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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Matt's First Summit

Matt's First Summit via Bicycle

Way to go Matt. I never grow weary of taking people to the top of Mt. Diablo. It's a chance to vicariously relive that massive sense of accomplishment. We have put in quite a few miles together over the past few months, and even rolled up as far as the ranger station, half way up, a few weeks back. But in reaching the top at last, today's success was a great way to finish the year.

Total mileage for the day was right around 50 miles, so his first attempt at climbing to the top was not half baked by driving to the base of the mountain like some of the rest of us have done. The winds were variable throughout the day, but nothing like the gale force winds that beleaguered us on our last visit to the the mountain. In total, the weather was splendid, with temperatures topping out in the 60's and nothing but sunshine.

We discussed options for his first century coming up next year, and at this rate, he'll be ready by spring. Looking forward to many more miles in the next year. Ride on.

Monday, December 26, 2011

It Takes a Long Time

7:16 am - Day after Christmas - Briones

It sure takes a long time to train for a marathon. Yes it takes months to prepare, but I mean it takes a lot of time out of a week too. My training for the Mt. Diablo Ultra - a 50k - has brought my long weekend runs up to well over 20 miles and finding time to run those distances means more than flirting with creativity.

Thursday of last week, my wife and I sat at the kitchen table discussing the best time for my weekend's long run. I didn't want another out and back route and was hoping for a route that would reward me with an end point over the hills and far away from my start. That meant I needed some form of a ride home.

Friday night was an option, if my friend Jeremy was willing to chauffeur me home. With their home several hours away, he and his family were staying the night at our house so I could take them to the airport early Saturday morning. I suppose we could have squeezed it in Friday night, but Saturday morning was certainly out. Saturday being Christmas eve, there were all day yuletide preparations, so I didn't bother to mention it as an option. Christmas day? I've managed similar feats of courage in the past but have always been more heavily invested in emotional capital and had the doghouse better stocked.

That pretty much toasted the weekend. I had given my employees Monday off, so when I recommended that I finish at a Starbucks where my girls and I could have breakfast after the run, a compromise for Monday morning was signed.

My workout took me from my home in Martinez, completely across Briones Regional Park (bagging Briones Peak at 1486', plus another 1000' in accumulated elevation gain), through the Lafayette, Walnut Creek, Pleasant Hill corner, and on to the Railroad Starbucks in Danville - 22.5 miles.

Last week I took off - as a rest week - after the weekend prior riding 105 miles on Saturday and then Sunday morning running 21 miles with over 1500' of elevation gain. That cost me not only all day Saturday, but also Sunday and Monday in an irritable half-comatose recovery state. A week off was well-advised and inevitable since my wife was out of town for 5 of those days, and I had charge of our progeny. I managed to rest most of the week with only one slip-up on Friday, running 5 miles behind the jogging stroller.

So now it's half way through this week and I'm searching for that next block of free time in the vicinity of the weekend. Yet, somehow that block of free time isn't all that's required. Preparations begin a couple of days in advance by rearranging my sleep time to be sure I'm getting at least 6 or 7 hours of rest per night. The evening before the long run is serious prep time, with water bottles laying about the kitchen, tennis shoes by the door, and various layers of clothing strewn conveniently about for most efficient application in the dark of the next early morning. I'm basically lost to my family for small segments of time as I mentally check off the required items and lay them out where a 2-year-old won't purloin them, but where I can't miss them.

Then I run.

Home again, the process works in reverse. The ice bath, consumption of large quantities of breakfast, and shower take at least another hour. A load of laundry (because my wife flatly refuses to touch my soggy clothes) is also recognized as part of the weekend run.

All said, I suspect that the time spent running is less than half the time invested in the run. Add the reduced efficiency in limping about for the next 24 hours, and the inevitability of waking up halfway through a bedtime story with a 2 year old beating me with another book and an 8-year-old jamming her elbow in my ribs, and I would say my family is likely as heavily invested in my running (and cycling) as I am.

I wouldn't have you think that all is mission oriented though. Our happy little tribe is bustling with activity, so the integration of more is always taken "in stride." And, there is plenty of carefree time for all of the family. As a matter of fact, some of that free time has contributed to the recent expansion of the tribe. Well, actually only one of us is expanding currently, but soon enough we will be squeezing in time for another little member. I thought we had dodged the double jogging stroller - maybe not.

Happy New Year.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Ice Bath

People raise eyebrows and bystanders begin backing away slowly and quietly when I say that I will take, or have taken, or recommend that they take an ice bath. Otherwise pleasant and engaging conversations turn - well - cold at such an innocuous reference.

I mean what's the big deal? We converse fondly of going home to take a nice hot shower, or to soak in the tub. What is it about an ice bath that spins this in such a socially unacceptable direction? Like you've never settled into a tub of ice water? No?

