Some of you may remember that I broke my collarbone just over a year ago and had major surgery to repair it. I was able to get back to running and even ran the Promise Land 50k this Spring. I did finish the race but I was very much undertrained and it was a death march for the last half of the race. I felt bad most of the day and in the subsequent weeks started to question if I wanted to continue running.
Over the summer, I tried to get into a routine and get fit again but I kept having small injuries that would sideline me for a couple of days. I never got into a rhythm. I was inconsistent and swung the pendulum from not doing enough to overdoing it on a near weekly basis. It was frustrating and I felt like crap most of the time.
I changed jobs recently and one of the amazing benefits my new employer provides is a Wellness Benefit. Each employee has $150 per month to spend on things that improve our wellness. Do you want to take a knitting class? Paid. Do you want to join a gym? Paid. Do you need someone to cut your grass because you work odd hours? Paid. Basically, any service that helps lower your stress and/or keeps you healthy can be reimbursed by the benefit. Come work with us!
All of that means that I had $150 a month to pay for the services of a running coach and my running has been so much more fun and productive since then.
I’d long followed David Roche’s writing and social media. I appreciate his approach to training and to the sport of ultrarunning. Namely, his approach focuses on research and science but grounds all of that in the fun and adventure that is at the core of ultrarunning. However, his was full and he referred me to my now coach, Yvonne Naughton.
After a few introductory emails, Coach Yvonne and I hit it off quite well. I think she had a good sense of what I needed. I don’t need cheerleading or empty congratulatory pep talks. I need direction, consistency, information, and data. She provides that in spades. And while I like to act all spartan and hard about running, she still gives me the constructive push and cheer when I really do need it.
Regardless of your goals or current fitness, here’s what I think everyone should get out of a good coaching/athlete relationship. These are things that Coach Yvonne and I focus on to make sure our work together is productive.
Consistency. One of my favorite benefits of working with Coach Yvonne is that she does all the planning for my runs. She has a long-term plan which we talk about and she gives me week-to-week plans for workouts. If I have special demands on time or activity, she works it in to the plan and adjusts everything to keep me running and healthy. I stay on track not just in mileage but in effort and focus.
Feedback. Coach Yvonne gives me feedback on every run/ride/walk that I do. I tell her how it went and she tells me how my body might react and what to expect the next day. There are few surprises and when things go especially bad, she offers ways to work out of it.
Encouragement. Yes, I said I don’t need a cheerleader. But, anyone that’s been a runner long can tell you that the occasional nudge is important. Specifically, I have a very short memory about my progress. One bad workout where I don’t get my negative splits and I forget that two months ago, I was barely doing 12 miles a week and felt horrible the whole time. Coach Yvonne reminds me of how far we’ve come and where we are headed.
Safety. Coach Yvonne is an accomplished ultrarunner and she has the experience and training to know when soreness is more than that. She knows the signs of overtraining or fatigue. She can spot, just in the way I talk about a run, how it really went. It also helps that she’s a medical doctor. But, the important point is that an experienced second opinion is vital if you’re wondering whether you should do that speed work when your ankle hurts.
Fun. Runners love to talk about running. I’m sure my wife is happy that Coach Yvonne is around to listen to me wax on about the trail I ran last weekend. I am lucky to have a great running community around me and I see my coach as an extension of that.
I am remarkably privileged to have my coaching services paid for through my job. I am deeply grateful both for the benefit and for all the things that got me to a place where it’s possible for me to take advantage of it. I recognize that this isn’t possible for everyone because of budget constraints. I wonder if there’d be a way to have some of the outdoor/running companies do some fundraising to provide coaching services for runners who couldn’t otherwise afford it.
If it is something that your budget can absorb, I highly recommend getting a running coach and setting some lofty goals for yourself. This has been the most fun and strongest running I’ve done in years. I’m rediscovering why I fell in love with this sport and I’m so excited for what could happen during next year’s races. I’m thinking Lynchburg Ultra Series and possibly my first 100 late in the year or early 2020.
The major thing that had me stuck to this book was the cipher that is Barry Cohen. His guilelessness while also being a human capable of great harm and shallowness is perplexing but also somehow creates a gravity that is tough to escape. I found myself drawn to him in ways that the other characters in the book are.
