THE ELECTRICITY IN THE AIR AND I WANNA JUST SQUEEZE SOMETHING AND HOLD ON AND NEVER LET GO OF ANY OF THIS AWESOMENESS!!!

Me with ultra legend David Horton

Me with ultra legend David Horton

Gordie Ansleigh, the one who started it all, captivates the crowd.

Gordie Ansleigh, the one who started it all, captivates the crowd.

Goosebumps pop up all over me as Siamak gets checked in. Base weights and vital signs are taken. Some helpful reminders about combating the intense heat he will face tomorrow are given. We move from station to station, acutely receptive to all that is around us, including the breathtaking views of mountainous landscape and the warmth of the sun cutting through clear, blue skies.

I feel like I’m gonna cry at any moment because I’m so happy. I get to be here for THIS! I get to pace my pal, the same guy who pulled me out of the doldrums of crap city during my first 50 miler a year ago. I get to experience THIS.

I am so lucky. And thankful.

Meret and Siamak, all smiles the day before the race.

Meret and Siamak, all smiles the day before the race.

The mandatory pre-race meeting ends and everyone disperses, off to stock coolers and stuff faces with all-you-can-eat pasta. Siamak, Meret and I stop at the grocery store to get all the food, drink and Red Bull we will need for the race.

While I stand in line with an armful of deli goods and a sleeve of shortbread cookies, Siamak nods his head to the gentleman in front of us. Look who’s here.

Wow! Mike Morton. Hi, I’m Jeff, I say a bit overeager. I shake the endurance beast from Florida’s hand. I’m an in awe of his humility and slight, thin build. He smiles big when I tell him I’ve been following his career renaissance.

Yeah, but all these fast guys… he says, somewhat nervously.

Dude, you are the American 24 hour record holder. You are the fast guys, I reply.

We wish him well, buy our goods and head back to Truckee for a bite to eat followed by pre-race packing and last minute crew debriefing. Meret and I get the low-down on how Siamak will fuel his race, what is packed where, and how to get from one aid station to the next. Once we are are all on the same page, it’s off to bed for us. While I immediately enter deep, sound sleep, I can only assume Siamak — on the eve of running the race of his life — does his best to not toss and turn.

Race Morning, Saturday June 29, 3:00 a.m. – 5:00 a.m.

Siamak, ready to rock!

Siamak, ready to rock!

Siamak is up and ready to go. I’m getting quite used to seeing him smile, but the one he’s wearing this morning seems a little bigger than the one from yesterday, and for good reason: today he tackles the most coveted 100 mile race in the world.

And as we busy ourselves in and around the Squaw Valley Olympic Village prior to the race start, he knows it. He also knows that he is not alone — that hundreds of our friends back home in Chicago and across the world are following his steps via Facebook, Twitter and the Western States ultracast where his splits will be updated live, for all to see. A simple upload of his smiling face causes my phone to blow up, even at 4:30 in the morning.

A few nervous hugs, high fives and fist bumps later, Meret and I walk him to the start line then make our way a few hundred meters up the trail to record THIS.

IT’S REALLY HAPPENING NOW!!!

While the runners are well on their way to their first bout of suffering, tackling the monstrous escarpment climb of Emigrant Pass, Meret and I make our way back to the car. Still immersed in darkness, we go back to the hotel to stock the car with the day’s provisions before heading out on I-80 towards our first stop of the day: Robinson Flat, 29.7 miles in to the race.

During this 2+ hour drive through the scenic high country, I confess to Meret — an accomplished professional flutist and music educator — my continual obsession with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. She is quite sympathetic and for once, I am able to have a long conversation about Bach, Albinoni and Vivaldi, freely discussing my love of the Baroque period without feeling like an obnoxious jackass.

Meret and I make a good crew team and she is going to do great today. I can already tell. My thoughts are validated when she says:

Siamak says this is going to be great because you have a lot of experience and I am, as he says, very conscientious.

Conscientiousness is a must and I further explain the time-tested acronym of C.R.E.W. (crabby runner, endless waiting) to Meret so that she knows what to possibly expect later on. Lucky for us, our runner is Siamak Mostoufi — one tough dude rarely seen without a smile on his face.

Robinson Flat, Mile 29.7

Meret and I reach Robinson Flat sometime around 9 a.m. and set up our mini-aid station at the bottom of the hill, next to where the runners exit and head back onto the Western States trail. We get there in time to see the leaders come through: Tim Olson, Rob Krar, Hal Koerner, Karl Meltzer and many more make their way through this colossal aid station to the roars, claps and whistles of the following crowd.

Wow, that is so cool, I couldn’t help but think to myself while watching the leaders pass through, exchanging bottles and aid with their individual crews like formula one drivers. This is some serious ultrarunning!

Following the elites is a steady string of runners, mostly of the hot and sweaty variety, as the Robinson Flat aid station is preceded by quite a a bit of long, steady climbing in exposed high country where the elevation and intense morning sun beats down on all those underneath. Most folks have covered themselves in white clothing: white hats, white shirts, white bandanas. And the smart ones, Siamak included, have been busy dousing themselves with cold water at every opportunity.

I wait at the top of the hill, close to the check-in area while Meret remains with our stuff at the bottom. Our plan is for me to make contact with Siamak as he comes in, to find out what he needs while he’s being weighed and attended to by race officials, then run down the hill to help Meret prepare whatever it is he needs.

It’s been several hours since we have seen him, and with the way I’m pacing back and forth, my eagerness to check in on him is obvious. Finally, amid the crowd of runners, spectators and crew, I see his white shirt and blue shorts emerge from the visible heat waves off in the distance.

Here he comes! I scream.

Couldn’t miss him, since his smile has hardly waned since 5 a.m.

What do you need? I hurriedly ask at the top of the hill.

Gels, amino powder, grapefruit juice, maybe some ice, he says.

Cool. We’re at the bottom of the hill on your left, I say as I dart down the hill to Meret where we rush to prepare the spread. Sifting through the enormous plastic bag of gels Siamak packed, I can’t help but think nauseous thoughts. In running, we are all an experiment of one, that much I know. But I also know my experimentation with solely gel-based nutrition during ultra events has not been good, so I tip my cap to my runner thinking he must truly have an iron belly, which is not a bad thing to have in an event like this.

Meret’s first look at her boyfriend after several hours of sweat and toil seems to go over just fine. They hug and speak briefly as we try to get an understanding of what he has run so far.

It’s hot, he says. Very hot.

Yep. In fact, today is going to go down as the second hottest Western States 100 on record, ever.

We waste little time in debriefing and instead get him everything he needs before setting out again for another long, hot stretch. I give him a pat on the back, Meret gives him a kiss and then off he goes, back into the wilderness, towards Miller’s Defeat.

Hmm… that was a salty kiss! Meret says.

Oh yeah, I forgot to warn you, another given in ultrarunning is, well, the runner is always going to smell bad.

We have a chuckle then pack up the gear and schlepp our way back towards the car.

Michigan Bluff, Mile 55.7

Another significant car ride, this time through narrow, winding switchbacks up and around a mountain, and Meret and I find ourselves at Michigan Bluff — complete with a large party of spectators, crew and staff in what would otherwise be a remote, sparsely populated ghost town featuring lots of horses, chickens and one obnoxious rooster.

Here we park the car and hike to the shuttle. We squeeze ourselves and our belongings into the short bus, already eschewing the unwritten rules of modesty and personal space. As a complete stranger smashes his sweaty body against mine, I can’t help but be grateful that we are all a dirty, sweaty mess.

Once we reach the drop-off point, Meret and I then rush to find what little spot of shade we can find. At this point, just like the entire day thus far, shade is quite a hot commodity (pun intended, naturally).

The temperature gauge back at the car told us it was 102 degrees. In the shade, it seems like a manageable 90. And after devouring a home cooked burger with fresh, grilled onions chased by a lemon flavored popsicle, the shade and a spot of grass is all I need to nod off for 20 minutes or so.

I wake up from my nap to the cheers of the elite women coming through Michigan Bluff — all of them looking fresh to death. I get up and walk around when I can and explore what little exists in the area. Surprisingly, a few people actually do live here and I can’t help but wonder what it’s like in the winter time with two feet of snow on the ground. As is the case with many of the stops along the Western States route, there is a much history to this area, most of it centered around the 19th century gold rush, and I take the time to read some of the commemorative plaques detailing as much.

Meanwhile, Meret and a whole host of others waiting patiently for their runners appreciate the hydration PSA at the main aid station. It is a very clever way of navigating what is a very serious subject. I know Siamak is taking care of his hydration. He had an alarm set on his watch to remind him to drink every 15 minutes. He’s going to be just fine.

what color is your pee

Meret and I got to Michigan Bluff quite early, so while we wait for Siamak to come through (and current race updates inform us he should be in between 6:15-6:45 p.m.) we pass the time clapping, cheering and talking about everything from the oddities of online dating to the hilarity of the The Gospel According to Biff.

As the expectant time draws nearer, Meret heads closer to the trail where the runners first appear while I head to the end of the aid station to set up our gear. Sure enough, at 6:30 p.m. I hear cheering and look up to see Meret jumping with joy at the appearance of her man, who comes through strong and still smiling ear to ear.

Hot dog! I say to myself. He looks great!

Anything can happen in a hundo. Anything. In fact, the hundred mile race is the great equalizer. You can be the most prepared, most talented, most in-shape human being on the planet and still get struck down by nausea, or dehydration, or a busted limb. But Siamak comes through the 55 mile mark all smiles, absolutely loving life, and at this point I am certain he has the finish in the bag. It’s only a matter of time.

I laid down in the water before Devil’s Thumb. It was a little bit out of the way but it was worth it because it really brought my core temperature down, he tells us as he takes in some calories. We rush to fill his bottles.

Yes! Great job, I say. Plenty of people have come through here looking pretty rough. The heat is just terrible, I’m sure.

It’s so hot in those canyons.

I can only imagine.

At Forest Hill I’m going to change socks, he tells us. I’ll also need some Bodyglide and my head lamp.

Check, check and check. Meret and I make note, give him a nice, celebratory send off and then watch him as he disappears over the road horizon.

Forest Hill is less than a 7 mile run for him, so we have to book it. This means we have to skip over the long shuttle bus wait and instead hike all of our gear up a nasty hill as the 100+ degree sun continues to beat down on us. Hiking up with all this gear at elevation is making me breathe kinda hard, which sends my mind racing with doubt about my own abilities.

No! I tell myself. Focus. Time to FOCUS.

I put my head down and concentrate on what fun we’ll have running through the Sierra Nevadas at night.

Forest Hill, Mile 62

Meret and I arrive at Forest Hill and are greeted with rock star parking, directly across the street from the runner check-in station. With cell phone service now, I get online and update what I can while also casually skimming through the barrage of social media support for Siamak coming from our friends and family back home. The response to his journey is overwhelming. This community is full of love; and the out pour of affection streaming in from all across the country is just plain badass.

Still, I have a task at hand. I have to finish getting dressed, tape my nipples, lube up in the appropriate spots and make sure to hit the john before 8:15, approximately when I expect Siamak to roll in.

While coating my groin with Vaseline, I look up, embarrassed that I’ve been caught. But then I scratch my head. Um… Dave? I ask. Dave Mackey?

Hi, yeah. That’s me. I dropped.

I can’t really believe it. Dave Mackey, 2011 Ultrarunner of the Year Dave Mackey, was having a bad day and dropped at Forest Hill. And now he’s standing beside me while I slather Vaseline all over my balls.

A bit shy, I offer my standard reply to what I assume is a noble DNF: You live to fight another day.

He smiles and nods while jumping in the back of an SUV. As he drives off, I can’t help but think, on some level, us mid and back of the packers face an entirely different reality than the elites when it comes to ultrarunning. If they’re out of the front running and a fast time or podium is out of reach, it makes better sense for them to just drop rather than suffer on the rest of the way, causing more muscle damage and pushing back recovery time. For most of us though, finishing is all that counts. Finish. Run 100 miles. Just finish.

Lost in this contemplation, I think I hear the PA system announce Runner 293, Siamak Mostoufi, welcome to Forest Hill.

Huh? That can’t be right. It’s just past 8 o’clock–

OH NO! He’s here! They called his name! He’s here, yells a suddenly frantic Meret while moving quickly to grab the gear bags and cooler.

Oh shit! He’s running faster. Damn it, I wasn’t — okay, let’s just take it easy. For a few seconds I panic, but then, a deep breath later, I try to calm us both down. You grab everything and go across the street. I’ll be over in a few seconds.

Meret skips across the road carrying a ton of stuff while I slip on my Salomon water vest and try to prepare mentally for the next 38 miles at hand. I see Siamak now. I can’t keep him waiting. No time for that john stop. Just going to have to deal with that later.

In the Forest Hill Elementary School parking lot now, Siamak busies himself with a quick sock change while we prepare his amino powders, gels and head lamp. The sun is just going down and I figure we have about 40 minutes or so left of daylight.

Man, you really picked up the pace there from Michigan Bluff, I say. He replies with a big, fat smile — a pleasantly reoccurring theme for this particular adventure.

With everything gathered and both of us ready to head out, Siamak gives a goodbye kiss to his girl and we set out on the road leaving the school.

Forest Hill to Rucky Chucky, Miles 62-78

This is my current running pace, just so you know, he says as I excitedly stride alongside him.

Dude, I don’t care what your pace is, I’m with you no matter what. I can barely hide my giddiness, and this pace doesn’t feel slow at all. It feels like my friend has 62 miles in his legs and is still A BONA FIDE WARRIOR.

We traverse through a few neighborhoods on road and then drop down to the trail head, Siamak in front, me right behind him, which is his preference, especially on the downhill sections.

You wearing your hat regular or do you have it on backwards? he asks.

Backwards.

Midstride, in a monumental display of bro solidarity, Siamak turns his hat backwards to match mine. We are wearing the same one — our New Leaf club hats — and now I know this is going to be a fantastic, epic journey.

With that we begin the long, long descent out of Forest Hill.

And we’re flying. Fast. Maybe… too fast?

Man, I don’t know. If he’s feeling good I should just let him feel good and run, I think to myself, but as we continue to drop down, down, down, flying at pretty much top speed to start, I’m only a couple of miles in and my quads are already starting to ache.

Well, that’s too bad, Jeff, this is what you signed up for, I tell myself. If he can fly after running for 13+ hours, you can too.

Down, down, down we go, quad pain receptors extinguished.

We reach the Cal-1 aid station at 65.7 miles, but we don’t stay long. As we leave and get back into a constant, smooth running pace, it hits me. My gut.

Oh shit.

Literally.

Damnit! You should’ve gone before you left! I curse to myself. I was going to, I reply, again, to myself, but he showed up quicker than I thought and now (in my best Luke Skywalker voice) I’ve endangered the mission and I shouldn’t have come.

Negativity. Always a bitch when it comes to ultras!

Knowing as much, I grit my teeth and just concentrate on moving. One of these aid stations will have a john, or I’ll just pull over and do what I have to do. Ultras tend to break life down into its most simple tasks. Move one foot in front of the other, take care of “business”, etc.

The main thing right now is to keep this discomfort away from Siamak, so he can just concentrate on moving, without worrying about me. He’s moving great. In fact, he’s moving SPLENDIDLY! We are taking advantage of the free speed offered to us by gravity, running constant on the flats and power hiking all the ups.

Siamak isn’t much of a trail talker, which I already knew coming into this, having run with him on trails before, so at least I don’t have to say too much while I quietly beg the gastrointestinal baby in my stomach to please calm down.

At Cal 3, Mile 73, I take care of business, and much to my relief, I am a new man.

LET’S ROCK THIS THING!

Heading out towards Rucky Chucky, Siamak and I talk about the 24 hour goal, which, because of the intense heat of the canyons earlier in the day, pretty much seems impossible now. We’re more than an hour behind the 24 hour cut-off, and fatigue is starting to set in.

But I still have a chance to PR, he says quite excitedly. That would be pretty cool to PR at Western States.

Indeed it would, I note to myself. Siamak’s PR, or personal record, at the 100 mile distance came at The Pinhoti 100 back in November. His time then was 24 hours, 56 minutes. And he did that with no pacer, all alone in the night, fighting by himself those last 20 miles.

If Siamak is anything, I told Meret earlier in the day, he is one tough dude.

