Saturday, August 2, 2014

Mental landmines

Hiking thousands of miles takes thousands of hours. That may seem obvious, but the reality of long-distance hiking surprised me. I thought it would be a great adventure, and it was. I thought it would be interesting to see new places every day, and it was. But it was also very monotonous. What happens during all those thousands of hours?

My recent blog posts have been about various thoughts that form in my brain as I hike. The reason I can do this is because my brain gets detached from my body and my life when I hike. Some would call this boredom, but that isn't really the right word because it feels more like an awakening. I think my brain gets freed up from the normal duties of life and can focus on one thing for a while.

I've come to understand that this mental phenomenon is what some people call meditation. Before I came to this realization, I didn't understand meditation at all. I'd heard that it involves "clearing your mind," but the few times I tried to do this, I just fell asleep. So I figured meditation was something I wasn't good at, or that I just didn't have the aptitude for. Like playing guitar, it was something others could do, but not me.

Imagine my surprise when after hundreds of hours of doing this mental thing, I realized what it was! It was as natural as dreaming. And over the years I've learned that like those who can direct their dreams, a practice called "lucid dreaming," I can sometimes direct my meditation to a subject of my own choosing.

That may seem strange at first. Can't we all direct our thoughts? To some extent we certainly can. If I want to think of a pink elephant, I can. But meditation involves relaxed focus. It's not adding the pink elephant to the mix that's hard; it's eliminating all the other competing thoughts that's hard.

More often than not, what comes into focus is not of my choosing, but something out of my subconscious. In fact, this effect is one of the things that drew me to longer distances after discovering by accident that I always felt much better after a backpacking trip than before. At first I assumed that the great outdoors made me feel better, but eventually I realized hiking was like psychotherapy for me. For instance, what did I do with the week that I set aside for my honeymoon when my fiance called off our wedding three days before the event?  I went backpacking! At the time I didn't know why I made the choice, it just felt like the right thing to do.

With hindsight I can see that the reason I felt better was because the feelings that I couldn't deal with in person came back to me while hiking in a form that I COULD deal with. And processing the negative emotions made me feel much better.

Only on my longest hikes did I realize how far this could go. Thoughts and feelings that I had buried for YEARS came back after weeks on the trail. This was not a pleasant process. Seemingly out of the blue, some nasty negative feeling would invade my conscious mind. If I'd been able to distract myself with the TV or something, I would have "controlled" the thought and avoided the pain. But I came to realize that's what I'd already done, and the pain hadn't gone away; it was still there, hiding. Given the introspective opportunity of a long hike, these feelings spontaneously bubbled up out of my own subconscious.

Although this scared me at first, and was certainly unpleasant, I soon realized that once processed, these feelings lost their power over me. For example, I had become passive-aggressive in my relationships. This was a state where I would try to "be nice" and act accordingly, but I kept acting in ways that surprised me. Anger that I wasn't even consciously aware of was sabotaging my life! The bubbling-up process had at least two positive effects. First, I could get rid of some of the anger without doing damage to people around me. Second, I learned the truth about my own feelings and made some changes for the better. Even if these changes hurt other people, they came from my heart. Better to tell the truth than to try to live a lie.

As the mental landmines were defused, my subconscious became a much quieter place. Now if I want to focus on a pink elephant, there's a chance that I can do so.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The future of backpacking

When I finished my Calendar Triple Crown back in October of 2001, there was a fair amount of media interest. So much, in fact, that I was quite surprised by all the fuss. I was flattered by most of it, but like any celebrity I was subject to some criticism as well. One negative editorial was titled "A Long Walk Spoiled." I honestly don't remember who wrote it, or where it was published, but the point was that I walk too fast. My answer then as now is that my big hike was enjoyable BECAUSE of the pace, not is spite of it.

I bring this up because it's related to a larger issue that comes up regularly. What is the proper use of wilderness and what is the future of backpacking? While some people lament that backpacking is a dying sport that young people don't enjoy, others complain that special places are getting overused. How can these both be true?