So I ponder... What is the percentage of humans who have intentionally lowered themselves into a bathtub of frigid water? Probably a very small number. That small number is no doubt just a shade smaller than the percentage of humans training for ultra-marathons right now. Broadly recognized as bunch of self-destructive lunatics, both of those cohorts include me in their number. Along with other shorter runs, I am now consistently mapping runs of over 20 miles at least once per week - and after those runs I sit in a bathtub chilled with ice cubes for upwards of 20 minutes. I recognize that most Americans find it hard to understand why anyone would choose to run any distance further than that between security and their gate at the airport, and am thus likewise impelled to understand their similar aversion to an otherwise unlikely means of perpetuating the ability to run distances far in excess of the airport itself. What I just said was, if you can't figure out why we run, then you probably won't understand the ice part either.

My understanding of cycling, running, and endurance sports in general has developed over the years - in direct correlation to my list of injuries. A misconception I harbored for many years was that a sore muscle or joint (overuse related) should be heated to relax said muscle or joint. I have since learned that immediately after a workout, heat is the enemy. In the past I have inadvertently been exacerbating the inflammation in those sore muscles with heat and thus furthering the damage. To my chagrin science has proven that ice is the solution.

So, you see, contrary to popular belief a nice hot relaxing shower or bath immediately following a hard workout is not a really great idea. It seems really great - believe me - especially on those bitter cold mornings when the water I'm carrying has frozen and I've been running for hours alternating between sweating my way up hills and freezing my way down. A hot bath just beyond the finish is spectacularly motivating after the tears caused by the cold dry air have frozen my eyelashes together. Unfortunately a diabolical little interlude has become modus operandi.

After learning of my need for ice I began strapping on ice packs after a long run, and I thought that was torture. When I realized that our collection of ice packs stored in the door of the freezer was shy of sufficient, I feared I was missing something. My fears were realized when I learned of The Ice Bath.

OK, so I started out thinking they were nuts too. One website I read recommended letting your family and friends know when you are going to be entering the ice bath, lest they hear your howls, come running, and inadvertently rescue you. Oh boy do I understand.

Now my routine is typically along these lines:
  • Finish running and lightly stretch all leg muscles.
  • Remove all unnecessary clothing items (Hat, gloves, jersey, shoes) because everything is completely soaked with sweat. Steam rises in clouds from my body as the cooling begins. Yes even on those sub freezing runs, my body can't figure out that maybe shutting off the spigot would get me more lovin when I get home. Even my 2 year old has no affection for daddy when I waft in after a hard run.
  • Fill mug with leftover coffee, place heating pad in microwave for 2 minutes, begin grabbing whatever doesn't move out of my way - and eat it. The cooling process has been effective and I begin to be more or less comfortable.
  • Begin running cold water in bathtub while microwave is doing it's job, and add 2 trays of ice cubes. Goose bumps begin forming.
  • Assemble my phone (To surf the web and keep track of time), phone charger, coffee, food, and heating pad near the tub.
  • Place heating pad over shoulders. I'm now getting cold.
  • I sit perfectly still, because after 5 minutes everything under water is numb. If I move...
  • But it takes 5 minutes before I can sit perfectly still. I'm shivering so violently that the bathwater is trembling and my coffee is breaking over the edges of my mug. I don't touch my phone until I've regained fine motor skills lest I drop the phone and become famous as the first person ever toasted in a tub of ice water.
  • 15 minutes pass and I'm struggling my way out. I've never made it all the way to 20 minutes.
  • I cannot walk normal, but not being able to feel your legs after running 20 miles is sort of OK. My daughters know to steer clear of Frankenstein.
  • More coffee, Breakfast, More coffee.
  • Then at last, a long hot shower.

See that's not so bad. I strongly feel that folks shouldn't judge what they haven't experienced themselves.

The beauty of ice is that - it works. No it's not fun, but then so much of what we do can't be classified as fun or any other derivation of a good time. Sometimes we have to do things because they make us better. Not to mention, if you think a hot shower would feel good after a long cold run, just imagine how nice it feels after the ice.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

A Run in the Desert

We spent Thanksgiving with family in Nevada. With a long run (17 miles) scheduled for this weekend, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to get in a run with some new scenery.

I scoped out my terrain on Friday via 4 wheeler guided by my wife's cousin's husband David. We stuck to the road I was planning to run until it began to bore him. Suddenly, to my great pleasure he abandoned the road and led us out across the desert. "Through", "over", and "among", were the adjectives which preceded our route as opposed to more docile adjectives like "around" and "between" as I was erroneously expecting. More than once I commented to him that I had no idea a 4 wheeler could possibly handle what now had wheel ruts traced across it. The scrub brush and tumble weeds had to be pretty big before he would bother to avoid them. More than once I watched him ride away, emerging from what I had just been looking for a way around. I gamely followed.

The down side to our foray was that it really didn't scope out my route. There was no way I was going to run the baffling matrix of canyons, gullies and salt flats we had explored on 4 wheels.