If we are close, I’m going to get him that PR, I tell myself. It’s a done deal.

For now, I say out loud, let’s just keep doing what we’re doing. Moving steady, running downs and flats, hiking with a purpose on the ups.

And boom! Here we are at Rucky Chucky, the nearside of the river, mile 78.

Meret greets us with the same exuberance and attentiveness she has displayed all day and night. In fact, I’ve been running enough miles this evening now to let my emotional guard down, and I feel the hair stand up as I watch her move, eager to help us in whatever way possible, as fast as she can.

This is her FIRST time crewing! Wow! She’s kicking some major butt!

AND she is wearing a green hoodie that she created bearing the words: SIAMAK ATTACK. Um… somebody get this gal her Girlfriend-of-the-Year Award.

Siamak sees it and does all he can to hide that he’s blushing.

We waste very little time getting what we need here as we say goodbye and focus on the river in front of us. Waiting to assist us in the river crossing are a handful of dry suit donning volunteers who do a fantastic job of telling us where to put our feet as to avoid the most slippery and dangerous of rocks hiding underneath. The air temperature is still in the mid 80s, but boy is this water COOOOOOOOOOOLD!

Siamak is in front of me, shivering quite hard. Just keep moving, I say. Just keep moving til we get to the other side.

Once we do, it is evident that he has a strong case of the shivers. An aid station attendant gets him some hot soup as Siamak and I both decide it’s not worth it to stop and change our shoes and socks here like we had originally planned. I’m afraid if he sits down for more than a few minutes — and let’s face it, changing footwear at this point of the game would require more than a few minutes — he won’t be able to get back up and move like he was moving just before we crossed.

We have quite a big climb to tackle coming out of Rucky Chucky, so we put our heads down and power on up, keeping our legs moving to bring the warmth back into our bodies.

Rucky Chucky to Highway 49, Miles 78.1 to 93.5

We may be power hiking, but we are doing it with a purpose. And up to now, we’ve done nothing else but pass people on the trail. Lots of people. We have passed men. We’ve passed women. We’ve passed people doing the zombie walk. And we even passed the legendary, 14-time Western States Champion, Ann Trason! (Ann was pacing someone rather than running her own race, so this accolade is a bit of a stretch, but still, how many times can one say we passed Ann Trason!?)

Of course, all of this moving up in the overall rankings during the overnight hours is a clear testament to Siamak’s smart first half race strategy of staying within himself, taking it easy during the hottest parts of the day, and taking every opportunity given to lay down in the cool waters to drop his core temperature.

He’s hurting a little bit now, but like in any ultra, it’s coming in waves and he is doing what he can to fight through. After each alarm on his watch goes off, I remind him to eat, to drink, to take salt. We keep running the downs and flats, power hiking the ups. We continue to pass people.

When the occasional runner and his pacer creeps up behind us, a fire is lit under Siamak’s feet and he moves just a little bit faster.

They can pass us, he says, that’s cool. But not for free, he adds, turning on the jets.

Hell to the yeah. This is what it’s all about!

In fact, we take the time to talk about it — how ultrarunning seems to break life down into just one single task: move one foot in front of the other. Nothing seems so hard when all you’re asking yourself to do is move one foot in front of the other. I think we’re both in that emotional guard let down phase as we explore this theme. But hell, it isn’t the first time we’ve waxed this poetic. It surely won’t be the last.

When we get to Auburn Lake Trails (mile 85.2) the aid station staff immediately grab him for a mandatory weigh-in while I hurry to refill my pack. While doing so, a volunteer approaches and puts his hand on my shoulder asking, How’s your runner doing? He looks a little dry. Is he drinking?

Absolutely, I reply. He’s dumping cold water on himself too. It’s pretty dry out there, but I assure you he’s hydrating.

Satisfied with my response, the medical volunteer moves along and I reconnect with Siamak as we head out towards Brown’s Bar. As we surpass the 85.2 mile marker, we both revel in how professional and on-top-of-it these aid stations and their volunteers are.

The minute you step into the checkpoint, someone is there to greet you and they don’t leave your side until you have been totally taken care of and are on your way.

That’s how you do an aid station, I remark. Before I can say much more, Siamak takes off and I follow right behind, passing more folks with an assortment of bad conditions along the way. Some are puking. Some are on the side of the trail, hands over knees, resting. Some are barely moving.

We are moving just fine. In fact, we are moving so well that I give Siamak our estimated time of arrival for Brown’s Bar based on our current average of 4.5 to 5 miles per hour.

Say that again? he asks. I comply. And boom! It’s off to the races. AGAIN!

Holy shit!

Siamak takes off flying, utilizing gravity as much as he can.

Was it something I said? Why is he running so fast now? I don’t really know, and I can hardly find the breath to ask so I just dig deep and hold on.

We reach Brown’s Bar (mile 89.9) just after 3 a.m. and know that it’s just a Wednesday night group run distance now to the finish. We have 1 hour and 50 minutes to cover 10 miles. We can do that and break 24 hours. Right?

I hurriedly check the posted 24 hour cutoff times and to my dismay, we’re still an hour behind.

Why? How can this be? I ask, somewhat to myself but loud enough that a volunteer hears me.

You got two really big climbs to go yet, that’s why, the volunteer says with a consoling smile and a wickedly braided goatee.

Siamak and I share a moment of disappointment knowing today won’t be a silver buckle day. But this brief impasse is intercepted by the goatee’d gentleman’s sage words of encouragement:

You know what they told me when I got to No Hands Bridge last year? he asks. They looked me in the eye and said: Today… you’re going to finish Western States!

This hardass with the braided goatee might as well be Confucius himself because that is EXACTLY what Siamak and I need to hear, right this minute!

YES! I scream. YES! THAT’S WHAT I’M TALKIN’ ABOUT, MAN!

Siamak is going to be a Western States finisher today. And I will be his wingman.

As we exit Brown’s Bar on our way to Highway 49, I remind him: We can still go for that PR. Let’s see where we are at Highway 49 and go from there.

He agrees and off we go, a bit reined in now compared to our effort from Auburn Lake Trails, but determined nonetheless.

At Highway 49 I know Meret is waiting for us, and with her are two cans of Red Bull and a bottle of ibuprofen. I check my watch. We might have a chance. We just might have a chance for that PR.

Highway 49 to Robie Point, Miles 93.5 to 98.9

We reach Highway 49 at roughly 4:20 a.m., greeted by raucous cowbells and animated cheers from the kind of strangers I would like to spend a whole lifetime with. After all, it is the people that make these sorts of events so special. Tonight is no different. In fact, a volunteer hands me some bacon and I’m suddenly in heaven while Siamak gravitates towards his own version of heaven in the form of Meret, Red Bull and ibuprofen.

I will have some too, I declare. Ordinarily, the Flintstone vitamin taste of Red Bull turns me off completely, but when tired from the trail just before dawn, there’s no better stay-alert cocktail than NSAIDS and a Red Bull chaser. I am aware of the risks involved with using anti-inflammatories during long efforts like these, but since I can count on one hand the times I actually take ibuprofen in any given year, I feel like the time is now. Besides, we still have work to do.

Next time we see you will be at the finish, Siamak says to Meret with one last kiss goodbye. All three of us are ready for that moment. No doubt.

We exit Highway 49 and enjoy a nice steady drop in elevation down towards No Hands Bridge. I keep checking my watch, calculating splits in my head. I know that if we get to No Hands Bridge by 5:15 or so we will have a fighting chance to break his personal best time. It’s going to be a fight, IF we can even get there with a couple of big climbs to go still, but it’s a fight I’m willing to lead.

We cruise down for about three miles before tackling a big, steep incline. We continue to move forward, with a purpose, passing people along the way. We crest the top and then go down, down, down again, picking up speed.

The sun is coming out as we approach No Hand’s Bridge. Siamak, you good on water? If so, let’s just blow through this aid station, no stops till the finish.

Having left his vest back with Meret, and feeling a bit lighter now, he confidently replies: I’m good with that.

We come into No Hand’s Bridge and fly right on by to the cheers of aid station personnel impressed by this late-race push. We make the turn, crossing the bridge and I switch on the GPS function on my Garmin watch.

Take a look around, Siamak says as my Garmin frantically searches for a signal. All around me is the infinite wonder and beauty of nature — a sight so glorious and perfect for my purposeful demeanor that I get those damn goosebumps all over again. My watch says 5:15 a.m.

Time to go to work.

Without saying anything I instinctively pull ahead of Siamak, leaving a good 10-20 yards between us.

Just stick with me, man. Keep your eyes on me. Just stick with me.

I’m getting him that PR today, or I’m gonna waste us both trying.

I look back to make sure he’s still there. Not only is he there, but his face has now gone a bit white, his mouth hangs open, and it’s quite clear that he’s giving all he’s got. My man. DIG DEEP, SIAMAK. This is what it’s all about.

He won’t say another word to me until the finish line.

We have to run fast here on this flat and slightly downhill section. We have to bank time, I tell him, because we still have the climb into Robie Point and then one more long climb in Auburn.

We have less than 40 minutes to do it. We’re running 8:30 pace right now. I hope I’m not killing him.

I look back every thirty seconds or so to make sure, but it’s difficult to tell. The faces he is making aren’t pleasant, but hell, he’s been running for over 24 hours now and I’m pretty sure nobody looks good after doing that.

Use your arms, I direct. Pump your arms and your legs will follow.

Concentrate on quick turnover, I continue. Dig deep, deep within yourself. You can do it. I know you can do it.

I do know he can do it, but holy Sierra Nevadas I’m pushing him hard.

Just hold on to me, Siamak. Keep chasing after me.

We hit the bottom of the climb up to Robie point and I know we can’t slack now. Time is not on our side. Gotta keep moving.

Power hike with a purpose, Siamak. Lean into it. Use your arms, keep your head down and move with a purpose.

He is doing the best he can, but I know it’s tough. Still, we have to try.

The climb up to Robie Point seems to take FOREVER. I look at my watch: 5:40 a.m. Damn, I don’t know if we can–

And then, I hear it: I hear cowbells. And cheers. Not far in the distance.

Come on, Siamak, pump those arms we’re almost there!

We turn a corner on a switchback and above us are some friendly volunteers with pitchers of ice cold water approaching.

Hello, welcome to Robie Point. Can I get you anything?

Yes! Please pour some water on my friend back there, I say pointing back towards Siamak, who is giving it all he’s got to power hike with a purpose up the never ending, dirt incline.

How about you? the friendly man asks as his fellow volunteer rushes towards Siamak, ice cold water pitcher out and ready to go.

Yes, please, pour some water right here, I say, pointing to the nape of my neck. HOLY EFFING SHIT THAT FEELS AMAZING. I look back and Siamak is chugging water straight out of the pitcher. Good man. No time to fill your water bottle anyway. We got a PR to chase! I say to myself.

Cooled off and hydrated, the two of us crest the climb and are dumped out on a road. A ROAD! MY GOODNESS WE’RE ALMOST THERE!

But we gotta move, gotta book it, can’t waste any time!

We are running at a mighty quick and focused clip now, which is why it takes me a few seconds to even notice Meret is now running alongside us. Wow! Hi, Meret! I say before moving back into the lead position, that dangling carrot to coax Siamak’s ultimate triumph.

Thirty seconds go by before I look back to see Siamak is staying close on my heels, still carrying the face of death. But Meret… Meret has dropped back. And she’s… I think she’s crying. Oh no!

We’ve dropped Meret. Here we are, the two of us with 136 miles in our legs combined and we’re dropping Meret. She is clearly upset.

Don’t worry, Meret. Just meet us at the track, I offer. We’re chasing a time right now. It’s nothing personal. We’ll see you at the track. Take the shortcut!

I don’t know if there is a shortcut, or, if there is, where or what it is, but it sounds like the only good thing I can say right now to console her. She obviously meant well to run it in with us to the finish; and if we weren’t chasing this time we totally would, but this is too important and one’s opportunity to do something this badass is rarely available, so we have no choice but to soldier on now and explain later.

Judging from Siamak’s determined stride and ghastly white gaze, he’s in it to win it.

Just stick with me, Siamak. Pump those arms. Dig deep, my brother! It may hurt now but it will feel SO good for SO long after. I promise.

We hit more incline and power up, up, up. It’s hard. Oh is it so hard! But we are almost there and we don’t have any time to spare.

FINALLY, we reach the top of the last climb and now we are going downhill.

Use that free speed, Siamak! Pump those arms.

I can hear the PA announcer.

I can. I can hear it close by. I can also hear and see the folks waiting and cheering us on the street, obviously wowed by our late race effort.

As I admire it all, I notice Siamak is now beside me. HELL YEAH, BROTHER! I scream. HELL YEAH!

We hit the bottom of the hill, make a turn and THERE is the track entrance. I look at my watch and hope that mine is synced correctly to the race clock because a mere 30 seconds off will derail this entire effort and make me have to explain why I just wasted my runner for the last 4 miles.

No matter what, we’re here now. And we’re RACING IT IN!!!

I lead as we come into the track then I immediately direct him to take the inside lane. No use adding extra distance at this point. Upon entering I hear the PA announcer call out his name to the cheers of people nestled tightly in their seats, eager to watch the last 300 meters of what can only be called a VALIANT finish.

We hit the turn, I see the clock. 24:55:20… 24:55:21… 24:55:22…

We did it. WE DID IT!

SIAMAK DID IT!

DUDE, I scream, YOU DID IT! THIS IS A PR, BABY! SOAK IT UP! OH MY GOD WE DID IT! YES! YES! YES! THIS IS HOW YOU FINISH A HUNDO!!!

I completely lose myself in my own screaming and my own elated state of emotions. I let him take the lead and cross the finish line, victorious, while I do all I can to reel in my complete and utter ecstasy.

Turns out I can’t. But no one cares. To prove it, watch this video of his finish.

Siamak just ran 100.2 miles of the Western States trail in 24 hours, 55 minutes, 57 seconds, setting a new personal best and proving to me and the rest of the world what I already know: he is one tough, dedicated, brave man who knows only one way. And that way is giving it his all.

He collapses backward into my arms and smiles the biggest damn smile I’ve ever seen.

Post-Race

Meret found us about a minute after we crossed the line. She was in tears, but those tears quickly faded once she was in her man’s arms, celebrating with him his champion achievement.

We couldn’t have done it without her and her introduction to the world of ultrarunning was as exciting as it was epic. Siamak was right that her conscientious character would play out, in a variety of ways, from getting us the supplies we needed when we needed them to finding a way — a shortcut that is — of getting to the track by flagging down the help of a kind Robie Point stranger who didn’t think twice about giving her a ride. That’s thinking quick on your feet.

And when it comes to quick feet, Siamak proved you can still run as fast as 6 minute pace, even with 100 miles in your legs. Here is the Garmin profile for those heroic last 3.65 miles — some of the greatest running of my whole life thus far.

The truth is, running these trails, taking part in these adventures, spending time with the kind of people you meet through it all… it just keeps getting better. Each effort is more and more meaningful.

Right now, the 2013 Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, is at the top of those experiences for me. Running is the Moore’s Law of my life, which means that from here on out, things will only get better.

Then, they’ll get better than better, before they’ll get even better than that!!!

THIS is living the high life. And for me, there’s no other way to live.

Siamak, all smiles at the finish.

Siamak, all smiles at the finish.

*From El Dorado Creek (Mile 52.9) to the finish, Siamak passed over 70 people, moving from 176th place to 106th by the end. He was passed by three people during the night. We caught one of them with a mile to go.


A Whole Lot of Hellified(?) Fun: The 2013 Wholly Hell 15k Race Report

(Image courtesy of Muddy Monk)

(Image courtesy of Muddy Monk)

“This race is worth it for the logo alone,” said my pal, Brandt as he held up the devil-horned, mud-splattered, red silhouette of the iconic Muddy Monk on a field of black.

We were getting ready to toe the line at the Wholly Hell 15k, a nice middle distance trail race put on by Art Boulet and his Muddy Monk trail race series.

“Yeah, it’s not every day you see a monk with horns like that,” I replied, eager to throw down 9+ miles so I could get to finish line and guzzle a few Finch’s beers — my ultimate target for the day.  In fact, the finish line feel at all of the Muddy Monk races is pretty spectacular: good beer, good food and most of all, good people.