But, there’s repulsion too that only serves to create a tension I had to explore. Ultimately, the most successful part of this book his Barry’s estranged wife, Seema. Her character shines through as touchingly human and endearingly conflicted. Much has been written about her dealing with the Cohen’s autistic three-year-old son, Shiva. I don’t have enough experience to know if it’s realistic or not. It is affecting and her struggles feel genuine. I’m not as keen to search for authenticity as I am to search for duality and paradox in the human condition and Seema is nothing if not torn.
For all the write-ups about this being a book about Trump’s America, I found it to be more a book about how fragile and unknown the human heart can be.
So many of my thoughts lately are coalescing around a few writers and musicians. Charles Eisenstein, Wendell Berry, Peter Oren, Various leftist/agrarian reggae artists.
There’s a theme through all this that I can’t escape. I felt it profoundly when I was in San Francisco a few weeks ago. This disconnection in a world that claims to be overly connected. If there’s anywhere to feel that feeling, you’ll find it on the streets of this techno-wizard city beset with income inequality, housing madness, and unbridled greed all in the guise of progress.
When I ran through the Presidio one morning, I jogged off the path and just stood in the midst of the giant trees there. I just needed to absorb some of that energy and dispel some of my own negative energy. Even there, I was reminded that this was an Army base and I marveled at the barracks and stables where we once guarded against intrusion by the other.
I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and I watched a giant tanker pass under the bridge. I waved at a guy on the ship. I envied his impending journey out on the ocean. Meek in the face of nature but with an empty sky above him full of stars.
I considered what that tanker was carrying and it made me wonder how we have become so adept at the corruption of our own wellbeing. Here’s a marvel of engineering used not to further our wonder or knowledge but to schlep the effluence resulting from inflicting wounds on the land for the sole purpose of convenience.
I recently ran past the hotly contested Mountain Valley Pipeline construction that’s happening here in southwest Virginia. It’s a 30 yard wide scar across mountains, streams, the Appalachian Trail, vistas of wonder. I just stopped and stood in the middle of this destruction. It looked like a giant had taken its finger and smudged everything in its path into a broken, gray wasteland. It’s a rending of the Earth with no concern except the attempt to sate the hunger for commerce and the religion of more.
Some guy in a hardhat and hi-vis vest yelled at me to “get off his work site.” The use of the possessive there made me furious. I shuffled off and wondered what exactly it was that he thought he owned.
I can’t escape these echoes of the boundless pain we inflict on our world and ourselves. I get back to my desk and see that Apple has announced a new phone which is priced at $1,449. The world rejoices while Apple sits on billions in cash and we marvel at these kings of capitalism.
That chart you see at the top is a bit of fuzzy math to determine my fitness, fatigue, and stress levels for the last year. There’s an interesting dip there with a heck of climb in the last few months. This is the short version of what happened.
I’m about one month away from my first attempt at the Promise Land 50k. It’s a tough race and I’m not sure what made me choose it as my first race back. You see, I broke my collarbone in the fall of last year.
It was a simply bicycle crash but it was a not so simple break. It required a three hour surgery which was about twice as long as it normally takes.
I started tentatively getting back to activity in December, then we had some family stuff come up and it wasn’t really until January that I started running seriously again. My fitness has come back decently but the mental part is still very far away from where I was. My confidence is shaken and I haven’t decided yet if I can trust my body to do what I want the way I could before.
As is typical for me this time of year, I’m fighting some powerful spells of depression and anxiety. I don’t know if it’s the accumulated lack of sun from the winter, the change to spring, the time shift, or what but I always struggle in April to keep my head above water. The running helps but sometimes it’s hard to get myself out the door.
So, I’ve added some stairclimber and swimming into my routine of running. That cross-training has mostly helped keep me motivated but I’m still struggling to rediscover my why for wanting to run a grueling ultramarathon. That crucial component of the mental challenge is fuzzy for me right now. I’ve had a very clear understanding of my motivations in the past but they’ve gotten clouded by other things lately. I’ve got a few weeks to figure it out.