So I stuck to the original plan and on Saturday morning, headed out on Power Line Rd. straight into the heart of the desert. I had literally planned to run nearly 9 miles due west following (you guessed it) an endless stretch of power poles to a reservoir at the base of the distant mountains, then turn around and follow the same path in reverse.

Running west the sun rose behind me, and after several dim miles, well beyond the last house or fence, I noticed the first tenuous rays of sun light reflecting off the mountains 10 miles away. With eager anticipation of its warmth, I monitored the line of yellow light as it charged down the mountains and then raced across the desert toward me. We collided somewhere around mile 4 and with pleasure I felt the penetration of the radiant rays through the back of my tights and balaclava. The crackling dry air was well below freezing and had long since caused my Camelbak water valve and supply hose to freeze solid. The balaclava I had thrown into my backpack "just in case" had been hastily thrown over my frozen ears before even 2 miles had ticked past and now began to absorb some warmth into the dark fabric. I slung my Camelbak hose stiffly out to the side and held the valve in my hand hoping it would also absorb some heat and melt the cylinder of ice blocking my hydration. It would be 10 more miles before I could extract enough of a trickle to wet my lips.

Warmth made room for thoughts less related to survival and more along the lines of form and focus. The sections of loose sand plus the elevation (4,000') were taking a toll on my pace and I knew it. I checked in on my pace between miles 3 and 4. No land speed records were in jeopardy. My only objective was to keep running until I found the reservoir, then turn around and do it again, in reverse, with the sun in my eyes. At around 5.5 miles I realized the plan wouldn't happen just like that.

At a right angle to the triple strands of power line I had been following, lay a wire fence across my path. A cattle grate lay across the road with a fence post sporting a "No Trespassing" sign. "In the middle of the desert?" I thought. As if this were not enough, a large black dog emerged 1/8 mile down the road atop a small hill. He disappeared and then reappeared one hill closer at full volume. A detour was becoming likely. As the dog continued to approach and call for reinforcements, I beat a hasty retreat with glances over my shoulder every few hundred feet. The pursuit ended long before I ceased looking for it, and every groan or pop of my backpack spun me 180 degrees prepared for battle.

I was now forced to calculate with difficulty some simple sums in spite of acute oxygen deprivation. If I had turned back at 5.5 miles (I had), then I was going to lack 6 miles. Taking one of the side paths in the desert seemed about as wise as getting off the highway in San Francisco without a GPS, so I considered my options as I retraced the last few miles. The best I could come up with was to follow a road I had crossed near mile 2 which followed a small creek still flowing with several inches of water. I had jumped the icy water at a narrow point and wondered at the fact that Power Line road seemed to approach both sides of the creek, but had no crossing. In time, I jumped back across and began to follow a new road north. By my advanced mathematical calculations, I needed to cover 3 more miles before I turned back to again retrace my steps.

I followed this creek as prescribed, noting a layer of ice spanning the entire width in wider slower sections. But, I misjudged my distance and turned back short of 3 miles. Because it was "out and back" my error cost me double.

I finished in just over 2 and a 1/4 hours but fell just shy of 17 miles. I was ready to be done running by the time I jogged into the gravel drive way, and the sight of my family sitting at breakfast sealed the deal.

3 cups of coffee, an ice bath, and a monstrous breakfast put the finishing touches on a splendid run.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

I have decided to re-post this - edited slightly from last year. This coming weekend will commence the slaughter of another generation. Merry Christmas!!

Tis' the season to be chopping.

And for what? For why?

Is it not lunacy to assault a healthy, young tree just reaching the glory of its youth, yank it from its moorings, and impel it to a service so ghastly unnatural?
See, here stands young fir - struggling to survive in a vast and brutal world of wind, ice, rain, and sun, remarkably resilient, handsome and proud.

See, here comes you - accelerated by stress, absent in mind and unwittingly conspiratorial in the pretense of holiday festivity.

An innocent falls to the ground.

With morbid ceremony it's strapped to the roof of your sedan, and what was once established and secure is now jostled and catapulted. No longer the wind gently caressing its boughs, or flexing its bark in a torrential storm. Rather now, a frightening gale assaults its skirts, or its crown if by some merciful stroke you strap it on head first.

The victim will now subsist on chlorinated tap water with a brew of chemicals designed to prolong the process of slow death. As if the Creator had not worked perfection, you will then bedeck it with bows or ribbons, and without exception, an array of gaudy lights - blinking in such random sequence that the subject appears always indecently clad.

Then Christmas being past, as if it had not served you well in your festive revelry, you reject it with disdain and abandon it to a troop of Boy Scouts - for what purpose only they know.

But don't be so self righteous and smug thinking of your plastic tree.