It wasn’t long ago that I was yearning for some sort of trail running entity to take over the Chicagoland area — some sort of portal to the trailrunning world that didn’t require a minimum of 31 miles on your feet.  Sure, 5ks and half marathons take up plenty of space on the CARA race calendar, but what about short and middle distance trail races?  What about some options for those of us who like to get our running buzz on with a side of mud and a dash of DEET?

Enter Art Boulet and the Muddy Monk.

I met Art at the USOLE Trail Challenge last fall while hanging out with my ultrarunning friends.  A few weeks later a few of us volunteered at his Schiller Thriller 5k — a nice 3.1 mile trail run on what was for me a previously unknown trail system on the west side of Chicago.  Seeing how well received the race was, especially by those new to the trailrunning community, I decided I had to start showing up at more of these.

The Wholly Hell 15k at Palos’ Swallow Cliffs looked like an ideal race to run.

Even though I consider the Swallow Cliffs trails to be a home game venue for me, I was really surprised at how much single track was there, previously unbeknownst to me.  The course had us on and off the crushed limestone multi-track that I am familiar with, but a good chunk of the race was also on heavily canopied, luscious green single track, with plenty of opportunities to get dirty.

And get dirty I did!

I ran the whole race with my friend, Brandt, and our main goal was to beat Peter Sagal, host of Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me on NPR.  This goal had no malicious roots at all; it was merely a better alternative to saying “I got beat by Peter Sagal”, something I have also said before.  In retrospect, I now know that both statements sound pretty cool to my fellow NPR nerd friends.

I first met Mr. Sagal at the USOLE race last fall, and again at the Paleozoic 25k.  When I saw he would be running the Wholly Hell 15k, I told Brandt we had to keep him in our sights.

Unfortunately for us, Sagal took off super quick and I didn’t think we would have a chance to catch him…

Until we did with just a couple miles left to go.

In passing, we shared a few words about our experiences at the 2013 Boston Marathon (his riveting piece on his day is well worth a read) before Brandt and I took off at our own steady 7:40ish pace.

With the finish line in sight, Brandt and I had a good sprint to the finish in just over one hour, eleven minutes.  Then we immediately headed to the finish line for Finch’s beer, extended sunshine and good conversation with the many new friends we made.

wholly hell 15k photo finish

(Image courtesy of Muddy Monk)

Whether you are a road runner curious on mixing some more nature into your workouts or a veteran trail ultra runner looking for  some shorter distance options, the Muddy Monk trail running series is your ticket to exploring all that hides under the forested canopy Chicagoland can offer.

And did I mention there was good beer?

(Image courtesy of brewsandbeyond.blogspot.com)

(Image courtesy of brewsandbeyond.blogspot.com)


Purposeful Pacing: Some Thoughts on Getting Your Runner to the Finish Line

Hanging with Jen at the Kettle Moraine 100 finish line. (Image courtesy of Martha Manzo-Walker)

Hanging with Jen at the Kettle Moraine 100 finish line. (Image courtesy of Martha Manzo-Walker)

It’s been over 72 hours now since I watched Jen Birkner cross the finish line at the Kettle Moraine 100 Mile Endurance Run, and the smile her accomplishment put on my face still stretches proudly across my cheeks.

What.

A.

Performance!

Jen overcame the intense morning humidity, the marshy sauna of the meadows and over 50 miles of macerated, blistering feet to still cross the finish line like a champ, proving once again that the ultimate test of one’s abilities is the strength of his or her thoughts.  Her achievement was mind over matter, relentless forward progress at its best.

And I couldn’t be more proud.

Jen’s accomplishment also makes me a perfect 3-for-3 in 100 mile pacing duties.  And in each case, getting my runner to the finish line has required a great deal of focused energy and thoughtful preparation.  Pacing gig number four is coming up at the end of the month as I pick up Siamak for the last 38 miles of his epic adventure on the grandest ultrarunning stage of them all — The Western States 100 —  and thinking about what it takes to be a good pacer, I thought I would share some basic ideas that have helped me fulfill my duties thus far.

In no particular order, they are:

KNOW Your Runner
Before pacing someone, you should know if he or she prefers you run in front or back, if she likes to talk or keep quiet, if he wants to power hike the hills or charge right up them.  You should know how she fuels.  You should know what he expects out of you.  There should be no surprises.  Communication is key, and I would consider being able to read body language and emotion an essential element to that communication.

Be Comfortable Knowing This Is Not YOUR Race
Your own wants/needs/dreams have no place in your role as pacer.  This is your runner’s race, and the pacer serves best as a shadow of his runner — a very cool, strong, receptive and determined shadow, of course.

Talk to People Who Have Paced Before
What better way to know what you are getting yourself into than to ask those who have already had the experience?  In the lead-up to all my pacing, I have made it a point to pick the brains of those who have already succeeded in such a role.  Race specificity is key too.  Talk to those who have already run the course.  Know what to expect ahead of time.

Know/Study the Course
Though this seems obvious, I mention it still because there are going to be times when the pacer must be the voice of reason for a super-tired runner, and if he or she knows all that the course will throw one’s way, this makes those future decisions just that much more informed.

Go Over the Game Plan with Your Runner BEFOREHAND
Really take the time to sit down with your runner and discuss his or her goals before the race.  I think it’s important to know what he or she is thinking, what direction she wants to go.  Remember, as a pacer, this isn’t your race.  It’s your runner’s race, and his or her game plan is what needs to be followed.  Knowing the A goals from the B and C goals will also help you make important decisions during the race that the runner may need some encouragement and/or help making herself.

Be Prepared for Whatever Nature Throws Your Way
At Kettle, for example, we knew that thunderstorms were a likely scenario.  Though they never came, Jen and I discussed beforehand what we would do in the event of a thunderstorm.  We talked about visualizing that situation, so that if it did happen, we would be ready for it and it would not get us down.

Eschew Negativity
I liken this concept to the “rule of positivity” my friends and I used to practice back in our youthful *ahem* partying days.  Nothing kills a buzz (running or dance club induced) quite like negative thoughts.  Even when your runner is in a bad spot — and he likely will be at some point during a hundred mile race — try to focus on the positive as much as possible and leave negative thoughts for another time and place.

Think Before You Speak
This goes along with the previous point, but it is important enough to be singled out alone.  People can interpret things in different ways, so before I say anything to my runner I try to imagine how she might hear what I’m saying.  If anything I might say could be interpreted as a negative thought, I keep it to myself.

Know How to Do Split Math In Your Head
Have a watch.  Pay attention to what time you leave each aid station.  Be prepared to throw out split times, estimated arrival times and cut-off times so your runner can concentrate on just running and not have to fuss with calculations.

I got jokes with Jen at Bluff Road during the Kettle Moraine 100. (Image courtesy of Kelly Gaines)

I got jokes for Jen at Bluff Road during the Kettle Moraine 100. (Image courtesy of Kelly Gaines)

You Are Not Allowed to Hurt, Not Allowed to Complain
Your feet might ache.  You might have a blister.  You might have a chapped ass.  That’s fine.  Just don’t say anything about it.  As a pacer, and following the “no negativity” rule, I think it’s best that you leave your own issues out of any conversation.

Get Plenty of Rest
Especially if you are going to be running overnight, I highly recommend you sleep as much during the day as possible so you are alert and thinking clearly during the hardest late night/early morning hours.

Monitor Your Runner’s Fueling
Ultimately, I think it is up to the runner to fuel himself properly, but it doesn’t hurt to monitor it as a backup, especially as the late hours and extended fatigue set in.  A bonky runner is an unhappy runner, so it’s best to just avoid that altogether.

Keep Aid Station Stops Short and Efficient
It is quite easy to dabble at an aid station.  A lot of time can be lost.  When my runner and I are approaching an aid station, I make sure to go over everything we need and everything we need to do, out loud, so once we get there we’re not standing around scratching our heads.  Apply Bodyglide, change socks, eat something… knowing what to do beforehand will make the stops quick and efficient.

Know the Basics of Foot Care
Having a good idea of how to treat battered, blistered, macerated feet will come in handy.  Check out Fixing Your Feet for all the gnarly details.

Carry an Emergency Gel or Two
Ya just never know when you’re gonna need it.  I also carry extra batteries, Ginger Chews and salt tabs.

Be Prepared for the Bad Patches and Fight Them with Simple Goals and Positivity
Inevitably, bad spots are going to come.  It’s a hundred-friggin-miles, man!  Just know that they are coming and be ready to fight them back with short, simple goals.  Just getting to the next aid station is a classic cue that really works and keeps the focus on something doable when the rest of the race may seem overwhelming.  I have found that it also helps to point out all the great things my runner has accomplished up to that point so that she has some positivity to fuel off of when things get tough.

Know When to Stretch the Truth
I don’t ever lie to my runner, but when she asks “How far to the next aid station?”, I will construct an illusion of truth by replying with a time range that offers hope, even if part of it is impossible.  Oh, we’re about 10-20 minutes away, I will say, knowing that the low range is impossible.  I think it just helps the runner to hear a low number when that is what he wants to hear, even if he doesn’t know it.

Be Your Runner’s Biggest Fan
Your runner needs you.  That’s why you’re there.  Take care of her.  Encourage him.  Do whatever it takes (and you should know this by already knowing your runner) to get her to keep moving one foot in front of the other.  And if you need something to motivate you as pacer, let me tell you:

OH HOW SWEET IT IS to watch her cross the finish line knowing you had a role in her success!

Of course, I do not consider the above collection of notes to be the all encompassing way to go about pacing, but the tips I offer have all worked well for me.  If you have anything to add, please feel free to drop a line in the comments section.

Happy pacing!


Make It Up As You Go Along and Just Be Happy That You Can

(image courtesy of http://www.voyageur50.com)

(image courtesy of http://www.voyageur50.com)

In racing, in training, in LIFE, sometimes you plan everything out perfectly only to have everything fall apart.  This is something that used to drive me crazy when I was younger dumber.  Not being able to control things and not having my carefully laid plans come to fruition was such a struggle for me and I have the salt and pepper hair to prove it.

Thankfully, I have since given up that fight.  Sure, I’m a work in progress, but I am concentrating on being mindful of my shortcomings — control being one of the biggest — and I’m finding this awareness to be a quick and healthy solution to managing the stress and fear that tends to accompany not being in control.

As Chinua Achebe (and The Roots) once told us: things fall apart.

Get used to it!

And besides, I have found that life is so much more enjoyable when I just let it come to me and experience it in the present tense, right now.  Running certainly taught me that.  Looking at myself and my actions from an outsider’s perspective taught me that too.

So when my big plans to race the Christmas in July 12-hour timed event this July fell through recently (for several reasons, I’m guessing mostly permit related at this point), I let myself be upset for about five seconds before I hopped on the interwebs and started looking for another event to fill the void.

Found it!

The Minnesota Voyageur 50 Mile Trail Ultramarathon.

I’m sure my butt will hurt just the same traversing through lush Minnesota forest as it would running in circles around a municipal park.  So it’s time to keep pushing on with the training towards my goal of scootin’ up and down those power lines!


Lux Aeterna and Oreos: The 2013 Ice Age Trail 50k Race Report

ice age trailheadLast year, the Ice Age Trail was home to a most glorious running experience.  It was such a memorable event that I was absolutely adamant about coming back.  But when it came time to register, an injury-laden winter and the knowledge that I would be fresh off a challenging Boston Marathon made me bump down to the 50k option.

On May 11, 2013, I ran the Ice Age Trail 50k — a challenging yet highly runnable course and now all I can think about is running it again in 2014.  This is my story…

Pre-Race

It’s 4:15 a.m. and my alarm sounds off along with my buddy Siamak’s.  The unison doesn’t last long as we are both wide awake.  In fact, I’ve been tossing and turning all night long and just happy to be fully awake now, ready to get the day started.

My off-and-on sleep was the result of the warm hotel room and a subliminal tick infestation planted in my brain by our waitress at Sperino’s the night before.  She warned us that “the ticks were bad”.  Indeed, I was tick-incepted by an Elkhornian and I didn’t get much sleep because I was more worried about the invisible critters sucking on my blood than traversing 31 miles of trail.

Still, I feel pretty fresh now that I’m awake.  Siamak and I eat, go through our respective rituals of preparation, and by 5:10 we are in the car, driving to the start line.

As expected, the start/finish area at John Muir is a who’s who of familiar, crazy runner folk.  Even though the majority of the people stirring about are running the 50 mile race, which begins at 6:00 a.m., I am glad I am here among the crowd because I won’t see most of them again until much later in the day.

The New Leafers and MUDDers are out in full force.  I exchange in many a hug and high-five.  At 6 a.m. sharp, the RD sends the 50 milers on their way.  I head back to the car for a much needed nap.

7:45 a.m.

My alarm wakes me from what was a fitting 90 minute nap (or was I meditating just now?) and I feel fantastic.  I grab the gear I’m going to need (a handheld water bottle, gloves and a cap), I lube up where necessary (this is becoming automatic nowadays) and I head over to the start line.  Here I run into two other recurring Run Factory faces, Dan and Otter.  This is the first ultra distance race for both of them so I remind them to ENJOY the experience, have fun, take a look around.  They both look pumped.  I’m excited for them and can’t wait to hear about their experiences once this is all done.

Me, Dan and Otter at the start line of the 2013 Ice Age Trail 50k.

Me, Dan and Otter at the start line of the 2013 Ice Age Trail 50k.

We cheer on our friends in the 50 miler coming through the 9 mile mark at the start/finish line before the race director corrals all the 50k runners and tells us to get on our marks… set…

Miles 1-13, Out to Horseriders and Back

Here we go!  The start line energy is high as I take off, trying to remind myself that ultras require pacing.  Hell, all races require pacing!  It’s just that the longer the distance, the less I tend to adhere to that important nugget of truth.  Take it easy, Jeff, take it easy, I tell myself.  We got a long way to go.

But, as we start to cruise the luscious single track, it isn’t long before we hit the first series of downhills and I… Simply.  Can’t.  Help myself.

I feel great.  I feel strong.  I feel like flying.

WEEEEEEE!!!

Yep.  I’m doing this.  I shouldn’t be, but I am.  I am definitely FLYING down these hills.  I’m power hiking up them, but I am flying down.  Fast.  Too fast.  I know this.  I know this!  But I’m also loving every second of it and am willing to deal with the repercussions later, if they come (they do).

As I pump my arms, tilt my pelvis forward and allow my heels to kick me in the butt on the descent, I think of all the reasons why I should check my ambition right now:

  • Limited weekly mileage (no more than 35 per week) since January
  • This first 13 mile section is all rocks and roots, quite technical and hard on my unseasoned feet compared to the easier Nordic sections coming up
  • I’ve run on trails just ONCE since November and it was only for 25k
  • I have only run more than 20 miles in one shot ONE TIME since October and that was at the Boston Marathon, just a few weeks ago
  • I have too much energy exploding through my being unchecked for this to end well

I internalize all of the above, and then, like a lot of ultra freaks, I quickly disregard everything and decide to just have fun.

I’ll fly when I wanna fly, walk when I wanna walk.

Later I will also walk when I don’t want to walk, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Right now I’m four miles in and the field has finally spread out.  I’m marveling at the lush green landscape, the twisting turns of the trail and the pesky pricks of the rocks under my feet.  Every two seconds I also check for ticks.  Damn you, lucid dream inspiring Sperino’s waitress! 

Suddenly, two strong fellas are right on my tail, so much so that I look back and offer them open passage on my left.

No, we’re good, the one in front replies.  This is a good pace for us.

Cool, I reply.  I like to let ‘er rip on the downs.  I’ll be power hiking the ups.

They fall right into place and suddenly we are one.  Down, down, down.  Up, up, up.  Their names are Tim and Mike.  This is their first ultra.  They are having a blast.

And they are pretty darn quick too.  Turns out one of them (sorry, I can’t remember which because they’re both behind me while we talk) is a Nike Pace Team leader who led the 3:25 pace group at the 2012 Chicago Marathon.

Do you know Chris?  He was my pace leader for the 3:05 group, had a California-bro accent of sorts.

Yes, I know Chris. 

Boom.  We are all instantly connected.  That was the best run of my life so far and I spend the next couple of miles rehashing the experience.  I get all jazzed, talking about fast marathons.  I seem to forget about pacing all together.  And when I find out they know another friend of mine, John from Grayslake, another Nike Pace Team leader, I get all bubbly telling them about some of our prior ultra battles (ED50k and Howl most notably).