Or maybe I won’t figure out until the last mile of the race. Maybe then, with my legs stinging and sluggish and the sweat caked on my face, I’ll remember what it is about this sport that makes me want to suffer so. Seeing the finish line and a clock under the cutoff will go a long way to clear up my doubts.
I don’t think of myself as someone who is goal-oriented, who tracks milestones, who plans particulars about how to achieve, well, anything. I tend to just plow in and do until I achieve the desired result.
I was surprised a bit then this weekend when my long run resulted in my passing the 1000 mile mark for the year. It wasn’t a goal I’d set out to reach. It wasn’t a milestone I had circled on a calendar. It was just a thing I noticed on Strava.
That said, I’m proud of making the mark. I’m more excited about the group of people that I got to do it with.
Sometime in June, I made my first trip to the Wednesday night Pub Run at Runabout Sports. Runabout is our local specialty running store. They provide high quality service and quality products for the needs of just about any runner. In addition to being a great store, they’ve also become a hub for the local running community.
It was this community that I stumbled into on that initial Pub Run and where I’ve made friends and running partners that have become a wonderful part of my life. The weekly run provides an anchor for my training. It provides an outlet for my worries and concerns about my training or racing. It provides a place to share our love of running. But, what it really provides is a place to make friends and to share our lives whether we talk about running or not.
It was the group of friends I’ve made at Pub Run which I joined this weekend for a long run on the Appalachian Trail. Most of them were doing the Catawba Run Around (a 35-mile loop traversing Dragon’s Tooth, McAfee Knob, and Tinker Cliffs) but I just joined them for the last third of the loop. While I felt pretty rough at the end of my 13-mile segment, I was overjoyed to be spending time in the woods with my friends. Friends I made at Pub Run.
We live in a society where people move away from their hometowns. They ensconce themselves behind screens detached from what’s happening right outside their door. They wallow in excesses labeled as entertainment. Pub Run is my quilting bee, my barn raising, my Sunday potluck, my barber shop, the place where I fight against all these isolationist impulses. It’s a shared commitment to support others and to let myself be supported. It might be the place I am the most me. Thank you to Runabout Sports for making it happen.
Speaking of milestones, I passed 100 miles run at Pub Run since that initial run in June. Maybe I am a milestone person.
It’s Nov. 9th and Donald Trump is our President-Elect as I sit down to write this race report. I spent yesterday working the polls at my local precinct helping people to have their voice heard. Of course, I don’t know how any of them voted, but I do know that of the 4000+ people registered to vote at that precinct 2600+ of them showed up. It’s always about showing up.
The idea to run the Sky to Summit 50k came to me around April as I looked back on the Bel Monte races in Feb. where I dropped down from the 50k to the 25k because of some awful IT band issues. I was determined to use the next few months to regain some fitness and get strong.
Choosing Sky to Summit as your first ultra is maybe not my best idea. I’ve never been one for moderation in life. If you know me better than most, you can vouch for this.
The Sky to Summit course is a tough mountain course with almost 8000 feet of elevation gain with 3-4 intense climbs and the same number of descents along some occasionally technical single track. The course has runners climbing up and over Georgia’s second highest mountain…twice! Add all that to a couple of long (~5-8 miles) stretches between aid stations and it can get downright grim if it weren’t for the amazing views.
Further, the race allows no crew, no pacers, and no drop bags. There are aid stations full of friendly, calming, helpful, and amazing volunteers but that boost that comes from seeing a friend or family member wasn’t going to happen unless I made it to the finish line where my wife and son would be waiting.
Until this weekend, I’d never run more than 17-18 miles in training or a race. That Bel Monte 25k was my longest effort. Over the summer, I had a few 18 mile days on trails around our area. I also paced my friend Jim at a 36-hour race and got in about 18 flatland miles which gave me a bit of hope.
I wasn’t sure about running overnight at Jim’s race but I wanted to hang out with Jim. I wanted to get a taste for running without slowing to climb or descend but just hold a steady pace for hours. I wanted to help a friend and have a new experience. I wanted to show up.