You are no better, yea, possibly worse with your synthetic replica. You give false expectation to the choppers who will insult, prod, and cajole our Creator's otherwise beautiful trees that may lack "perfect shape," or may be "too airy," or "too dense" in comparison to the manufactured forest. Though insulted, these are the lucky ones. Though none is ever deemed perfect, the unlucky chosen are paraded before their 6', 7', and 8' "pre-lit" counterparts -- lopsided, flocked, and accoutered with a fishnet stocking without even the courtesy of a cardboard box to hide their shame, over the river and through the woods to a house of horrors inconceivable to so noble a creation.

You will call yourself festive for erecting such an atrocity. Yes, you'll likely even claim a moral high ground above those abstaining from this ritual. But herein I admonish, and even boldly recommend a cessation of such unnatural acts. Is it not possible to spare such noble creations? I acknowledge it is not my place to change your mind or your customs, but at least for my part I choose to resist this annual slaughter.

I choose - to pout whenever my wife talks of "going to get the tree."
I choose - to lobby for the lesser of 2 evils - the 6' pre-lit version (That takes less than 2 minutes to set up and thus be done with my part of the activity).
I choose - when all else fails, to strap the tree on head first or lay it in the bed of my truck covered with a new tarp.

With these thoughts in mind I've composed a eulogy in memory of the fallen.
Please pause for a moment of solemn silence before enjoying these verses.

T'was the Month Before Christmas

T'was the month before Christmas and all through the wood,
Wee creatures scurried madly, while timidly stood,

Stately stewards of the forest, gentle-hearted and grand,
Their progeny balanced in an urbanite's hand.

The time was upon them, they'd seen it before,
When tree choppers come in traditions of yore.

The finest among them would tremble and yaw
As the choppers assaulted with axe and with saw.

Chopper families will come with members aloof,
Then drive away arguing - young Fir on their roof.

Yet the wisest among them knows its place,
A resource that benefits an inhuman race.

Begrudged though by some they know their station,
to warm and protect the rest of creation.

As timber or edifice great honor they'd know,
Or cabin or palace where children would grow.

The aged among them know the saw as a stage,
and the axe as finger on a life's next page.

The aged among them stand with no fear,
But remain yet perplexed when the youth disappear.

The plight of the youngsters - now pondered anew,
Was assumed to be ill, but if only they knew:


If back in the forest the other Trees knew,
Of their young ones alight with red, green, and blue,

Of tinsel, candy canes, and more shamefully yet,
Smiling families in photos amongst branches set.

The same branches of those removed forcefully so,
From a family of Firs formed long ago.

What revolt would arise from so many Trees,
If such senseless traditions were revealed to these.

What fear might be levied upon humankind,
If the choppers would come again heeding no mind,

Entering the forest with axes and saws,
Unaware of new anger ragged and raw.

And into the Trees the choppers would go,
And never return - one way tracks in the snow.

Merry Christmas - To the little Trees.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Things I Noticed

Interesting the things that emerge as notable sometimes. Specifically yesterday as I ran my fastest 5 miles ever - topping my previous record by more than 1 minute.

4.9 miles in 32:57 - or averaging approx. 6:45 per mile.

For me, that is lung-burning, heart-pounding, gut-busting fast.

But past the blaring white noise of this desire-fueled human machine, small focused shafts of surrounding reality flash mutely through the portals and ventilation shafts into the steel gray interior of resolve. The traffic, the sidewalks, trees and asphalt slip past with no impact on my mission. Running fast is all that matters and what does not hinder that mission ceases to exist. Though not entirely.

Wednesday afternoon at 4:34 I started running. Within 3/4 mile I was focused and only narrow splinters of my surroundings interrupted the perpetual systems management monitoring the efficient consumption of energy and means of propulsion.

But I noticed the guy leaning over the window of a friends car and the backup lights of a Ford Expedition 3 parking spaces away. I ran between them. I noted again with relief, for at least the tenth time, that the city had ground down a particularly hairy sidewalk transition.

Some stretches of the route are either completely obscured or blend too seamlessly into past runs for me to be convinced of them happening on Wednesday.

Yet I saw two men standing at the window of Bosco's ordering food, while 3 men stood chatting in my path on the sidewalk. Two stood near the curb while a third faced them, turned slightly my direction and monitored my approach out of the corner of his eye. No one moved but me. I sped up as I breezed between the men ordering burgers and the human bollard.

I noticed that no one was sitting smoking on the bench outside the little salon with windows angled such that I can see myself running in 3 separate panes of glass for a split second each. I tightened up my posture here and noticed to my chagrin that my tan must be fading as the season wanes.