Before I know it we are seeing the 50k leaders coming back towards us, approximately half a mile from the turnaround at Horseriders.  We all marvel at their speed, speak fondly of their poise.

It’s one thing to run fast.  It’s another to run fast on elevating, technical terrain.

We get to Horseriders.  It’s just the three of us and the aid station crew.  We chow down on some peanut butter and jelly.  A minute or two goes by and we are just eating and stretching, drinking and breathing.  But standing around too long in this chill is not comfortable so it’s time to go.  After all, it’s barely 50 degrees and the sky is cloudy — very, very cloudy.

The three of us take off back into the woods, but we aren’t a half mile back in before I realize they are going way faster than me up the hills and there’s no way I can keep up.  I tip my cap and wish them the best.  It’s going to be a long day yet.

Still, the next several miles present A LOT of smiles because I get to see all my friends passing the other direction.  As I scream down the hills I high-five and fist bump lots of folks, Dan and Otter included.  Everyone is looking good.  Everyone is smiling.

There’s no place I’d rather be right now.  THIS is the life!

I’m past 1o miles now and I won’t be seeing anyone else on this out-and-back section.  The next sign of human life will be at the start/finish line.

Hmm… I wonder if they have Oreos.  I could really go for some Oreos right now.

And just like that, my OCD kicks in and all I can think about are OREOS OREOS OREOS.  Such are the strange fixations of an ultra-distance race.  In my every day life I wouldn’t touch an Oreo cookie.  A drop of soda does not touch my mouth.  I make it a point to eat clean — very, very clean.  But throw me on a beautiful, wooded trail for hours on end and suddenly I will devour all processed foods and binge on soda pop.  Like a boss.

I get to the start/finish.  They have Oreos.

Hallelujah.

Miles 13-22, 1st Nordic Loop

It was nice to see some people at the start/finish line but I got a lot of work to do yet so off I go, back into solitary run mode.

Just a couple of miles in and I realize how much easier the Nordic loop is compared to the one I just finished.  Instead of technical, rocky, rooted, up and down terrain, what we have here is a lot of flat, grassy ski trail.  I should be able to fly through this.

SHOULD.  Of course, I can’t right now because I beat myself up during the first 13, flying downhill like I was a mountain goat or Killian Jornet.  Clearly, I am neither, as my quads and now achy heels can attest.

I am 16 miles in and anxiously looking for some hills.

Where are the hills?  My legs hurt and I want to walk.  Can I have a hill please?

No one can hear me.  I’m all by myself.  I have been all by myself since mile 8 so if I stop and walk, surely no one will see me.

A little bit of walking is allowed.  Right?

I turn the corner and I see a HILL!  I sprint towards it — OUCH — get to the base, and power hike up that baby.

For no good reason at all, Mozart’s Requiem pops into my head.  Lux Aeterna, the last movement where Wolfy takes us from the world of the living to the world of the dead, blasts through my ears.

Why, brain?  What are you trying to tell me? 

Oh boy.  I am tired.

While the IT band is just fine, my right hip starts to ache.  I’ve had this ache before.  It feels like bursitis.  I stop and stretch.  I massage it with my right thumb.  Doing so makes it feel better.  But as I stretch I notice the bottoms of my feet are sore too, probably from all the pounding during the first loop.  I wiggle my toes around… and yep, just as I thought, definitely got some nails loose.

Oh well!  What’s an ultra without losing some toenails?!?

REQUIEM, sings the choir.

Hey, finally some company, says a voice behind me.

I turn around and amazingly enough there is another human being!  I find out his name is Matt.  He’s from Wauwatosa and, of course, we know a lot of the same people from the running community.

As we marvel at how small the world really is, we also relax a little bit and find a nice cruising pace.  We are about 18 miles in now and I’m feeling pretty beat up.  Instead of complaining, I just hitch on to his heels and let the friendly conversation take us along.

Unfortunately for me though, Matt is much stronger right now and I have to dial back.  I know we are on sub-5 hour pace (which, for this course, is a fantastic time), but I just can’t sustain that right now.  I’m too tired.  When I stop to walk the hills it’s taking a lot more concentration than it should to contract my quads and I know it’s because I went out too fast.  I knew slogging along the second half could be the result of my eager start, but it’s way too late now.

A slog it is!  Might as well enjoy it.

…REQUIEM…

I complete the first Nordic loop, reach the start/finish aid station and all I want is Oreos.  Duh.

Nom nom nom…

Miles 22-31, 2nd Nordic Loop

Just 9 miles to go, I tell myself.  You could walk 9 miles.  In your sleep.  Speaking of sleep, check for ticks!

…REQUIEM…

No ticks, but my armpits are kinda chafed.

Oh what I would give for some Vaseline right now.

And just like that, as if Mother Nature confused “Vaseline” for “sunlight”, the clouds in the sky part on cue, revealing a glorious, GLORIOUS sun.

Take that, Mozart!  HALLELUJAH!

Sunlight, Vaseline, whatevs.  The sun is out!  The sun is out I tell you!

This picks me up as I try my best to run the entire first stretch of my second Nordic loop.  But the truth is, my run is more of a shuffle than anything right now.

Doesn’t matter.  Still moving.  Still having a blast.  And if I just keep moving, there will be more… Oreos!!!

Still, there isn’t much company.  There is a tall, skinny white guy with a Prefontaine mustache out here every once in a while cheering for me (and others I would assume).  Each time I see him I light up with a smile, and try to look as if I’m running strong (even though I’m not).

Next year we’re taking the first loop easy, then flying on the second and third.

Next year? I ask myself.

Yes, of course, next year, I reply to myself.  You’re doing Boston again next year, then you’re doing this 50k again.  It will be deja vu all over again, except less aches and pains.  Probably.  

Maybe.  

Hopefully.

Deal.  Just make sure there are plenty of Oreos.

The 27.2 mile aid station is an absolute oasis in the forest.  I devour what I can of those tasty, chocolatey, cream-filled treats.  I stretch a little.  And like I often do during long distance races, I find myself in a poignantly emotional state.  I take the time to thank the volunteers and gush about how grateful I am that they are all there.  I’ve been on both sides of the table now and volunteering is often harder than running the race.  Even though my butt hurts, my hip aches and my feet are sore, I am much happier to be less than 5 miles from being done.  These guys are still going to be here a while.

With the volunteers’ blessing and the bright sun in the sky urging me on, I take off on the last leg of my journey.  To get me to keep moving I focus on landmarks up ahead, urging myself to just run to that tree, then walk for a few seconds and get around that bend, then stretch for a bit.

After several exhausting rounds of this tortuously fun process, I see the Prefontaine ‘stache guy one last time and he tells me I’m less than a mile from the finish.

Please tell me there is beer, I plead.

Hell yeah, man!  Lots of beer!  Good beer too!

That’s all I needed to hear.  Suddenly my legs are fine and I’m flying again.

I hear a cow bell.  And voices.  And more Requiem.

There’s the finish line.

With a confident and incessant arm pump I cross the finish line in 5 hours 22 minutes and 11 seconds, sporting a big-ass smile and chafey armpits.

I couldn’t be much happier.

Post-Race

Besides the glorious trail running experience, the other main reason to run Ice Age is for the post-race party.  Lots of free beer.  The food is good.  And there’s nothing like sitting at the finish line cheering on your friends.  Most of my pals were running the 50 mile race, so to see them all come through in such epic fashion was a real cherry on top of my day.

Plus, my friend Moffat and I got the McHenry County Ultrarunning Dude and Dudettes’ mascot super drunk:

gerome the gnome

Like I already told myself:

See ya again next year, Ice Age!


Transitioning into Ultra-Drive

lone runner on a country road

Last fall I cut more than 12 minutes from my previous best marathon time.  Part of the reason for such improvement was due to increased core and leg strength.  The rest, I am convinced, was because of my glorious summer of ultras.

With such a strong base established, by the time August came around and I was ready to put in 10 solid weeks of specific marathon speed training, my endurance engine was so robust that 26.2 miles at 7-minute pace felt short — exactly what I needed to to run my fastest race.

This year I plan to do even better.  As I have proclaimed before: 2013 is the year I break 3 hours in the marathon.  I hope to do it at Chicago on October 13th.

And so it will be again, with great fervor (and more intelligent training, especially regarding rest/recovery time), that I embark on yet another sunny summer of ultrarunning.  Outside of the occasional fartlek, the next few months will feature mostly long and slow distance runs with a handful of short races thrown in for fun before tackling my summer target event: The Christmas in July 12 Hour Race, organized by my friends and fellow New Leaf Ultra Runners Brian, Ed and Terry.

In addition to the above, I am happy to announce that my personal training business, Iron Lung Fitness, is sponsoring Anastasia “Supergirl” Rolek’s 2013 Midwest Grandslam of Ultrarunning bid.  Supergirl has graced these pages many times and I know she will represent ILF with the same focus and strength she does all of her events.  Go SUPERGIRL!

But perhaps the most exciting development of this upcoming summer of ultras is the fact that I have TWO premier pacing positions to fill.  The first will come June 1st and 2nd as I pace my friend Jen during the Kettle Moraine 100 Mile Endurance Run.  Jen is a tough, focused athlete who trains with me, so I know getting to the finish line will be top priority for both of us.

Then, at the end of June, Siamak, another friend of mine and recurring Run Factory persona, will be taking on the biggest, baddest, most historic 100 mile race in the entire western hemisphere: THE WESTERN STATES 100 MILE ENDURANCE RUN!!!

And yep, you guessed it.  I am the lucky fella who will pace him to the finish!  Indeed, making sure Siamak circles the track at Placer High School will be my sole reason to live come the weekend of June 29th.

Running! If there’s any activity happier, more exhilarating, more nourishing to the imagination, I can’t think of what it might be. In running the mind flees with the body, the mysterious efflorescence of language seems to pulse in the brain, in rhythm with our feet and the swinging of our arms.

–Joyce Carol Oates

The weather has turned for the better, my legs are feeling fresh and I welcome the mysterious efflorescence of language to pulse in my brain alongside my constantly moving feet.


New England Love: A Special 2013 Boston Marathon Race Report

319951_10151398455934436_529737444_nLife feels different today.

I’m more aware.  I’m more sensitive.  I’m more than grateful that my loved ones and I are alive and well.

Today, I should be celebrating my first Boston Marathon finish with friends and family over drinks and laughs.  I should be clinking glasses to mark overcoming a lengthy IT band injury.  I should be fist-bumping my pals to commemorate my very first negative split.  Instead, I find myself deeply saddened by yesterday’s tragic and cowardly acts.  I find myself questioning humanity, wondering how someone could be so evil and so spineless as to hurt such a mass of innocents on Patriots’ Day, a day that traditionally brings so much love and joy to New England and all those who choose to be in and around Boston to run the world’s most prestigious and historic marathon.

Today, like much of the world, I am in mourning.

“If you are losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon.”

–Katherine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon

Because of this mourning, and because so many families find themselves in pain today, I feel it would be insensitive and trivial to craft my typical first person progressive play-by-play race report.  At the same time, I think it would be equally insensitive to altogether forgo any writings on my experience, which is why I want to take a moment to applaud and recognize the people who really make the Boston Marathon such a world class event: the people of Hopkinton, Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Wellesley, Newton, Brookline and Boston.  These are the same people who cheered me on as I crossed the finish line, the same people now gone or severely injured.  These are the people who deserve our recognition: the good people of New England.

The minute I arrived in the Commonwealth, I was welcomed with friendly smiles and a never ending stream of “good luck at the race!”  The people of Boston know how serious the Boston Marathon is and they recognize the diligence and hard work necessary to even qualify for such an event.  They know that theirs is special and that to just participate requires tireless hours of perseverance and determination.  They know this.  They respect this.  And they go out of their way to make us runners, coming from all corners of the globe, feel special and welcome.

From the good folks at the expo and the people at the hotel, to the waitstaff at restaurants and strangers on the street, I couldn’t walk 50 meters without someone wishing me well on the upcoming race.  I was told prior to arriving that that would be exactly how I would be received, but I didn’t believe it until it actually happened.

Such welcoming arms made me feel special, made me feel comfortable.  I wanted to run well, not only for myself, but for all of those who welcomed me with such warm, open hearts.

During the race, I was even more surprised at how many loving supporters came out to cheer us on.  From the very beginning in Hopkinton, all the way up Route 135 and into Boston, I ran on the deafening cheers of happy, smiling strangers.  Thinking that I might need a boost of encouragement at some point during the race, I wore my singlet with my last name (Lung) sprawled across my chest.  Instead what I received was 26.2 miles of “Go, Lung!”, “Lookin’ good, Lung!” and “You can do it, Lung!”, an auditory pleasantry that, even now recalling this, brings tears to my eyes.

But perhaps what impressed me most about this race experience was the pure love and joy along the course evident by how many families were out, together, celebrating the marathon and all it represents as a metaphor for life.  I saw so many young children and so many packs of friends and family united together, taking part in what has always been a great day to commemorate the human spirit.

That contagious and joyous energy forced me to hug the left side of the course, where I incessantly fed off the endless support and continuous high-fives from strangers.  I ran most of the Boston Marathon without thinking about my legs because I didn’t have to.  I had the crowd to ride on.

My finish was truly special, something I will never forget.  I was told that once I saw the Citgo sign I would be on the home stretch.  I saw it and suddenly my fatigue disappeared.  I became another person.  I sped up.  I still had a couple of miles to go, so I tried to hold back the tears of joy coming in response to being on the cusp of finishing the World Series of marathons, but I knew it was coming and I was overcome with happiness.

When I came down Boylston, heading towards the finish, I made sure to take it all in.  The crowd noise was deafening, but I heard just enough “GO LUNG”s to really kick it up a notch.  In the last 385 yards, I smiled so big my cheeks hurt.  I was in complete awe of the finish line celebration — the grandstands, the waves of people, the copious amounts of LOVE.

To know that just an hour and a half later that exact location that provided me with such everlasting memories of love, triumph and joy would be a murder scene more heinous than one could ever imagine, makes me sad beyond description.  My heart aches for all of those families affected by this tragedy and I desperately wish I could take away their pain.

While there might not be much I can do to accomplish that exact sentiment, I am determined to rise up with my Boston brothers and sisters.  I have decided I will re-qualify for the Boston Marathon.  I will be back to show my love and support for the very city that was selfless in supporting me and my efforts.  I will smile more.  I will welcome strangers to my city.  I will tell my people I love them.

My dad and I were lucky to have been near Fenway Park, about a mile and a half away from the finish line when the blasts occurred.  We saw the bee line of state troopers on motorcycles fly by, but didn’t really know what was going on until we crossed the river and were in Cambridge heading back to our hotel when a kind Bostonian stopped us to let us know there had been some sort of attack.  The immediate fear and chaos forced us to stay in and watch the news all night, relaying to our friends and family back home that we were indeed safe as best we could.

To say that we are lucky sounds a bit trite, but it is the truth.  Both of us are back in our respective homes now, safe and in perfect health.  The same cannot be said for Martin Richard.  It cannot be said for Krystle Campbell, nor Lu Lingzu.  It cannot be said for the 170+ innocent people injured during this cowardly crime.

“Boston is a tough and resilient town, so are its people. I’m supremely confident that Bostonians will pull together, take care of each other, and move forward as one proud city and as they do, the American people will be with them every single step of the way.”

–President Obama

Regardless of one’s political philosophy, the above statement is absolutely true.  I experienced the Bostonian spirit firsthand, and I promise I will experience it again.  We, as mindful human beings, will band together and we will always overcome the hatred of a few.

No amount of cowardice will ever stop that.


Follow That Unicorn!

BM_YEAR_ONLYWhen I first took up running a few years ago, qualifying for the storied Boston Marathon seemed about as realistic as making out with Mila Kunis.  This seemed especially true after barely completing my first marathon in just under a grueling 4 hours.

Well, maybe it’s time to give Mila a call.

In eleven days, I will take my rightful place among the upper echelon of marathoners whose communal zenith rests atop the peak of Heartbreak Hill and reaches maximum dopamine levels somewhere along Boylston Street.  To say I’m excited about the impending experience would be quite an understatement.

Considering how hard I worked to get to this point, I decided to take some vacation time so I can really soak it all in.  Soon I’ll be heading to New York before making my way to Boston where my ultimate crew chief and number one fan (my dad) will meet me.