Pacing Jim at Holston River went well, so I planned a trail marathon in September to test my training, nutrition, and equipment. I had hoped to run the Douthat Odyssey Trail Running Rampage marathon. About two weeks before that race, I was diagnosed with a heel spur that was really limiting my ability to train effectively. So, I skipped the race in an effort to heal a bit. I did not show up.
That meant I arrived in Sky Valley, GA with an ailing foot and a month-plus of limited training for the hardest race I’ve yet to attempt. My confidence was extremely low. I felt that I could finish the race but that the time cutoff, while generous at 10 hours, would still cause me problems. I knew that I would need to make up time going downhill but that’s exactly what causes my heel spur to really ache. It was a bad combination.
Like many of the Run Bum races, Sky to Summit is a bit more low-key and grassroots affair than some other races. No giant banners or inflatable finish lines. The course is stunningly beautiful though and the volunteers are amazing. Saturday morning didn’t feature loud music or product pitches or sponsors giving away swag. Just a bunch of people standing in the cold dark listening to the Run Bum get us fired up. And it was dark. Smoke from fires on the west side of the GA mountains obscured the moon and stars.
The start was even delayed for a bit so we’d have a bit more sun on our first ascent to Rabun Bald. That wasn’t true for runners who chose to take the 30 minute head start option. I did not take that option. Remember that for later.
The race starts with a steep climb up a small, neighborhood road which had most of us just hiking and getting warmed up. I ran into a couple of guys from my hometown, Albany, GA, and we chatted a bit about what was ahead of us. One of them, Jason, was running his first ultra ever and we joked about racing for last place. We talked about our training and being nervous about doing this for the first time. It’s scary to put yourself in a position where you are so vulnerable. But Jason showed up.
After about 4 miles of hiking/running up 1500ft of climb, I was at the top of Rabun Bald where the views were amazing. I stopped for a couple of minutes to take some photos and enjoy the sunrise trying to clear my head for the rest of the day. I thought this might be the best I felt for the next several days. I wasn’t wrong.
Descending 4-5 miles down to the Wilson Gap aid station, there’s about a 300ft climb to maneuver over and down but it’s mostly nice single track where I fell into what felt like a decent rhythm. It was in this section when the leader and eventual winner, David Kilgore, passed me headed back up to Rabun Bald. He finished in 4:19 or something. Just incredible. I cheered him on and shook my head. David showed up.
Leaving Wilson Gap, the course does a loop with a little out and back section. Coming back out of that loop is a challenging, technical climb to get back to Wilson Gap. Somewhere in that loop, I fell and did a pretty sweet somersault and got back on my feet. Nothing was hurt and it was almost a parkour move. So much so that the folks running behind me laughed and said it looked like I did it on purpose.
It was in this loop that my GPS watch appears to have lost its signal and gone all kinds of haywire. I still had the elapsed time but the pace and distance measurements would continue to degrade to the point that at the end, my watch was around 3-4 miles over distance and the pace was 2-3 minutes/mile faster than reality. Suunto did not show up.
When I got back to Wilson Gap at mile 14 or so, the volunteers let me know that I was 1:30 ahead of that aid station cutoff so I was looking pretty good. I started back toward Rabun Bald feeling good about making some time on the runnable approach to the Rabun Bald climb.
However, when I hit that 300ft bump I mentioned earlier, my quads pretty much locked up. I had about 2 miles where I could only walk and it was on probably the most runnable part of the course. I was losing valuable time. My mental state fell into the pits. I was thinking about dropping if I could make it to the top of Rabun Bald. I was passed by 5 or 6 runners I had previously passed. I was hurting and mad and frustrated. But my watch was telling me that I was making good distance. It was lying.
I started the climb back up to Rabun Bald and my legs started loosening up. I was even able to run some of the up and finally got to the top. My mood came up a bit and the views at the top reminded me a bit of why I was out there.
Officially, that’s around the 19 mile mark but my watch said 21. I did not write down the distances to the aid stations or landmarks anywhere and neglected to ask the volunteers on Rabun Bald. I thought I was 2 miles ahead of where I was when I started down toward the Three Forks AS. Lesson learned that relying on elapsed time and noting distances to identifiable locations is better than GPS and pace.