I considered how random is my choice to run clockwise or counterclockwise around the courthouse - the apex of my out-and-back route. I chose clockwise this time, though for no other reason than that I chose at the last minute to go that particular way. I reasoned that I was not so superstitious as to think one direction or the other would guarantee a fast run. I run each direction with no certain regularity or reason. I then reconsidered, and supposed that maybe I was more superstitious than I thought - not being willing to rely on a conscious superstition but rather doubting my ability to overcome such foolishness and thereby leaving the results to the capriciousness of chance. I thus entrusted my fate to a random decision believing chance or fate to be more influential than a force I knew didn't exist. I thus continued to ponder that neither fate nor superstition could protect me from the desire to stop running. I caught myself slowing, recognized the randomness of my oxygen deprived brain, and slipped back into the machine.

Nearly to the crest of my last hill, a young woman smartly dressed in slacks and jacket crossed the road 3 paces ahead of a slouching fellow of her approximate age, struggling as hard to keep his shorts aloft as I was to breath. As I neared them she turned toward me on the sidewalk. The lines of her face and a more clear presentation of her costume revealed they were of the same cohort and no doubt led lives far harder than my own. We shared the same sidewalk, but I suspect our routines shared little else. My run had started off with Matthew West's My Own Little World, and the truth of that song stung me.

As I sit here and write I realize that is what this posting is about. Maybe the title should be "Things I Fail to Notice." Not soon after that encounter I was crowded by an SUV in an intersection and I shot the driver a glare. He dutifully returned the same. I was instantly convicted in my heart; not the pounding pulsing pulmonary muscle dutifully driving me down the hill, but rather that redeemed heart designed to drive compassion and mercy - spectacularly atrophied.

Curious the things that slip past, and more curious may be those things that find a way in. I finished and gave no more thought to backup lights, curbs, or SUV's. I went on with my own little world. One heart grew stronger, and the other may have atrophied just a bit more.

Both must grow stronger, and the effort to achieve that end may require comparable discipline and effort. Alas the daily grind will need to be punctured with more shafts of light than my weekly time trials are, and the training be no less rigorous.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Autumn Sky - Early Sunday Morning - 4 miles into a 10 mile run.

There's nothing like that sluggish, mercury in your veins feeling around mid-spring when you throw a leg back over the bike 30 miles into your first long ride of the season, or similarly, the blunt pain of a trail run - with the gusto of last season, and the stamina of your Christmas turkey baked and stuffed.

I'm gunning for bypassing those sensations this coming spring by doing something brilliant. I'm going to punish myself right through the winter. No sense postponing the burn, when I can have it all winter long. Yep, I've ramped up the cycling again and started cranking out more miles in the Reeboks.

Through a series of unexpected and unavoidable circumstances as Summer drifted down into Autumn, I slacked off my training, with the exception of a burst of activity around the running of the NorCal Tough Mudder. When I finally found time for some heart pounding activities, I found my heart and lungs, well, pounding. More than once I was dispatched to the back of a pack I should have been leading. I managed to pass some blame off on my bruised ribs (compliments of Tough Mudder), but the truth was I had slacked off. I took winter early.

There are 2 good reasons for me to abolish the slow down. First in order is the Mt. Diablo Trail Run coming up in March - and 50k (31 miles) is a long way to run. After last year's Golden Gate Headlands Marathon there was no doubt that I would run another. I developed an instant goal of running at least one marathon a year. Because cycling is difficult in the wet, dark winter, training for a marathon seemed a natural alternative. The marathon was doable thus the beginnings of a pattern was fixed. I hadn't even considered anything more than a marathon until my friend Matt sent me a link to the Mt. Diablo run. A 26 mile marathon had proved manageable, so how hard could 31 miles be? And so began my training for the 2011 - 2012 season.
The second event is my yearly Death Ride adventure. I let slip a few weeks back that I am nurturing a hope of finishing the DR in 9 hours, total of 10 hours including lunch and stops. Word spread among my cohort like a juicy rumor. The encouragement rolled in - that was good. But now I'm held accountable - that is pressure.

The side effects of the proposed "un-winter break" are yet to be set, as is the feasibility. Factors such as Christmas and Thanksgiving are likely to fall into this season, as well as school field trips, parties for the aforementioned holidays, fall planting and raking, decorating for the aforementioned holidays, shorter periods of daylight, church and choir activities for the aforementioned holidays - Need I go on?

So we shall see how this goes. Among my favorite quotations is a verse which comes from Robert Burns's To a Mouse On Turning Her up in Her Nest With The Plow:

The best-laid schemes o'

Mice an men

Gang aft agley,

An'lea'e us naught but

Grief an' pain,

For promis'd joy!

Here's holding out hope for more joy and less grief.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

House of Pain

I'm new to a ride that has been rolling through south eastern Contra Costa and Alameda Counties for many years. The original group called the route/ride the House of Pain (HOP) and is evidently (Because I am not strong enough to ride with them), frequented by racers and others much stronger than I.

All of this I am told by the group of 20 - 30 riders that frequent what is called HOP Light - a ride that starts about 30 minutes ahead of the true HOP ride but takes the identical route.