Clam chowder, Sam Adams and Red Sox baseball all await.

Despite my training leading up to this race being limited due to the ITBS issues I’ve been battling since late last year, I am still determined to have a great time, to be present throughout it all.  Instead of firing out of the gates hellbent on setting a personal best, I’ve decided to lay back into an easy, comfortable pace for the first half and decide from there whether or not going into a higher gear will be possible.  Recent efforts would suggest I should be able to run Boston somewhere around 3:20 to 3:30, but I really won’t know until race day.  If I am slower than that, that’s cool too, as long as I leave with a unicorn around my neck.

Considering how different this race plan is compared to all those I’ve run before, I think it will take more discipline and concentration than I’m used to.

But I’m always ready for a challenge.

And Mila Kunis.

mila kunis jeff meme


Trail Running Is Messy and So Is Life: The 2013 Paleozoic Trail Runs 25K Race Report

paleozoicTrail_150There was a time in my life when I would have done all I could to avoid any type of mess — either real-world or proverbial.

Then I became a runner.

Nowadays, mud spattered tights and mucus crusted gloves are as common for me as bloody nipples and permastink-laden technical tees.

Meh, so what. As long as I’m having fun, right?

And boy did I have some fun on Saturday, March 16, 2013 whilst gliding, sliding, hurdling and traversing the ever treacherous and never clean Paleozoic Trail Runs 25K race course at the nearby forest preserve of Palos Heights.  For me, the fun began before the race even started because I was at an event where I knew A TON OF PEOPLE!  Having been a part of the trail and ultrarunning community for a couple of years now, I really feel like a part of the family.  And that’s what the local New Leaf Ultra Runs group is to me: family.  We run together, we get dirty together, we laugh together.  That many smiling faces, firm handshakes and strong fist bumps is enough to make one’s day.  Running the race was just extra.

And, to be honest, it was a bit confusing as well, but there were many reasons for this.  As an inaugural event, I expected some obstacles outside of those offered by the freeze-to-thaw-to-freeze-back-to-thaw terrain.  There was some uncertainty about course markings (weather washed a lot of them away).  One of the aid stations wasn’t there when I got to it.  I had a guy running a few inches off my heels for three quarters of the race.  And I was trying to take it easy because a few days prior I aggravated my right ITB running intervals.

But I had a fantastic time in the cold, soupy weather, surrounded by good friends and warm community.  I’m going to skip my regular play-by-play reporting of this race because all of the confusion caused by my missing a turn, adding mileage where it shouldn’t have been and then stopping to scratch my head a few times sort of took me out of my normal thinking patterns and now when I think back to the race all I can remember is putting one foot forward through muddy muck with a great big I-don’t-know-where-the-heck-I-am-going smile on my face.

When I finished, my Garmin read 1:55:47, but only 14.29 miles, a bit short of the stated 25K (15.5 miles).  Upon further review, I missed a section near Bull Frog Lake but added some mileage on the east loop.  All in all, I was still tired when I finished and I crossed the line with a healthy ITB/knee.

And oh yeah, this time I beat Peter Sagal (maybe? I dunno, after my misguided route maybe I didn’t).  Still, I enjoyed chatting with him this go around, as he was quite lost too.  In fact, I think everyone was lost at one point or another.

But I will be back next year.  No doubt about it.

Meanwhile, Boston is just four weeks away…

***

For an excellent recap on this race, check out Dan Solera’s entry, where I make a special cameo alongside everyone’s favorite beer racer, Otter.


Six Weeks to Beantown and Finally Baaaaack!

883039_10200637160601538_324846676_o

Patriot’s Day is only six weeks away, which means my long awaited dance with the World Series of marathons will soon be a dream come true.  The natural excitement and nervous energy that come along with it will only escalate.

But I’m down with that.

Yesterday I nailed a 16 mile long run with 11 miles at 7:15 pace, with no aches or pains — yet another promising sign that my ITB issues are finally far off in the background.  I wasn’t going to celebrate my lack of ITBS symptoms until I was able to sustain a good month of dedicated speed and hill training alongside the general aerobic long runs that are the staple of any solid marathon training plan.

Five weeks and counting, no residual aches, pains or soreness.  I’m feeling damn good.

My buildup for this race, albeit unorthodox due to the limited training and mileage prescribed by coming off of a serious injury, has been about as much as I could ask for.  I’m not overdoing it.  I’m resting when my body directs me.  But most of all, I’ve adjusted my mind to allow for a fun, possibly once-in-a-lifetime race experience.  Rather than being hellbent on time goals, I’m focusing on toeing the line healthy,  ready to deliver on whatever my body seems capable of on April 15, 2013.

This is in large contrast to my normal marathon training as I’m a bit of a perfectionist.  I instinctively marry myself to routine, to nailing splits, to chasing down the guy ahead of me.  And while I know quite well that outside of myself, not one single person on the planet really cares what time I get when crossing the finish line, I still feel like if I don’t throw down a personal best in every race then I’m not doing it right.

WRONG.

I’ve set some modest goals for Boston 2013.  I haven’t regained my Chicago 2012 fast legs yet, but I’d like to finish somewhere between a 3:15 and 3:30, mindful of the fact that finishing and living in the moments presented by the most storied marathon in the world are, above all else, the most important things.  If, on race day, my abilities push me beyond the 3:30 mark, then so be it.  I vow to cross the line with a smile and a triumphant fist.

The cliche “it’s not the destination that matters but the journey” comes to mind.  In my case, the journey has been profound in what it has revealed about me, about how I handle adversity both instinctively and through contemplation.

For someone like me, opportunities like running the Boston Marathon are certainly the exception, not the norm.  I will treat the experience as exceptional, from Hopkinton to Boylston Street, and everywhere in between.


Running with a Mind Full of Bach

bach with shadesI still belong to one of those good old fashioned email listservs.  It’s one that I have been a part of for a long time now — one I look forward to every afternoon; but at the same time it sort of stresses me out.  It stresses me out on a very superficial level, I admit, but still, stress is stress.

To be more accurate, this daily email often overwhelms me more than anything, as it generally features 20-40 individual links to the hottest news stories of the day.  These often include fascinating scientific breakthroughs, underground and outside mainstream opinion pieces and lots and lots of pictures of cats.  Rarely am I able to read/view every single one of them.  There just isn’t enough time!

Take the above alongside my afternoon dose of front-to-back Chicago Tribune reading, a neverending stream of Google Reader aggregated posts from my 100+ favorite blogs and the bevy of Facebook/Twitter feed links and articles being thrown my way every two seconds and I find myself actively vetting my reading material based on how sexy a URL may read.

There is just too much information out there — information I think I want! — attacking me via my laptop, my desktop, my phone, my other laptop and my BRAIN!  If I’m not careful, I become Fred Armisen, trapped in a technology loop:


Sometimes I get trapped in there, for very long, uncomfortable periods of time.

Running is the antidote.

Of course, I can’t always be running, or exercising for that matter.

Enter Johann Sebastian Bach.


I have long been acquainted with the works of Bach.  In high school and college I often cursed his named, wondering if he had ever even bothered to try singing one of his own tenor fugue creations.  People have to breathe, y’know.  Singers really need to breathe.

But sadly, my appreciation for his music never matured beyond the basic acknowledgement of his reinterpretation of what music could and should be.  I knew all the greats (Mozart, Chopin, Beethoven, etc) looked to him as the godfather of melody — that the foundation for the classical explosion was rooted in the Bach catalogue, but that was about it, and I never bothered to appreciate any of it.

More than a decade later, while circumventing the technology loop with a playlist full of Lady Gaga, Die Antwoord and Modeselektor, body and mind ready to explode from information overload, I stumbled across this:


Instantly, I was at peace.

And I was just getting started.

The last few months have been a joyous trip through the ever uplifting works of J.S. Bach.  From violin concertos to piano sonatas, to choral masses, organ fugues and everything in between, I have become a bonafide believer in the beautiful bounty of Bach.

And the very best part?

Now I am running to Bach.

Not with headphones.  I don’t run with music.  I don’t have to, because Bach is in my head.  It is always there and I am always elated!  No more I’m Henry the Eighth I Am poisoning my psyche.  No more Cotton Eyed Joe, no more Hey Mickey, no more Blue da ba de da ba die stuck on autoloop for miles and miles and miles.

No, sir.

Thanks to the musical genius of J.S. Bach, I am free.  Free at last!

FREE AT LAST!!!


The Accidental Anatomist

human-anatomyLatissimus dorsi, vastus lateralis and brachioradialis, OH MY!

Before I became a serious runner, all of the above would have been Greek to me.  Or Latin.  Yeah, probably would have been Latin.*  But after several years of dedicated pavement pounding I am proud to report my working mastery of human anatomy — just one of the myriad benefits of identifying myself as a full-fledged running freak.

In fact, ever since making that dramatic transformation, I have notched one success after another.  I quit smoking.  I reached and now easily maintain optimal body weight.  I got cut up into a lean (still not so mean) fitness machine.

No longer do I suffer from long bouts of depression.  No more do I wake up feeling empty, without purpose, without drive.  I don’t stress nearly as much about mundane, trivial situations that are out of my control; and overcoming hardships — major bumps in the proverbial road of life — hardly seem as impossible as they once did.

Running has taught me how to live — how to really, truly live, in the present, now and forever.

But perhaps one of the most beneficial real world applications born from my active lifestyle is that I learned about my own body.  It started out simply, a long time ago by wondering what might be causing my heels to ache.  That led me to study the soleus… then the anterior and posterior tibialis… then the gastrucnemus, gracilis and sartorius.   Before I knew it I was knee leg deep in anatomical terms, Wikipedia entries and real world exercise science.

The real irony here — and my parents can attest to this — is that as a student, I nearly went out of my way to avoid the sciences.  I wanted nothing to do with understanding the mysteries of the body and in college, the only science classes I ever took were Rocks for Jocks and a bullshit applied chemistry class that I barely attended.

Fast forward to my 30s, after a couple years of really trying to understand my own body, I realized that all of the information I had retained could be applied to my workouts in the gym.  Suddenly, things began to click.  I was not only beginning to understand how my body worked, but also how I could manipulate it into doing what I wanted it to do faster, better and stronger.

And now I use that knowledge every day with my own clients.

Running isn’t just a recreational activity — it’s a potential life changer.  One need look no further than this blog, this LIFE, to see clear evidence of that.

*After much research, it was (and still is) Latin.

Injury Rehab Update

Since my recent less-than-ideal half-marathon experience, things have been going quite well.  I continue to strengthen my gluteus medius, hip flexors and hamstrings in an effort to eradicate the nagging symptoms of ITBS that have held me back since late October.  In recent weeks, I have been able to work in minimal low mileage speedwork as well as some long, slow distance runs — all without any knee pain.  This, to me, is further evidence that the Houston experience was just a simple case of too much, too soon.  I continue to build upon my workouts each week with the hope that I can put in a good effort at Boston.  I don’t expect I’ll be ready to run a fast time by April 15, but I do plan to enjoy the experience and cover the distance pain free.

Besides, I gotta give the gals at Wellesley College a good show of my gluteus maximus in my shortus shortius.


Two Steps Forward, One Bum IT Band Back: The 2013 Houston Half Marathon Race Report

midtown-houstonThe two weeks of progressive running leading up to the Houston Half Marathon gave me plenty of confidence that my IT band syndrome issues had finally subsided.  I knew that I probably wasn’t ready to push myself to the point of all out racing, but I knew that I had a good shot at finishing 13.1 miles pain free.

Unfortunately, I was wrong.

Pre-Race, 4:15 a.m.
The alarm clock goes off and I’m ready to go through my now conditioned routine: half a cup of coffee, one banana and a bagel.  I peek out the window to see the trees outside my dad’s house blowing violently in the wind.  I open the door to see just what type of weather I will be dealing with today and I quickly shut it, less I freeze to death.  Low 40s.  Lots of rain.  20+ mph winds.

Oh, yay.

5:15 a.m.
Dad throws his bike in the back of the truck and we begin the 45 minute drive to downtown Houston.  I didn’t sleep much last night so I take this time to catnap.  I visualize a succesful race, one without knee pain, without giving in to the elements.  Training in Chicago the last several years has made me pretty tough.  I don’t like running in the cold, windy rain (does anyone really?) but I know I have the ability to shut it out, toughen up and just get the work done regardless.

6:40 a.m.
In my corral now, I’m huddled among a mass of anxiously freezing runners.  I have decided to wear my lightweight running jacket over my singlet.  The high powered winds are just too chilling for me to go without it.  A quick look around shows that I’m not the only one dressed for warmth, and as the announcer begins his introductions, the rain starts to come down steady and strong.  A gust of wind hits me below the belt.  Dressed in my trademark short shorts, I start to worry about the safety of “my boys”.  But it’s too late now.  All I can do is focus on running.

*BANG!*

And we’re off…

Miles 1-3
Brrrrrr!  Well, it’s a good thing I’m not trying to break any records today, I remind myself.  The first few miles are a mental showdown between me and the elements.  The winds are strong and mostly in my face, pushing me backwards with violent force, but I just keep my head down and barrel through.  I stop trying to avoid puddles — there are just too many of them, and my feet are already soaked anyway.

Since I lined up at the very front of the corral, I’m not suffocated by a bunch of people tripping and skipping their way across my path.  I’m surrounded by runners who match my fitness level and at the two mile mark I’m drafting inside a tightly formed pack.  My plan is to just go out at a comfortable 7-minute pace and hold it throughout the race.  I cross the three mile marker in 21 minutes.  Right on schedule.

Miles 3-6
My body feels good, but I’m not really enjoying myself.  All I can think to myself is I can’t wait until this is over, I can’t wait until this is over.  This is a rare thought for me, especially during a race, but the elements are wearing on my mind.  The gusts of wind keep coming at me, from all directions, and I’m pretty sure my balls are frozen now.

At least my leg/ITB/knee feels good.

Until, *BAM*, it doesn’t.

Miles 6-9
Oh shit.  Here we go.  I pass the six mile marker and almost immediately, I start to feel that familiar ache developing at the ITB insertion point of my right knee.  No, no, no… this is not happening, this is not happening, this is not happening.

Except, it is happening.  And there’s not much I can do about it.

Maybe it’ll go away, I think to myself.  I grit my teeth, trying to ignore it.  But having been dealing with this issue for so long now, I know better.

Around the seven mile marker, I see Dad, a bright spot.  Goooo Jeff! he encourages me.

Not feeling good. My knee is starting to hurt, I tell him.

Uh oh, he responds.  The look on his face is the same look I’ve been carrying for the last mile or so — the same one I was hoping to avoid indefinitely.  Sometimes we do all the right things and we still don’t get what we want.  This is a lesson I’m trying to understand.

I keep going, pushing along as my pack starts to move ahead of me.  The ache is becoming a throb, so I stop and do some ITB stretches, hoping this will make it go away.  The stretching feels good, but once I get moving again, the pain persists.  I push and push and push, but another, more sane voice finds its way inside my head and says, Dude, it’s not worth it. Stop now. Live to fight another fight.

I hate that this voice is right.  But, for once, I listen.

I stop running.  I look down at my watch.  8.62 miles in one hour exactly.

Miles 9-13.1
Well, now what? I ask myself.  All I really want to do is punch something, to scream, to break things.

I resort to a hobble-walk.  I can’t walk too fast.  The ITB pain gets worse the faster I move.

Just as I feel myself succumbing to the dark cavern of negative thoughts, I see Dad up ahead.  I’m happy to see him, but beyond disappointed in my condition.  I tell him how I’m feeling and, knowing how pissy I am right now, he doesn’t say much.  Instead he peddles alongside me on the race course while I try to stay out of the path of the hordes of runners passing me.

I can’t help but feel embarrassed, defeated.  I’m sorry, I tell him.

Don’t be sorry. You have no reason to be sorry with me.

I’m really trying hard not to be a baby right now.

If it wasn’t so damn cold, windy and rainy, maybe I’d have the strength to have a good cry.  But I’m shivering, struggling to stay warm.

Do you want your warm-up pants? he asks.  I try to run again, hoping maybe everything was just in my head.  It wasn’t.  I still have ITBS and running is not an option right now.  We stop so I can put my pants on.  I pin my bib to my front leg.  He gives me his raincoat too, which helps immensely.