The descent down the backside of Rabun Bald is sketchy. It’s steep, filled with rocks and drops of 4-5 feet. It’s covered in dry, crumbling, slippery leaves. There is nothing keeping you from just tumbling down about 1200ft. of mountain. I slid on my butt on several sections of it. It was faster and safer.
My quads couldn’t take much of the climbing down anyway. They were beginning to tighten again. Even as the trail flattened a bit into another nice, runnable downhill section, I was barely able to jog because of the pain in my quads. My quads did not show up.
Eventually, I got to Three Forks AS where I saw a sign that said 21 miles. I was still 10 miles away from the finish. I was 30 minutes ahead of that AS cut off. That meant I had about 2.5 hours to get to the finish but would need to do something like 4 miles an hour over the next 10 miles with at least one steep, technical climb and one long gravel road climb.
Upon telling me this, the volunteer must have seen something in my face because he said, “Do you want to continue?” Two other runners were dropping from the race feet away from me, one of them in tears. I looked up at this man with concern washing over his face and said, “I might not make it but I’m not stopping here.”
The next section had a decent amount of fire road running which reminded me a lot of the Mountain Lake area roads that I trained on. I tried to power up them and get some time behind me but the miles were catching up to me and the clock was not my friend.
At one point, the volunteers and dropped runners from the Three Forks AS passed me in their vehicles. They had broken down the AS and were headed to the start/finish. They asked me if I was OK. I lied and said, “Great!” At least that’s what I think I said. Either way, they drove off and it was then I knew I was very much alone out on the trail and maybe the last person on course.
Somewhere in that last 10 miles, there’s a section of trail that takes you to the Holcomb Creek Falls. They are rugged and beautiful and the climb up them is challenging. I was so taken by trying to hustle up the hill and staring at the falls that I missed a turn and went about a quarter mile too far. I realized my error because the trail ended in an overlook over the falls and there was nowhere else to go. I might still be out there if that trail hadn’t been a dead-end.
At this point, I know that the last AS is 2 miles from the start/finish and I need to be there by 9:30 to safely make it under the 10 hour cutoff. I turn onto the Bartram Trail and see a sign for Bee Gum Gap (which the AS is named after) and it says 2.7 miles. I stopped for a minute in front of that sign recognizing that 2.7 miles of that trail plus 2 miles past that AS and unless I could do like 8 minute miles, I wouldn’t make it.
Here’s how it went down in real-time:
I’m not sure if I need to do the whole trail. Maybe the AS is named after the trail but isn’t the end of it. Maybe I’m only a half mile from the AS. I’m hoping that around every turn there’ll be the AS. I know that I can’t trust the distances on my GPS so I don’t really know how far I have to go. I also know that it doesn’t matter. I just have to keep going. I have to show up.
I arrive at Bee Gum Gap AS at exactly 10:00 into the race. The race cutoff has hit and I’m 2 miles away from the start/finish. Between me and the end is an all-downhill run on pavement. I jog into the AS and I say, “I’m a bit late for the party.” The volunteer, maybe Run Bum’s Dad?, smiles and says, “I’m afraid I’m going to have to pull you. We’re an hour over the AS cutoff.”
Here’s where my inexperience comes into play. To the degree that I’d calculated any distances and cutoffs, I’d been using the whole race cutoff to figure out pace. I hadn’t considered that the last AS would have a cutoff a whole hour ahead of the race cutoff given that it’s only 2 miles from the end. Lesson learned.
I look at the volunteer and he sees in my eyes a mixture of fear, fatigue, pain, strength, pleading, and confusion. He points to a couple of runners sitting on the side of the road and says, “These guys just dropped and you can catch a ride with them.” A second volunteer pipes up, “The bus is leaving so come on and we’ll go get something to eat.” I just stand there stunned for a moment. I ask the third volunteer if she needs my bib. I assume they take it from you if you aren’t in the race anymore. She says, “No, honey. You can keep that.”