But don't be fooled, leaving around 8:45 am on Saturdays from Peets Coffee in Danville, HOP Light isn't for the slouch cyclist. Just today, after 3 weeks of practically no riding and still suffering the effects of a flu-like malady early in the week, I was barely able to hang onto the draft at the back of the group. I pulled - like a fool - out front for a few miles on and off near the beginning of the ride, but knew I was likely to suffer for it later. I did. I was unceremoniously dropped on the climb up Collier Canyon. Several others fell of the train - but I was the first to throw in the towel.

The ride is forgiving though and makes a handful of regular stops to allow any not-too-distant stragglers to regain the group.

From the top of Collier, over half way into the 50 mile combination of "out and back" and "large loop" forming on a map the image of a stout lollypop with a short stick, I was able to hang in the middle of the group. But just barely, as they could have blasted me out the back any time they wanted to.

My first 2 rounds with these guys and gals was 2 consecutive weekends over a month ago. I met many great riders and see that some of them are well respected and fairly consistent. During those first rides I found myself to be in great condition and rode strong - even up Collier Canyon - coming in 3rd at a - sort of - sprint line.

I've obviously been off the bike for too long. The 19 mph pace over the course of 50+ miles was exhausting to me this morning. No more 3 week sabbaticals.

This is a great group to ride with. They are very kind and I've learned a lot about riding in a peleton. The confined spaces at 30mph still make me jittery at times, but the communication is phenomenal and so far all the rides I've joined have been very safe.

I've made this somewhat of a default ride when nothing else is planned, and suppose I will ride with the bunch for many years to come.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Tough Mudder 2011 - Remembered

The Band Of Mudders

5:35 am Caleb perforates his tennis shoes.

I need to communicate exactly how I feel while it still hurts. My wife thinks the pain will make me reconsider a recurrence in the future. Well, keep reading.

For many months my team The MudSharks have prepared for this adventure; and now it's history; The 2011 NorCal Tough Mudder. All that remains are my bruised ribs, a handful of regrets, and the memory of a romping good time.

For over 5 hours my team of 9 men and 2 women braved the 13 miles and nearly 3000 feet of elevation gain in the tissue thin air above Squaw Valley USA ski resort near grand Lake Tahoe. We had no delusions of ease when signing up for this event. Just view 1 page (any page) of the Tough Mudder website and you cannot miss the intentional raw brutality they are marketing. It obviously sells. 11 of us added to the 15,000+ participants on Saturday alone.

For months we have independently run countless miles, pushed up, pulled up, crunched and lifted. We came together a few times in small bands to begin building comradery and gain what additional strength could be garnered through synergy.

And then Saturday, September 17 the lot of us wrangled parking spots and started the long process of standing in thick lines to check in.

At 10:20 we assembled at the start gate. After watching several fleets of runners released over the past hour, the process was becoming routine, however a surge of energy came over our Band of Mudders as we shouted the Tough Mudder's creed, then quieted as a crystalline soprano voice honored our nation's anthem.

3,2,1, and we set off up the side of the mountain through an orange cloud of canned smoke.

Within the first mile we were forced to our stomachs slithering for over 30 feet in 10 inches of water with barbed wire strung only 12 inches above the surface. And so began the sloshing saturated ascent up the mountain.

After slogging long enough to begin drying, we next encountered a row of 20' long dumpsters filled with water. A steep ramp launched us up and into the water where we submerged below the barbed wire reinforced barricade, and tumbled back out the other side shivering - more running - get warm. Within a mile, a second similar array emerged on the horizon and like experienced seals we dove in the second time. But this was different. Tons of ice were being loaded by tractor into these tubs. Stumbling away on numb feet unable to shiver our seized muscles, we postulated the possibility of the water being salted, allowing sub freezing water to embrace our bones. The ice had been loaded more heavily on the far side, and upon entering I had quietly scoffed at their attempt to toughen the course. The scoffing fell away as I frog kicked under the barrier and re-emerged through a solid layer of ice cubes several inches thick.

Still running uphill on trails no longer dusty, bespeckled by dripping ice water, we gained a greater appreciation for the warming dry air. The breeze picked up however as we encountered Mt. Everest - a 14' tall 1/4 pipe lined with plastic and greased. Emergency space blankets were handed out to the shivering throng waiting to be pushed, pulled and wrenched over the wall. This wait was the beginning of an unanticipated delay. We stood cheering, shouting, and encouraging for most of half an hour as hundreds of souls were hoisted over the wall. As my subset of the MudSharks approached the wall we formed a human ladder as we had witnessed others do. I lay at the bottom of the slope, above me Jay half stood - half lay on the curving surface. Past us both clambered Caleb who was hoisted over the wall. Jay and I held our poses for a few minutes as men and women of all sorts stepped on our chests, hands and shoulders teetering nearly 10' in the air where they could reach up and just touch the outstretched arms of Caleb and the others atop the wall. I faded fast as Jay's tennis shoes dug into my neck and shoulders. I begged off the bottom and was soon being wrestled over the top. I enjoyed the top. For the next half hour I took turns either laying face down with arms outstretched or kneeling at the back of the plateau created by the plywood top grasping the ankles of others with bodies hung half over the ledge. Chris emerged through the throng, and soon joined Caleb and myself atop the perch.