We discuss me dropping.  I really want to.  I hate hobble-walking while the crowds continue to cheer for all of those running past me.  I know they mean well, but if I hear one more person tell me I’m doing a good job, when I CLEARLY am not, I might do something stupid.

We get to about the ten mile mark and I decide that not finishing is NOT an option.  DNF’ing was not a part of the plan today, so I’m going to gut this one out and hobble across the finish line no matter what.  Dad labors alongside me on his bike, offering consoling conversation when I need it, but mostly just staying quiet, like me.

I can’t help but think how lucky I am to have a dad who would bike alongside me like this in such shitty conditions, offering up his own coat so that I don’t freeze.  Despite my bum leg, I’m a pretty lucky dude.

With a half mile to go, the course narrows and the crowd grows.  There isn’t enough room for Dad to bike alongside me anymore so he splits off and we agree to meet back at the George R. Brown Center.

I cross the finish line just as the lead American marathoner finishes his 26.2.  The deafening roar drowns out my depression and I take a second to cheer the guy on myself.  I’ll have days like that again someday, I tell myself.  This ain’t my last rodeo.

Post-Race
I’ve had enough time now to find a little bit of healthy perspective on the whole ordeal.  Despite my positive training runs leading up to this event, I’m thinking that my body just wasn’t ready to handle that sort of continuous speed quite yet.  Or maybe it was pounding on the few rolling downhills the course had to offer.  Or maybe it was the conditions.  I don’t know.

I will see my sports doctor on Tuesday to get his perspective and advice.

In the meantime, I’m finding comfort in the fact that I didn’t continue to push my body through the pain — that I didn’t act with recklessness as I probably would have once done.  I let reason dictate my actions.  And I’m hoping such discretion will allow me to have enough time to adequately train for Boston.

Perspective is a bitch sometimes, no doubt, but I’m glad I finally have it.


New Year Proverbial Wave Riding (and Race Schedule)

silhouette-of-runner_21136557The New Year generally brings with it a storied whim of clarity, a daring dash of DO IT.  I’d been feeling this wave of confidence in the weeks that led up to January 1st, 2013; and now that the arbitrary date has come and gone, I feel even more pumped riding on the very top of that proverbial wave.

One product of said wave riding is that I am officially training people now.  My personal training and fitness website, Iron Lung Fitness, has all the details.  This is a career move I have been planning for a year and a half, so to actually be doing it, to actually make it happen, is quite a joyous relief.

Another wave that came upon my shore is that of increased strength, power and flexibility.  The six weeks I took off of running were not spent in front of the television with my feet kicked up, rather, they were spent in the gym, gutting it out, punching holes into heavy bags and doing pistol squats until I puked (well, okay, I didn’t actually puke, but I might have felt better had I done so).  Those six weeks were also spent in a yoga studio, where I learned to love bending stuff, including my preconceived notions of what yoga could (or could not) do for me.  Instead of kicking rocks and cursing my injured IT band for not letting me run, I focused on the only thing I could: getting better.

Boy am I better.

On my runs this week I have noticed my easy jogging pace is a whole minute faster than it was at the end of the 2012 season.  Slowly burning into tempo speed also seems easier.  My core feels more firm, my gait more balanced.  And while I suspect some of this perception could be attributed to the extended period of rest, I am quite confident that most of it is due to hard work: getting it done, riding a wave.

My focus for this year, as previously mentioned, is breaking the 3-hour mark in the marathon.  At this point I am going to look towards the Chicago Marathon in October to make the attempt, fully aware that weather could be a deciding factor.  If it happens to be a fluke year weather wise, I’ll adapt and try again late in the season.

The build-up to that will be full of fun too.  I have the Houston Half Marathon coming this Sunday, which will give me a good idea of where my current speed threshold lies, followed by an exciting new local 25K race trail race.  Then April will bring with it my first Boston Marathon, something I’m itching to experience firsthand.  I’m signed up for the Ice Age Trail 50K in May, another new and local middle distance trail race called the Wholly Hell 15K in June and as of now, I’m still trying to find a suitable 50 mile or timed event to tackle in July/August.  Mohican seems to be calling me, but so too does a repeat at Howl at the Moon.

The decision making wave will come to me, eventually.

To stretch my legs out and relax before the big October surge, I’m looking forward to a wild weekend in Hell, Michigan, where I aim to take part in the Run Woodstock weekend.  Tentatively, I’m thinking I’ll do the 50K option, but I may drop down to something shorter so I have time to run the “natural” 5Ks they feature each evening.  Yes, natural.  That means I have to invent a non-invasive adhesive for certain body parts that may be prone to floppage.

After the Chicago Marathon, I’m not quite sure what I will do next.  Hopefully, I’ll be organizing a big party to celebrate an epic finish.  But after my experiences in 2012, I think a good amount of rest will also be in the plan.

Or maybe I’ll just run along and see what wave decides to take me next.


Dreams Realized, Lessons Learned, Bars Raised

Goodbye, dear 2012, and thanks for the memories.  From a running standpoint, 2012 will go down as the year I upped my game beyond what I ever thought was possible.  And I have the jawbreaking ear-to-ear smile to prove it.

I raced two major marathons and PR’d them both (Houston in January and Chicago in October).  The Chicago race served as my very first Boston Qualifier — a feat that leaves me eternally proud and acutely focused.

In May, I finished my very first 50 mile race at the Ice Age 50 and followed that up in August by logging 50.85 miles during the Howl at the Moon 8 Hour Run.  In the latter race, I also tasted another top ten finish (8th Overall), to go along with those achieved at Clinton Lake (8th Overall) and the Earth Day 50K (1st in Age Division, 4th Overall).

I also ran a few short races, completing my third Chinatown 5K (the race that started it all), while also logging a then PR in the half marathon at Batavia and a respectable time in my first short-distance trail event.

Plus, I got to spend a lot of time with my dear friends from the New Leaf Ultra Runs club, including two unforgettable 100 mile Supergirl pacing experiences (Mohican 100 and Hallucination 100), an inspiring Run Across Illinois and the most liberating impromptu adventure run I have yet to have.

No doubt, 2012 was something to remember.

It was also something to learn from, as the continuous pushing of my body without adequate rest eventually led to an IT band injury and a sincere reevaluation of my training techniques.  But I am happy to report that after 6 weeks off and a highly focused physical therapy regimen, I have begun to run again pain-free and feel confident that I will be able to put forth 100% effort in training for my next major event, the Boston Marathon.

Indeed, a sub-3 hour attempt at Houston in two weeks will not be possible.  However, I was able to transfer my registration down to the half marathon, which I will use as a barometer for my current fitness, the base from which I will begin Boston training in earnest.

And while I do have a couple of 50Ks and perhaps one 50 miler on the schedule for 2013, my main focus will be on the marathon distance and breaking that 3 hour mark.  I am obsessed (in the very best way possible) with seeing my name followed by a 2-something marathon time.  I will do it, by golly.

I will run 26.2 miles in less than 3 hours.

And when I do, I’m having a big party.  You’re all invited.

Peace, love and all the running happiness in the world!


Running into Yoga

Yoga-SilhouetteIt seems so silly now to think how defiant I once was against even trying something like yoga to supplement my running habit.  To think how I secretly questioned Scott Jurek, my running idol, and his unabashed dedication to the practice seems so immature.  My prior disbelief that I could actually benefit from yoga seems, now, to go against all practical sense.

And such disbelief only existed because I thought… *GASP*… that I would look foolish.

WRONG.

Floundering in the land of what-ifs is foolish.

And so it wasn’t until I found myself injured, unable to do what I love to do, that I finally listened to all those who had advised me.  In my circle, there was no shortage of yoga proponents.  Every single one of those individuals touting the practice was sincere in his or her belief that it would help me.  How could I ignore such considerations any longer?

I found a local yoga studio, signed up for their beginner’s course and seven weeks later I’m here pondering how I ever lived without it.  As a runner, there are myriad benefits to practicing yoga (flexibility, controlled breath work, increased synovial fluid production to name a few), but what I appreciate the most are the calming, meditative principles applied through movement.  This is essentially what happens to me during a really good long run: I connect movement to the breath and allow my mind to experience the now.

Like running, yoga is a door to the present.

I’m just as susceptible as most to the infinite technocratic noises of the world, but I also know there is a way out.  I know I am happiest when I exist among the calm of the present tense.  Running gets me there.  A baseball game on a lazy, summer afternoon gets me there.

Now I know yoga gets me there too.  And even when the practice is over, I still feel like a glowing, hundred foot giant of awesome.

* * *

Injury update:

I am still out of commission, but staying active and positive.  I’ve seen a sports medicine doctor now who is sure my condition is ITBS and nothing else.  So I can only continue to do what I’m doing: stretching, icing, foam rolling, strengthening, yoga, boxing, watching Bulls basketball (despite this giving me headaches from time to time) and re-reading all my favorite Carl Sagan books.

I will not be able to run the Houston Marathon in 2013, but that’s okay.  I am at peace with that.  There will be plenty of marathons to run once I’m back to full strength.  My focus now is on getting better in time to train well for Boston.  I start physical therapy this week and aim to invoke my inner Derrick Rose as I focus on strengthening my hip flexors as well as my mind.

One thing is certain: this unscheduled time off from the sport I love so much has been as humbling as it has been healing.  The majority of my other constant niggles, aches and pains have gone away with the time off and I am confident that the forced disassociation has strengthened my mind.  When I do come back, I am going to be more hungry, more ravenous and more determined than I have ever been.

Special thanks to Lisa Kinlinger, who has provided me with excellent ART treatments as well as a final, swift kick out the door and into a yoga studio.


Evolution of an Injured Runner

Just like the beginning runner evolves into a leaner, faster, more knowledgeable athlete with time and training, so too does the injured one evolve into one who remains pleasant company despite his inward crankiness and stir-crazy circumstances.  At least, in theory he does.  Or at least he can, if his mind is in the right place.

While the last year and a half has allowed me to run injury free outside of the occasional twinge or sore spot that could be easily treated with ice and a day or two off, I now find myself at the beginning of a second week of practically no physical activity at all — part of the prescribed two week rest period ordered by my doctor in order to further heal whatever imbalance is still causing ITBS symptoms in my right leg.

I’m injured.  I can’t run.  I have no choice but to deal with it.  Though I admit, sometimes “dealing with it” can be very difficult.

In April 2011, I suffered a meniscus tear to my left knee during the Go! St. Louis Marathon and was sidelined for six long, hellish weeks.  It was my first serious injury and I didn’t know how to handle it.  Looking back, I was nothing short of a baby.  I whined.  I complained.  I pouted.  I kicked the dirt saying “woe is me, boo hoo hoo.”

Lame!

Once I got healthy and was back into training, I learned to cherish every single step I am able to take — to appreciate even the smallest of running achievements, whether it’s just getting out the door or accomplishing a major goal.  I learned that it could all go away in an instant, that nothing — even our own physical ability —  is guaranteed.  And I learned that, like sex and pizza, even when it’s bad it’s good.

Professional athletes get injured all of the time.  Derrick Rose, Jay Cutler, Desiree Davila… these are just a few of my favorite athletes who have suffered devastating injuries requiring an extended period of time off.  Davila had to drop early from the London Olympic Marathon — her dream event.  Cutler’s 2011 injury forced the Bears into one of the worst season-ending tailspins of recent memory.  And D-Rose is likely going to miss the entire 2012-13 campaign.

Devastation can be a mental consequence from injury, yes, but the human body has a marvelous way of recovering if given time and treatment.  The mind must remember this.  Shit happens, everyone can agree.  The mature, learned athlete accepts his situation and focuses his energy on doing what is necessary to get back on the field/court/road.  Perhaps even more importantly, he learns to be mindful of the negative thoughts that may try to override his patience and he takes an active approach to taming them.

Adapting to the situation is one of the most important attributes a long distance runner can have.  For me, utilizing that ability has never resulted in negative consequences during a race.  I don’t suspect it would now as I dig deep to find the patience I need to get better, so I can get back to doing what I love to do.

With that in mind and a best case scenario of 3-4 weeks to train before a two week taper, it is highly unlikely that I will be able to attempt a sub-3 hour marathon at Houston this coming January; but once healthy, I will have plenty of opportunities to go for it in the future.  Right now the best thing I can do is concentrate on getting better.  I am still able bodied and I can stay active with the types of exercise I am allowed to do.

Doing as many push-ups, pull-ups and sit-ups as I can will get me the endorphin rush I so often crave.  And with it being the holidays and all, my appetite will dictate that I do a whole lot of that.

I’ll even wear a smile on my face, because like someone said a bazillion years ago (probably), this too shall pass…

🙂


Four Tenths of a Second Behind Peter Sagal: The Universal Sole Trail Challenge Race Report

Hanging out with friends from the New Leaf Ultra Runs group after the race.

For a temporarily pruned long distance junkie still unable to run much past 6 miles without any run-stopping lateral knee pain, a short, fast trail race in the city seemed to be a perfect match.  Of course, when I originally signed up for the Universal Sole Trail Challenge 5.25 mile race, I did so thinking of it more as a social event.  Several of my fellow New Leaf Ultra Runs club members signed up at the same time (as evident by our ascending numerical bib numbers) and I wanted to be a part of the action.  Homemade chili and a bountiful supply of Goose Island’s 312 beer were also calling.

Besides, who knew there were actual trail races in the city?!?

Schiller Woods on Chicago’s northwest side was the venue and the sparse city field of runners was a welcome change from the typically annoying and inappropriately overpriced short distance races that seem to get all the attention.  Hanging out at the start/finish area prior, the atmosphere was very similar to that of a small high school cross country meet, which caused me to lament not opting for my short shorts.

The race started and 148 of us took off into the woods at a blazing pace.  I couldn’t help but feel like I was doing something wrong running that fast.  The trail race setting and my association of it with ultras has always dictated a long and slow strategy, so throwing down right at the start felt like sneaking out of my house late at night when I was a teen, hoping I didn’t get caught.

Unfortunately, in the race, I was getting caught.  There seemed to be a good mix of fast, tall and lean guys at the front and I was happy to let them by me.  While my only real goal was to put in a hard effort for the entire distance, my watch told me I was maintaining between a 6:40 and 6:45 pace and I was completely at peace with that.  Knowing the race would be over very soon, I reserved to admiring the barren trees, to jumping over logs with a spartan step, to ebb and flow with the trail as best I could, like I was the trail.

About halfway through, as I was contemplating the supreme simplicity in the wide open Schiller Woods trail, a short, stocky dude crept up and passed me who, in my in-the-moment cocky opinion, did not look like a fast runner.  What the…

Oh well.  Let him go, I thought.  I’m still gonna get beer and chili at the finish.  That’s all I care about right now.

Except, I kept the dude in my sights.  I couldn’t help it.  That inherent competitive spirit I have kicked me in the ass and I was moving at its mercy.  The guy was in my sights as I twisted and turned, as I slipped (but saved a fall), as I scrambled up one of two tiny little bumps reluctantly called a “hill”.

He was in my sights and getting reeled in as I passed the little aid station not far from the finish.  And as we dumped out of the woods and back out onto open grass, I slammed on the gas, intent on catching him.  I came up short.  By four tenths of a second.

My time was 34:58, 6:40 pace, 16th place overall.  I was happy with that.

But when I found out the guy I was gunning for was Peter Sagal, I felt like I could have — should have — would have done better.  Had I known.  Or not.

Who is Peter Sagal, you ask?

Wait, wait, don’t tell me! <—- Lame but obligatory throwaway line that you will forgive me for using.  I hope.

All NPR jargon aside, I am reminded by Universal Sole’s Trail Challenge that short, fast races are fun too.  And the hangout session after with my friends was great.  As was the chili and beer.  Hopefully, someday chili and beer will be as much a staple of the post-race vibe as salt-crusted foreheads and quartered bananas.


See Me at See Glenn Run

Glenn Goodman at See Glenn Run was kind enough to interview me for his Profiles in Running series.  Stop by his blog to check it out, especially if you want to see an even better photoshop than the mustachioed bulls.

Happy Movember!


A Short Note on Community

Some of the New Leaf Ultra Runs crew manning the 39th Street Aid Station at the Chicago Lakefront 50K/50M Race, October 27, 2012.