Again, the second volunteer says, “Come on and get in.” The first volunteer says, “There are few folks still behind you,” as he points back down the trail. I look into his eyes and I ask, “Can I run it in?” He’s confused. Doesn’t really get what I’m asking. I repeat, “Can I run it in? I don’t want anyone to get in trouble but I don’t want to drive down the mountain.” He says, “You look strong enough, but, well, it’s almost dark and we need to be safe and I just don’t–”
“I can do it. I will make it.” I’m pleading but I’m wary of being rude. I’m wary of making these amazing people angry. These people who are trying to keep me safe. These people who’ve been out here all day so I can spend some time pushing myself and finding out what’s inside. I want them to want me to finish.
He glances at the ground and then back at me, “Go ahead.”
They are asking me questions as I tear ass out of the AS at full speed. I fly down the hill as fast as my shredded quads will let me. The car with the second volunteer and the dropped runners (this is the second time I was passed by a car of dropped runners today) passes me and the driver rolls the window down and asks, “Can you go a little faster?” We both laugh and I try to run a little faster.
I near the end of the race. I’m on a switch backed road just above the start/finish when I hear my wife, Danielle, yell, “You can do it! Just keep going!” Then, I hear my son, Oliver, shout, “Come on Dad! We’re here for you!”
I immediately blubber a bit and make the final turn. A car full of runners, finished and full of beer and BBQ, shout my name. The volunteers at the finish call out to me. I finally turn toward the finish line with Oliver by my side and see Sean, the Run Bum, waiting for me. I grab his hand and half-hug him as I whisper, “Thanks for waiting.”
I finished in 10:30. That’s 30 minutes over the cut off so it’s officially a DNF. I ran every foot of the course. I climbed every foot of elevation. I made it to the end. Later that night, as I’m lying in bed, my son comes over and whispers in my ear, “I know you didn’t make the time but I know you finished and I’m really proud of you.”
It has been a tough few weeks around here. But there have been happy moments as well. Our son turned seven. My wife and I celebrated 17 years of marriage. We are now at around a month before the Bel Monte Endurance Races. I had planned for and registered for the 50k race. As you may know, I’ve been battling knee issues, IT band issues, and other challenges while training. The brutally cold winter hasn’t helped me stay on track either.
After a tough training run this weekend, I’ve decided to drop down to the 25k race at Bel Monte. It seems like a good idea to be safe, injury-free, and accomplish something. At the same time, I’d hate to make more work for the volunteers or cause another racer injury or duress trying to help me.
I hope that if the race goes well, it will be a springboard for a summer of strong training and a trail marathon in the early fall with maybe a 50k in the late fall.
At any rate, Saturday was a painful and humbling run on a beautiful trail with some wonderful weather. I was down in Dalton, GA where my in-laws live and had the chance to spend some time on the famed Pinhoti Trail. The Pinhoti is a trail that runs from Alabama into northwest Georgia and nearly connects to the Appalachian Trail. It’s not a complete wilderness trail as it cuts through some smaller towns including Dalton.
The section I tackled starts at a parking area and trailhead called Snake Creek Gap. Over the course of over 15 miles, the trail crests four peaks starting with Mill Creek Mountain, moving to Middle Mountain, then Hurricane Mountain, and finishing on the top of Dug Mountain. The whole section gives you about 2,500 feet of elevation gain. There are some decent views of the surrounding ridges and near Dug Mountain a few expansive views of Dalton.
It’s an extremely rocky trail with several challenging vertical sections that seem to eschew switchbacks in favor of stair-stepping large boulders. At one point, I was actually cursing the rocks. I was actually pointing and cursing rocks that seemed to jump up and snag my feet. It was one of the most mentally challenging runs I’ve had in recent memory. I just wanted to get off the mountain as fast as possible.
The trail is popular with bikers who must be highly skilled or else carry their bikes across some sections because it’s often just a pile of rocks. While the trail does provide its share of challenges, the trail is accessible enough for most hikers and is close to the surrounding communities making it a strong option for outdoors folks in north Georgia.
The rocky trail ultimately led me to the decision mentioned above as my ankles and feet just aren’t going to be ready for 50k of this. I hope that the next time we are visiting family, I can give the trail another shot and try to improve on a really tough day out.