Here enters my bruised ribs. As I lay prone, head dangling between outstretched arms, I realized a growing discomfort about my chest and torso. Eventually no amount of shifting would abate the throb so I invited another to take my place. By now the balance of the team was up and over so we snacked briefly and began to trot further up our mountain. The going was always steep, so the group fractured yet again as the swift outpaced the steady. However, every step reinforced an understanding - I had spent too long atop the wall

Around mile 3 or 4 sat a structure not unlike a wide barn. Open at each end, the barn was breezy with cathedral trusses, though no roof, and an elongated ladder of 2x4 to allow competitors to climb half way up the side walls. Within the unfinished structure lay not stalls or a dirt track packed tight by hooves, but ah, rather another coffee colored lake of frigid water. Along the arching bottom chord of the trusses were steel rods creating a shallow "A" shaped series of monkey bars. To climb one side and descend the other, spanning the distance hand over hand, was the objective. The pull ups paid off. I went across easily turning at the end to chant encouragement to my team. The MudSharks found varied levels of success here - some dangling a moment too long in one place before missing a rung and plunging in, while others easily, Tarzan style, swung dry onto the far platform.

Only a hundred yards separated this from a gallows style scaffold dangling not nooses but ropes knotted at 3 foot intervals. Our crew of athletic voyagers found little difficulty here, thus Jay and I ran around again, and so I was to attempt climbing the rope like the giant on The Princess Bride - hand over hand with legs dangling. I matched the giant, though if I recall his cliff was somewhat taller and he was carrying 3 other people.

Several miles of jogging followed punctuated by a snow traverse beneath a bright orange net designed to force you onto the snow, as well as some semitechnical scrambles.

I'm certain I have forgotten a number of the lesser obstacles for by this time the alpine air was getting thin and the trails just ramped steeper. I do recall that atop the pinnacle of Squaw lay a pile of stripped logs. Most of the logs, ranging from 8 inches in diameter to 12 inches, were no more than 16 inches long. Another less visited pile held 4 foot long log cabin rejects. Jay and I picked through this pile and headed up the steep climb together with a monster on our shoulders. The altitude was taking its toll as we stumbled along taking turns stabilizing the other and choreographing the "1,2, 3, Switch" from one shoulder to the other. I found this among the physically hardest challenges. One more step. One more step. In the loose rocky soil several steps may only cover a couple feet.

"1,2, 3, Drop, " and we stumbled toward our comrades. This was the top of the top. From here on, all downhill, the game was footwork. So many had abandoned running long since. Even walking, many were incapable of discourse. Some with less than adequate footwear were already in obvious discomfort, and by the end of the day they were in pain. Our MudShark subset, which now included Dennis, Jay, Caleb and myself, was set to run, so our obstacles became those walking and the varied terrain along the shoulders of the crowded trail. Leaping boulders and crashing underbrush was the new way, and Dennis proved a pro, and we gladly followed his lead.

Next came the Berlin walls, 12 feet tall in 2 consecutive rows. Run, hit the wall with 1 foot, launch off the small cleat and extend for the top. Pull up, straddle, jump. Repeat. Run, hit the wall with one foot, slip, body slam the wooden plank wall. Attempt to breath... Staggering back for another shot at this second wall the encouraging mob sent me right back. I had better luck that time and words of congratulations followed me over the wall as I dropped to the ground. I got clear of the landing zone and squatted searching the rocky soil for some sign of my breath. More running downhill.

Far down the hill loomed a small lake steadily growing with our jolting descent. Here enters my regrets. This lake was one of the obstacles. A 15 foot leap from another manmade cliff began a swim of 50 yards or so over to a series of barrels under which the swimmers dived to gain access to dry land on the far side.

My calves had begun to cramp as I emerged from the ice bath several miles back and remained on the verge for the rest of the day. I contemplated swimming that sea with 2 cramped calves and began a death spiral of negativity.

I just wanted to jump off the cliff. That's the fun part. I didn't want to drown, and the 50 yards may as well have been a mile. "Why didn't I spend time training in the pool like I planned to?" began my self degradation. "Maybe I can just jump and swim out the back... " This thought was interrupted by "Get him! - Get him! " being shouted by one of the kayakers. Sure enough a man was completely submerged with only his nose still visible as I looked his way. He was dragged from the water by another in a double hulled blue kayak and draped over the scaffold exactly where I had hoped to swim back to. A barking voice began a commanding chant "don't jump if you can't swim across. " I gritted my teeth despising my indecision. The scenario happened a second time and another drowning was evaded. My resolve crumbled and I turned my back on the lake to look an ocean of regret full in the face.