Most people who know me well wouldn’t flinch at describing me as a “loner”.  I grew up with six sisters, and, as the only boy, I spent a lot of time doing my own thing.  Not much has changed.

In fact, I learned early on in life that I have a transient, vagabond spirit.  Rather than fight it, I’ve just always learned to embrace that persona, even if it means enduring losses along the way.  This default demeanor has been a comforting crutch for the hours and hours I tend to spend in my own head, running roads, traversing trail.

But this mentality does not take away from my basic human desire to be a part of something — to be a part of a community greater than any one individual.  For most of my life I’ve been wandering, looking for that elusively small section of the planet that would make me whole.

As a runner, I have finally found it.

I am a part of something — something so great and so inspirational that it makes living every day as much a joy as it is an adventure.

Pretty sweet, eh?


DNF’d and Dealing With It

The running gods giveth, and the running gods taketh away.

One thing I easily forget as I tally up personal bests and races of a lifetime is that no one is immune to the possibility of failure.  And that definitely includes me.

Unfortunately, accepting that reality doesn’t make the process any easier on my mind (or body).

I signed up for the Des Plaines River Trail 50 Mile race just a few days prior to the Chicago Marathon.  I did it for several reasons, all of which now, in retrospect, seem foolish.  In fact, I’m a bit embarrassed by admitting as much and I’ve seriously contemplated just skipping over the reporting aspect of this race experience all together, thinking that if I don’t acknowledge my failure then it will just quietly go away.

WRONG.

Life ain’t always champagne and chocolate.  Sometimes it’s Old Style and pork rinds.  And it’s best to just accept as much, learn from it, then move on to the next thing before you’re uncontrollably drunk and smell like pig.

Fear of missing out (FOMO as I’ve heard it called) played a primary role in my signing up for this race.  Focusing on road marathons is sometimes a lonely place for me because most of my friends in the running community are focusing on the longer distances (50 miles, 100 miles, etc).  We go on weekend camping trips to run/pace the big distances.  No one packs the car up and makes an epic trip out of running a road marathon.  And running a 3:03 in a road marathon is great and all, but it’s still only enough for 1,049th place in a mega race, whereas a fast time in an ultra will likely bring a top-10 finish and accolades galore from my peers.

(Of course, as I write this, I realize just how bogus such a mentality is.  WHY ARE YOU RUNNING, JEFF?  Get the hell outta here, dude…)

Having spent the summer witnessing a collection of great performances from my friends (Supergirl’s Hallucination 100 win, my friends’ epic Run Across Illinois, Siamak’s Woodstock 50, Whitney’s Howl at the Moon victory, among many others), I could not help but get wrapped up in what everybody else is doing while easily forgetting my own personal strengths and weaknesses.  One of those weaknesses — recovery time from a road marathon — would end up killing my race.

I don’t know the exact reason, but it takes me a good three weeks to fully recover from a road marathon.  I tend to run road marathons as hard as I can, and even though the residual soreness goes away in a day or two, the lingering effects of fatigue and lowered performance remain.  In the two weeks after the Chicago Marathon, I had a hard time maintaining an 8:30 pace.  Each run labored into a jog — some even a slog — and a dull ache in my lateral right knee developed, most likely from a tight IT band, something I’ve been aware of and trying to fix for some time.

Even with all of this knowledge, I still thought all I needed was a few days of rest to clear everything up, so I took the Wednesday, Thursday and Friday before DPRT off completely.  No running.

But perhaps the worst part of my lead-up to a DNF was the cocky mentality I had going in.  Despite the aforementioned fatigue, the aforementioned achy knee and the aforementioned FOMO, I still had it in my head that I could run a very fast 50 miles.  The Des Plaines River Trail course is flat.  It is fast.  And based on my recent marathon time and a few delusional minutes plugging numbers into the McMillan Pace Calculator, I figured a 7-hour 50 miler was definitely doable.

And sure enough, as I started out on Saturday morning, all systems were go.  The rest had left me feeling fresh.  Holding an 8 minute pace seemed easy.  The trail was perfect and the day was beautiful.  Who knows, I thought, could be something special.

But by mile 5 my right knee was aching.  By mile 10 it was throbbing.  By mile 15 it was hobbling.

Yet, I kept pushing on.  WHY!?!?

I had never DNF’d before.  And I always told myself the only reason I would ever DNF is if I was injured.  Well, there I was, obviously injured, and yet I still couldn’t convince my stupid self to hang it up.  The thought kept coming, but I kept shooing it out, thinking that if I just ignored it (and the knee pain) that it would eventually go away.

It did not.  In fact, by the 20 mile mark, my stride had shortened considerably to compensate, and people started passing me.

At the 24 mile mark, I could barely walk.  My knee wouldn’t bend.  It was stiff as a board, and throbbing.

I walked/hobbled the 2.5 miles to Aid Station number 9, and as I approached, I knew that I was going to have to do the one thing I never wanted to do.  I dropped from the race.

I haven’t had much of a love life in the last five years, but I still couldn’t help but notice the irony that exists in relationships as well as my favorite activity.  Sometimes the thing (or person) you love the most, is the very thing (or person) that will hurt you the most.  Not being able to run is my biggest fear.  But I also know that sometimes, in order to avoid long-lasting, devastating damage that would keep me from running, that taking some time off is the only remedy.

The time spent in the back of the sweeper van allowed me to reflect on this.  And I made it a point to suck it up and not make it an issue as I waited out the rest of the day, cheering on my friends to some fantastic finishes.

In fact, my friends were my saviors on Saturday.  Siamak ran a 7:28 — A SEVEN HOUR TWENTY-EIGHT MINUTE FIFTY MILER!!!! — and Alfredo finished under 10 hours after having fought through his own troubles, both physical and mental.  My friend Tracy WON THE WOMEN’S RACE!  My friends Jen and Patrice both finished their very first 50 milers and a whole host of others had great days in the marathon and half-marathon as well.

Watching the joy and triumph from others was a good reminder of why I do what I do.  And it was also a reminder to not get too wrapped up in the feats of others and feel obligated to replicate them.  Right now my focus is on road marathons and that’s where it should stay until I finally reach all of my goals.  Trying to push my body to do things it’s not exactly trained for, just because everyone else is doing it, is not beneficial to me.

So I am going to take a couple weeks off from running.  I need to let my knee/IT band heal.  I will get body work done.  I will rest and regroup before starting my next training cycle.  It will be pretty hard for me to do, mentally, but I will get through it by supporting my friends’ efforts (I’ll be manning an aid station at the Lakefront 50 all day this coming Saturday) and by acknowledging that everybody needs a break sometime, whether it be to heal an injury or to reboot from a long, long season.

Onwards and upwards!


Beaming for Boston: The 2012 Chicago Marathon Race Report

“A lot of people run a race to see who is fastest. I run to see who has the most guts, who can punish himself into exhausting pace, and then at the end, punish himself even more.”

– Steve Prefontaine

Pre definitely knew what he was talking about.  In fact, I have been running marathons and ultramarathons for a couple years now, and I still haven’t found an everlasting joy quite as sweet as thrashing myself through hours of self-inflicted punishment.

But why do I do it?

Do I do it to prove just how tough I am?  Do I do it to see how much I can improve on past performance?  Do I do it to impress my friends and family?

No.  I do it because in all instances — whether good or bad or somewhere in between — nothing else makes me feel more alive.

Sunday, October 7, 2012 offered me yet another golden opportunity to truly LIVE while zooming through my beloved city, in all its glory, with a million+ spectators cheering me on from start to finish.  I would make it count.

– – –

Race Morning, 4:30 a.m.

Rise and shine!  The alarm goes off but it isn’t really necessary because I’ve been up every hour on the hour since midnight.  Who can sleep the night before a big race anyway?  I’ve learned to overload on sleep all throughout race week, so despite this bit of restlessness, I’m feeling great.

I go through my regular pre-race routine of having a bagel, banana and a half cup of coffee while I check the weather and start going over the race in my mind.  Because of the perfect weather lining up, I know some lofty goals are going to be possible, but mental focus is going to be the key.  In the last six months I have brought meditation and breath control into my training, so I spend some time focusing on the breath, acknowledging the anxiety, then quietly forcing all negativity to get the hell out.

How liberating!

But what exactly is going to be possible today is still somewhat of a mystery.  Originally, I lined up the Chicago Marathon to be a fitness test en route to my sub-3 hour attempt coming in January 2013 at the Houston Marathon; but after a long summer of ultras, I have started to surprise even myself.

After Howl at the Moon, I took a couple weeks off to recover before jumping into four hard weeks of dedicated speed training, and what I discovered was that my summer of ultras had tuned my big endurance engine so well that I was now able to hold faster paces longer, purely out of being more fit.  In fact, I ran my 20 miler three weeks out from race day at a very comfortable 7:00 pace.

With all of this in mind, I know that today’s success is likely going to depend on my ability to pace myself, and, of course, how much I can dig deep in the last 10K.  So I have a game plan:

1) Catch the 3:05 pace group

2) Stay with them through at least the halfway mark, then, based on how I feel, decide to speed up, slow down or stay put

3) No rest til Boston

That’s right.  I want to qualify for the prestigious Boston Marathon, and the qualifying time for my age group is 3:05 or better.  I need a hard yet achievable goal for this race and with today’s temps lining up so perfectly, this is the one.  Beating my 3:15 PR is almost a given, barring any sort of catastrophe.  But beating it by more than 10 minutes is going to take some guts.

I crank WHAT TIME IS IT?, put on my game face, and head to Grant Park.

7:20 a.m.

While huddled among the masses in my start corral, I am surprisingly calm.  My pulse is at resting rate.  I feel no anxiety.  I’m all smiles and ready to run to the raucous roars of the crowd.

Indeed, of all the races I have run to date, nothing quite compares to the enormous “epicness” of the Chicago Marathon.  Here, crowd support is as plentiful as it is deafening.  I also know that this can sabotage one’s race if he isn’t careful.  It is way too easy to bolt out at an unsustainable pace while being cheered on by the masses.  And after a proper taper and plenty of rest, that bolting pace is going to feel easier than it should.  I make note of this and remind myself to run as evenly as possible.

We pause for the National Anthem.

Then there’s the introduction of the elites (Go Ritz!)…

And then…

WE’RE OFF!

Miles 1-4

Oh, chaos, sweet chaos.

It helps if you know it’s coming, but it still never makes sifting through the first few miles of a mega-race insanity much fun.  For some unknown reason, the running gods still allow swarms of people who should not be up front to plug up the streets, making swift passage nearly impossible.  In some ways, this is good, as it allows me to not go out too fast.  But all the dodging and jumping and clipping necessary to get into a good groove is not my favorite part of racing.

One defense mechanism I use for getting through this difficult beginning is to stay as far to the left as possible.  The Chicago Marathon starts out with two left turns followed by two right turns; and by the time I’m cruising up State Street, I have finally escaped the insanity and find myself surrounded by folks in my speed zone.

The crowds are immense.  And they are loud.  I look around, taking it in, finding an unbound love for all these strangers who have sacrificed their morning to cheer us on.  Today is going to be a good day.

Now, down to business.

I come across the first 5K in 21:31, right on target.  And I feel fine.  But I still haven’t spotted the 3:05 pace team.  In a perfect world, I would have started with them; however, they began in Corral A and my previous time of 3:15 wouldn’t get me in there, so instead I had to start back in Corral B, a whole minute and 13 seconds behind at the start.  They are running even splits, so I know that in order to catch them, I’m going to have to exert some more effort in the early goings.

Do you really need the pace team though? I ask myself.

I don’t know.  Maybe I don’t.  But I want to join them anyway.  When I ran my last fast 20-mile trainer, part of what made it so comfortable was that I ran it with a pack.  Running in a pack is a great way to relax the mind.  It also helps conserve energy.  No longer is the focus on splits and tempo and mile markers, but rather it boils one’s effort down to one, singular task: sticking with the group.  Stay on the heels of the guy in front of you.  That’s it.  And the benefits of drafting and being part of a social dynamic also make the pain of running so hard disappear.

I need that group.  I will get there.

Miles 5-14

And there, just as I hit the aid station in Lincoln Park near the 5 mile marker, I see a beautiful band of runners in step, bouncing among them three small “3:05” signs.  That’s my team.  Let’s catch up.

Vrooooom!

One little burst of speed and now I’m tucked in behind, at the back of the group.  Everyone is focused.  There are probably close to fifty of us.  I don’t know.  It’s hard to count when everyone is moving so quickly.  The guy to the left of me smiles and says, “Well, hello. Nice of you to join us. What took you so long?”

We both laugh as I comfortably turn off my mind and go into zen mode.  There are two blue-shirted pacers up front, Mike and Tony.  Twenty feet or so back is the pace leader, Chris, who is shouting out words of encouragement and detailed instructions on course maneuverings.  He is the pace maker.  If Mike or Tony get too fast up front he directs them to slow down.  Everyone is on point, focused on nabbing that Boston qualifier; and after a couple of easy miles inside the peloton I’m grinning ear to ear because it feels so effortless.

And we are in good hands.

I overhear Chris mention he’s run over 20 marathons under three hours, with a personal best of 2:37 and paces an average of 12 marathons a year.  Our current 7-minute pace is so easy for him that he has no problem conversing with those fit enough to do the same and I love the fact that he like totally has a surfer-dude accent, man.  I’m feeling good, but this is not conversational pace for me, so I just dig in and focus on being one with the pack.

I am one with the pack.

Wow.  This is so fucking cool.

We’re hitting mile markers evenly, on the dot.  It’s scary how evenly this team is clicking.  And that’s exactly what it is: a team.  As we zoom through Lakeview and into Wrigleyville, the spectator cheering reaches insane, deafening levels.

“Use the crowds to keep the same level of intensity”, says team leader Chris, “but don’t let them push you beyond. We have a lot of race yet.”

In contrast to last year’s race where I seemed to live and die by the level of crowd support and the visuals of the course itself, this time I’m just running smooth and easy, controlled and strong, completely oblivious to the chaos around me.  It’s almost like I’m on a treadmill because I’m surrounded by the same people throughout — a stationary unit, an even paced machine — and we’re all on the same team, working for each other.

Mile 9, Mile 10, Mile 11.  Mile 12.  Nailing splits.  All of them.

And the best part about it, for me, is that because I started a minute and 13 seconds behind the group, each time we hit our 3:05 splits I know I have a minute and 13 second cushion.  Time in the bank, as small as it may be, is always comforting.

“20K, bam, doing great, Team!” says Chris, “We’re doing great work, guys. Tony, just a touch slower up front. Boom. That’s perfect. Keep it right there. Okay, guys, aid station coming up. Keep drinking. Don’t skip it. Get your carbs. Meet back in the middle.”

We hit the aid station heading south on Franklin, and just as we have at all the others previous, we all come back center into this beautiful, swift peloton of awesomeness.  I look around and it looks like everyone who was here at mile five is still here as we creep up on mile 13.

Heading west on Adams, we come through the half marathon mark and I look at my watch to see I just PR’d for the distance: 1:31:20.  Bam!  I did that!

“Okay, guys, we’re doing awesome,” says Chris. “Remember to run strong. From your core. Focus on getting in that oxygen. We’re going to be coming up on Mile 14 soon and we’re right on pace with about 30 seconds in the bank. Stay strong. Use each other. Stay together.”

I love this guy.  I love this group!

So… do I leave them?  Do think I can negative split now and run off on my own? 

I take a few minutes, mulling over the possibilities in my mind.  Fatigue-wise, I’m pretty tired right now.  My heart rate is fine, breathing is normal.  Legs are on automatic.  Nothing is aching too terribly, but I feel like it’s easier because I’m focusing on sticking with the group and that is all.  I’m on Boston qualifying pace, with time in the bank, and in order to break 3 hours I would have to run 15 seconds per mile faster than I am going right now, for another entire 13.1 miles.

Too risky.  Let’s not sabotage one goal for the sake of another right now.  Just keep doing what you’re doing and we’ll see where we are at 20 miles.

I’m happy with this decision.  I’m happy with everything right now.  I’M ALIVE!  I’M ALIVE!  I’M A-LIIIIIIVE!

Miles 14-20

Mile marker 14 comes and goes at 1:37:20 by my watch and I’m ecstatic.  I can’t wait until we hit the turn onto Damen and start heading back towards the lake because that means we’re creeping up on my regular stomping grounds: Greektown, Little Italy, University Village, Pilsen, Chinatown, Bridgeport…

I get ahead of myself.

“Run with your core. Stay focused within the group,” says Chris, “Take in that oxygen. Everyone looks great. Doing great work here, 3:05!”

Miles 15, 16, 17, 18… all on point.  7 minute splits, boom.  Bam. Done.

Except… now, as we turn south down Ashland and Gangnam Style blasts repeatedly from all directions, I feel like this effort is becoming more and more difficult.  At the 30K mark, I even start to fade a bit before pulling myself back in with a much-needed gel and mental kick in the ass.

You have to stay with these guys, Jeff. You’ve worked too hard to dog out now. Focus. Just focus! This is BOSTON we’re talking about. No one gets into Boston without feeling like shit at some point. Stay on Chris’ heels.

Stay on Chris’ heels, stay on Chris’ heels, stay on Chris’ heels…

Mile 19… BAM.  Right on target.  And now, we’re on a part of the course I run weekly.  The stretch from 18th Street to Halsted, south until you reach Archer, and east on into Chinatown, is part of my regular training route so I am encouraged by the idea that from here on out it’s all familiar territory.

Not only that, but I also know my buddy Omar is waiting for me at Cermak and Halsted and that once I get to Chinatown, my friends from my New Leaf running club are waiting with free high-fives.  Time to boil the race down into “just get theres”.

Just get to Omar.

Just get to Chinatown.

Just get to Sox Park.

We get to Mile 20, there is Omar and he is cheering my name loudly.  Next to him is a woman I’ve never seen before who says, “You are one sexy runner!”

And now, with that extra boost of confidence, I’m running on somebody else’s legs.

“Okay, Team, great job staying strong through 20 miles,” says Chris, “We’re right on target with time to spare.”

He’s not kidding.  We hit 20 miles at 2:19:40 by my watch — my fastest 20 miles to date.  We make the turn left onto Archer and for a brief second I think about how I could just bail and go home from here (it’s only a couple blocks away) but then I realize how ridiculous that sounds and I let Chris’ instruction bring me back present.

“20 miles in now, Team, so let’s talk about some things. This is where the crowd support is gonna die down. We’ll get a boost through Chinatown but after that it’s gonna be quiet until we hit about the 24 or 25 mile mark. Now, if you feel good and you think you have a lot left to burn, think about going off with Mike and Tony ‘cuz they’re gonna go up ahead a bit.”

They do.  I try to match the burst but I can’t. Instead, I feel my legs start to burn (prior to now I couldn’t feel them period) and… ohhhh shit! I start to panic!  This all happens in a matter of seconds.  Then, Chris continues:

“If you feel like this is max effort right now and you don’t want to risk it, man, just stick with me, right here. We’re gonna take it in. Nice and steady. Nice and strong.”

Let’s do that, Jeff. Let’s stick with Chris.

I ease off a hair and watch as most of the peloton blows forward with Mike and Tony.  There is a scattered group of about 10 of us who stay back with Chris; but after that quick burst of mine, I’m starting to hurt.  I trail off a bit.  I keep them about 20 feet ahead of me and just hang on.  I know Chinatown is coming, so I’ll try to recover through this quiet spot until we get there.

Miles 21-25

I can hear the beating drums and roaring crowd build in volume as we make our approach.  Surprisingly, the anticipation of seeing more familiar faces is enough to bring me back from that low patch and now I’m right back on the heels of Chris and the gang.  The faster portion of our team is in front of us by about 40 or 50 feet.

We make the turn right onto Wentworth and I break off from the pack to gather energy from the crowds.

“Go, Jeff! Nice work, Jeff! Stay strong, Jeff!” I hear a familiar voice scream.  It’s Brandi, from my running club.  I can’t see her but I hear her and I get a nice burst of energy from the encouragement.

Further down the street, near the old Chinatown post office, I see my friends Tara and Jennifer and Craig on the east side of Wentworth.  Yes!  So happy to see them!

I speed up and get high-fives from each of them, along with some encouraging, raucous cheers and before I know it I’ve tucked back into the Chris-led mini-peloton and I realize: Holy shit, I’m almost done.

It’s only going to hurt for a few more miles.

Just… stay… focused.

This is that part of the marathon I dream about most — that part where you really have to dig deep inside your brain to find out what you’re made of.

Are you tough? Can you stick with it til the end, gaining strength through adversity? Or are you going to give in to the pain and let all that you’ve worked so hard for disappear into the dark abyss of complacency? How… much… do you care?

I stick to Chris’ heels, drafting off of his tall build, sucking it up and convincing myself the pain and mental anguish won’t last long.

You’re almost done, Jeff. You’ve killed this course today. And you’re going to get your wish ‘cuz you’re gonna qualify for Boston.

We hit the 25 mile marker and for the first time in my marathoning life the clock has yet to strike three hours at this spot.  I come in at 2:55:40 and I think to myself:

Holy. Shit.

The last 1.2

“Okay, Team. This is it,” says Chris. “One and a quarter mile to go and you’ve earned it. We’re coming in hot! Ahead of schedule. If you wanna go take it in, go for it.”

I’m going for it.  In fact, I could run this stretch (from 16th and Michigan to Roosevelt) in my sleep, I’ve done it so often.

I take off.  Can’t even feel my legs. Pumping with my arms.  Pushing with my core.

For the first time all race I’m breathing hard.  And it feels great.

I hit the turn to Mt. Roosevelt and lean in hard on the left side, soaking all the energy from the crowd as I let them carry me up the one and only “hill” the course has to offer.  Before I know it I’m turning left on to Columbus — the last furlong — and up ahead is that glorious, GLORIOUS finish line.

I kick it into high gear, throw my arms up in the air and come across the finish line in 3 hours, 3 minutes, 27 seconds.

Pain never felt so good.

Post-Race

Here’s a marathon first: I didn’t cry this time!  Not even one tear.  Instead, I sought out my 3:05 pace teammates and embraced them with sweaty hugs, high-fives and a barrage of hoots and hollers.

We did it!  We really did it!  Boston, baby!

I get my space blanket, don my medal, then I approach Chris, Mike and Tony, individually.  I hug them all, look them each straight in the eye tell them “thank you”, from the bottom of my heart.

I had the race of my life today and I know I couldn’t have done it with such ease had it not been for their impeccable pacing (and people) skills.

I refuel with a well deserved 312 brew and do the Frankenstein walk back to gear check. I change into my warm clothes and make the trek back to the Orange Line train at Roosevelt, receiving high-fives and congratulations from passersby along the way.

My smile must be contagious.  Everyone’s wearing one.

And as I slip onto the crowded train and head back home to ice my battered posts, I look back out onto my beautiful city from the elevated tracks, comforted by the knowledge that 40,000 other folks are truly living life today in the most exhilarating way possible.

*Footnote*

The 2013 Boston Marathon still had spots open…so, of course, I’M REGISTERED!  See ya in Beantown, April 2013!


Nothin’ Like a Good Stick in the Mud

Automysophobia.  The fear of getting dirty.  For most of my adult life I have suffered from this irrational phobia and though I cannot pinpoint the exact reason, I am quite sure that it stemmed from my struggles with obsessive compulsive disorder that strangled me during my college years.

But then I became a runner.

Running has taught me so much.  It has taught me how to set goals, then work hard to achieve them.  It has taught me to be mindful, to be present and in the moment.  It has taught me to be compassionate, to be receptive, to be the best version of me I can possibly be.

And it has also taught me to just go with it sometimes.

So when my second leg of the Dances with Dirt 100K Extreme Relay in Hell, Michigan had me face a nasty series of mud bogs the consistency of blackstrap molasses, I tightened the string on my shorts and just jumped right in.

Waist high muck intent on sucking the shoes right off my feet was no match for my running induced love affair with nature.  Getting dirty has never been so fun!  In fact, the whole time I was wading through the mud, I couldn’t help but think about how alive I felt, about how much I enjoy being out in nature, truly experiencing everything she has to offer.

Surely, the smile on my face while trudging through swamp was disconcerting to those fellow runners around me who looked… um… uncomfortable.  And awkward.  And pissy.

Such feelings are not for me.  As long as I’m able to run, I’m going to embrace it.  And though my adventures might sometimes lead me down dirty, difficult, uncomfortable paths, I will always take the feeling of being alive over being reserved and unaware of my ultimate potential.

Team Freudian Slip and Falls, 2012. From left to right: Eric, Jeff, Keith, Megan (with Sigmund Freud’s zombie head on a stick in back).

– – –

If you’re looking for a fantastic way to spend a whole day with your running buddies on awesome trails, consider participating in one of the Dances with Dirt 100K Extreme relays.  It’s such a fun day.  The teams really go all out with their costumes and totems and team names.  And the organizers do a great job of making it a fun-first event.


Behind the Abs: Some Detail and Instruction on How I Got Them and How You Can Too

When I first saw the above picture, taken at the Peapod Half Madness Half Marathon a few weeks ago, I had to do a double-take.  Who the hell is that guy?!?!  Is that really me?  Holy shit!  When did I become… that?!?

I posted the picture on my Facebook, and before I knew it I was receiving an abundance of messages, comments and texts, all asking the same thing:

HOW DID YOU DO THAT?

It’s a great question.  And the answer is layered, with several components.  But it’s an important one to address because by examining exactly how I did transform from a tired, overweight, boozing nicotine addict into the uber-fit, lean ultrarunner I am today, I think others will discover that it really is possible — that if one is determined enough, he or she can have the type of body people dream about.

Me, summer of 2009. Pudgy and buzzed with questionable tastes in fashion.

The problem with acquiring that perfect dream body is the simple fact that it is definitely not easy.  In fact, it’s really damn hard.  The only way it can be achieved is through determination, practice and discipline.  That’s good news if you’re a runner, because running requires all of the above.  In fact, that’s how it all started for me.  Once I became a runner and began setting and accomplishing my goals, then I realized that I could accomplish any reasonable goal I put out there, as long as I made use of the same principles.

Determination, practice, discipline.

Determination:
Tired of always thinking what if, I decided I was just going to do it.  No matter what.  I was going to get a six-pack.  Whatever it took.  Once I became determined and really prepared myself mentally for the kind of struggle that would be necessary, I went on to the practice phase.

Practice:
Knowing it wasn’t going to happen overnight, I started at zero and worked my way up.  I learned some basic physiology tenets and found exercises that would get me where I wanted to go.  I did the work.  Lots and lots of work.  And while this may not be what most people want to hear, it is the truth that it took about two years of hard work to get my body to look like it does today.  Two years.  Anything that takes that long requires…

Discipline:
To quote Scott Jurek, “Sometimes you just do things.”  I’m tired today.  So what.  There’s work to do.  I’m really craving that Ben & Jerry’s.  Too bad.  There’s work to do.  Can’t I just skip this workout?  Sure, but you can kiss that six-pack goodbye.

With those principles in mind, let’s next look at the three major components of my total body transformation — the actual practices that made it possible:

1)  INTENSE CARDIO
This may be obvious, considering this is a running blog and I am a runner, but that doesn’t diminish its importance.  I lost all the “fat” I had by running a bunch.  And it’s not like I have been running crazy mileage forever either.  In 2010 I averaged 25 miles a week.  In 2011 it went up to about 40 miles a week.  This year I’m averaging 70 miles a week, but such mileage is not necessary to lose the fat.

What is necessary is getting that heart rate up.  One can do this by swimming, biking, boxing, jazzercising… it doesn’t matter.  Just devote some time (20 minutes a day would be a good start) to an activity that requires a sustained, elevated heart rate.

The effects of my intense cardio sessions (running mostly) were that, after about 12 months, I eventually reached my ideal base weight — a number backed up by simple body mass index formulas.

2)  DIET
This is probably the hardest aspect of body sculpting, but I assure you it is the most important.  And it is possible.  Again, it just takes determination, practice and discipline.  The truth is: what you put into your body is paramount to how it will look and operate.  For me, adhering to a good diet required a complete overhaul of my understanding of food — where it comes from, how it is prepared, how it affects my body.  Realizing I knew very little about general nutrition and the science around it, I bought some books and read up on it.  What I discovered was as exciting as it was alarming.

The most important step I took was eliminating virtually all processed foods from my diet.  I got rid of anything full of high fructose corn syrup and eschewed all other engineered food products.  I stopped drinking calories.  No more soda.  No more concentrated “juices”.  No more crap.  I stopped boozing.

I quit eating fast food (the WORST!!!).  When eating out, I opted for the healthier options whenever possible.  And most importantly, I began to focus my diet on a variety of whole foods, paying special attention to those categorized as “super foods” (whole grains, leafy greens, berries, quinoa, legumes, eggs, Greek yogurt, sweet potatoes, broccoli, almonds, salmon, etc.).

Dessert became a four-letter word.  That is not to say I wouldn’t, on occasion, partake in a small bit of ice cream or a cookie now and then, but those occasions became extremely rare.  Even now, I have little room for junk food (pizza, sweets, chips, etc) in my diet.  Every great once in a while I will indulge, but I often don’t feel too well afterward — my body’s way of reminding me that that shit is not good for me — so such happenings are rare.

In fact, I would assume very few people get the beach body by eating like shit.  It’s just not conducive to how our bodies work, naturally.  Our bodies respond to good, wholesome, nutrient rich foods, not engineered foodstuffs full of ingredients that no one can pronounce.

3)  SUPPLEMENTAL BODY & CORE SPECIFIC TRAINING
If you have the intense cardio down and you’re eating right, you should already be looking pretty damn good!  What is left is only a matter of specificity.  Decide what it is you want, then do the work it takes to get it.  I wanted a six-pack.  So I started doing workouts that focus on the core.  Outside of running, I like to box, so I trained with some boxers in my neighborhood and picked their brains for advice.  I bought books on core training.  I started to see results (albeit slowly, remember, these things take time) within six months or so and I just kept at it until the definition finally arrived.  And when my training needed a bit of variety — a boost to get into that pop-out territory, I eventually hired a trainer to teach me more advanced workouts.  I learned them well and I teach them now .

Me in 2010 (left). Me in 2012 (right).

I should also add that, in my supplemental body and core specific training, I do not lift a lot of traditional weights.  I do from time to time, but I’m a runner.  I need to be as lean as possible, while still maintaining a high level of strength and support.  Instead of lifting weights, I utilize full body weight training.  Resistance training.  I do some band work and a few kettle bell workouts, but otherwise, all of the exercises I do require little else than my own body (think push-ups, pull-ups, dips, planks, etc).

The key to this sort of training, in my opinion, is to vary the exercises.  Just like with food, the more varied, the better.  If I am doing my workouts correctly, I should experience soreness in the day or two after.  Of course, like any other exercise, intensity should be based on whatever the body has that day, but in general, I like to push myself to get just one more sit-up… just one more push-up… just… one… MORE!!!

BUT WHAT DO YOU ACTUALLY DO, JEFF???

When I put it all together, it goes something like this:

I run.  Six days a week.  The distance varies, and I run at different intensities, but the heart rate is always elevated.

I do two or three 40-60 minute supplemental body and core specific workouts, depending on how my body feels that week.

Here is an example workout. Keep in mind that I prefer the active recovery model, so I’m never fully resting. I generally do two sets of each exercise, and in between sets I jump rope as “rest”:

Jump rope
Up-down push ups into high bar pull-ups
Jump rope
One legged squats
Jump rope
Hanging leg raises
Jump rope
Dips into knee raises
Jump rope
Stairs
Jump rope
Scorpion push-ups
Jump rope
Hindu push-ups
Jump rope
Traditional planks
Jump rope
Side planks
Jump rope
Bear push-ups

I eat well.  I eat a variety of whole foods, focusing on the “super” foods.

I also sleep 7-9 hours every night.

I don’t drink much alcohol.  And when I do drink, I only have a few.

I take one day off a week — from everything — and I force myself to kick my feet up and enjoy a good game or movie or book.

But, MORE than anything:

I believe in myself and I believe in what I am able to do, physically and mentally.  I feel like every day is an opportunity to get better, to do the work it takes to be who I want to be.  It’s something we are all capable of, every single one of us.

So what are you waiting for?

– – –

PS.  I am not a doctor.  The above is not intended to be medical advice.  Always consult with your doctor if there are doubts.  If you are interested in getting started yourself and want a learned trainer to get you there, please let me know.