I jogged around the lake and met up with my friends who congratulated me on my discretion and wisdom. The encouragement fell limp. I resolved to finish strong.

I was not, however, to avoid gettting wet again because the Boa Constrictor was next. 20 foot lengths of 24 inch corrugated drain pipe were laid side by side, all sloping downward with the lower ends of the pipes half submerged in another pond. Each tube was entered one Mudder at a time and as many as 3 Mudders we're simultaneously inside the clostrophobic core of each tube inching deeper and deeper into the water. The mid point was guarded by barbed wire strung hovering above the pond surface with the only exit - a mirror image trip up another black tube. I lay in the pond shivering as the tennis shoes of the gal ahead of me didn't budge. The man ahead of her was self destructing and she was stuck in the mouth of the exit. I moved laterally to an unoccupied tube which had swallowed Caleb's shoes seconds back. My elbows, knees and shins scraped against the sandy gravelly bottom struggling to haul my soaked carcass up the slope. Daylight. I watched the shaken man emerge and then the girl. More running.

After this came another set of Berlin walls, only 8 feet tall this time, and then further down the trail were mounded hay bales - more a nuisance than an obstacle. My ribs were now screaming at every step and the pain in my calves was ever present.

Views of the valley and the finish line festivities were more prevalent now, and the pulse of the live band over a mile away unconsciously gave rythm to our pounding feet. The trail narrowed in the final mile to a single track switchbacking across the hillside. Here our pace slowed as thousands of weary pilgrims bottlenecked within sight and sound of the end. The pace of the whole was reduced to that of the weary.

A large cargo net spread between 2 towers lay in our path upon attaining the valley. Many stepped gingerly upon the intersecting ropes while others plunged headlong rolling into the valley then struggling to hands and knees and scrambling free. My approach proved a combination of the 2. I attempted to follow Caleb who had skillfully navigated the edge of the net. Losing my footing part way I allowed gravity to hurtle me towards the center where monopolizing on the bounce of the net I rolled like a child on a summer hillside. I then scrambled out like the others.

Here the spectators were densely lining the last few hundred yards. Shouts, high fives, and congratulations propelled us toward the home stretch and 2 final challenges. First was a dozen parallel balance beams above (what else) a 5 foot deep pool of dark water, and second was the fabled Electroshock Therapy with hundreds of high voltage-low amperage wires dangling above (what else) a pool of conductivity enhancing dark water. I had been practicing the balance beam at the park with my daughter, though nothing I tried was quite like getting 2/3 of the way across the 24 foot span and feeling the lateral sway of the beam beneath beleaguered feet. In one of our synergistic training runs we had tested our balance skills on a stairstep series of bars. The consensus at the time was that forward motion was the key and pause was the enemy. This was tested and proved over the murky waters as Caleb, then I, and then Jay scampered unhesitatingly from platform to platform, followed by Dennis who fatally paused at mid span to be unceremoniously tossed into the drink.

Reunited again we had only to run the electric gauntlet and collect our t-shirts and orange head bands. Some of us contemplated this longer than necessary and proceeded with more caution than might be admirable. If true bravehearts we had been, then linked arm in arm we would have blasted through the wires sharing the jolts and laughing at the pain. We didn't. I for one walked and trotted through - flatly avoiding the wires. I saw Caleb jogging though cautiously, and as for the others I don't recall. The photos prove that Chris's run was one to be admired.

We were done. I jogged from the wires to claim my prizes and looked only for my girls and the hugs I felt I deserved.

The crowds, the cold shower, the blaring bands, and dinner with the team are all a blur. My family stayed another night at team-member Mitch's cabin and then made church the next morning. With 3 hours of sleep Friday night and 5 Saturday night I was in poor condition for reflection. My opinion Sunday, tainted by regret and the throb about my rib cage, was that I had run my first and only Tough Mudder.

Monday came. The sun rose. My ribs hurt worse, but I downloaded my pictures and combined them with those sent by Chris on Sunday.

I realized I wasn't through with Tough Mudder.

I had thought I was better than this event and trained hard to prove it. I practiced the ridiculous things like climbing walls and balancing on fence rails. I even met with fellow Mudder Tom to give me a crash refresher on distance swimming - and then I failed. I recognized a weakness, identified a course of action to cure it, and never followed through. I never got in the water again until TM put me in over my head. To those who have proffered that discretion is the better part of valor, I appreciate your gentleness. I, a self proclaimed Tough Mudder, cannot be so gentle. I have work to do.

I have been swimming 3 times in this the first week since the 2011 NorCal Tough Mudder. I bought goggles and am going to get stronger.

Next time no hesitation.
Next time no regrets.

A huge thanks to all of my teammates and my patient loving family.

Thank you also Kelsey for again providing incredible pictures.
Thank you Dianne, Chris, Vince and Bec for all of the other decent pictures.