Backpacking and the use of wilderness is changing.

Backpacking used to be a solitary endeavor where a strong individual went camping in the wilderness. It had much in common with a still earlier generation who conquered the wilderness in order to eke out a living. The value of wilderness to the solitary backpacker varies, but was often to reconnect with that earlier way of life, or experience a part of the natural world that was vanishing. Whatever the exact purpose, a backpacker typically carried a lot of gear and made a relatively large impact. For example, it was common for a backpacker to carry an ax and cut boughs to make a bed to sleep on.

The wilderness use we see today is much more diverse. Each person has less impact, as those who once carried an ax to "tame" the wilderness now carry a bear canister to protect it. But trails get used by runners and bicyclists as well as backpackers. People carry phones, GPS devices and cameras.

Do the new uses erode the experience of the more traditional user? The man who wrote the article about my hiking style evidently thought so. He claimed to be concerned with my enjoyment, but just because he doesn't like fastpacking doesn't mean I don't enjoy it. I believe his real point was that my speed upsets HIS peace and quiet.

If my very presence upsets his solitude, my goal-oriented trail use probably upsets his peace of mind. I try to remember that every time I pass someone on a trail When I come up behind a slower hiker, I alert them verbally of my presence before my footsteps startle them into thinking I might be a bear. If they want to talk, I slow down for a bit; if not, I move on with as little disturbance as possible. If a cyclist comes up behind me and shows similar respect, I won't lecture them about the rules. What's the point? Do you really think they don't know bikes are not allowed in wilderness areas? Of course they do!

Mutual respect is good in all wilderness encounters. Technology use offends some people, so take care when you break out your cell phone or GPS. Camp in a secluded spot, particularly if you have a large colorful tent. Limit your use of fire; downed wood is more beautiful than a blackened fire ring. Carefully bury human waste and pack out the paper. The days when we could all cut boughs for a bed are long gone.

Another reason to get along with others in the wilderness is for access. A good trail isn't cheap. We need all the trail supporters we can find or there won't be enough money spent on trails. You may want to exclude others from your private paradise, but how would you feel if your paradise was closed because of budget cuts or the trail you love was choked with brush? All trail users should be on the same side.

So what about younger people? How is their use of wilderness changing? Do they care about it at all? In my experience, yes, they DO care. Sure they have less time and more options than older folks. It's hard to backpack when you're working two jobs and don't get paid vacation. Rock climbing, whitewater kayaking and trail running compete with backpacking. The obesity epidemic reduces the number of people who can do any of these outdoor activities. And some people can't stand not to be electronically connected at all times.

So is backpacking dead? Hardly! It's just evolving. Rock climbers are venturing out deeper into the wilderness every year in search of new routes. Ever more remote rivers can be run with a pack-raft. And trail running is just a natural extension of the new fast-and-light backpacking techniques.

What about communication technology? The day has already arrived that a backpacker can be connected to the internet anywhere in the world. A selfie taken in Antarctica can be posted world-wide in minutes. This technology is actually increasing the exposure of wilderness and making it more popular, not less. The problem is that the most-beautiful and most-visited places are getting most of the exposure, so the most-loved places are getting mobbed like celebrities and loved to death.

So backpacking is alive and well, especially in our National Parks. Hopefully technology will help popularize some of the lesser known places so that they can thrive on the attention and take some of the load off places like Half-Dome and Mt. Whitney.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The meaning of "Stairway to Heaven"

When I run or hike my mind often plays songs repetitively. If I don't like the song or don't know enough of the lyrics to make it a pleasant experience the resulting monotony can get quite burdensome. But if I'm lucky, a beautiful ballad that I know and love will play and I can enjoy the experience. "Stairway to Heaven" is one such song. Written in 1971 by Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, performed by the incomparable Led Zeppelin, it played endlessly on the radio when I was in high school. And every time it came on, I turned up the volume and let the spell of that song carry me away. At over 8 minutes long, with lyrics scattered sparsely throughout, it's arguable that the lyrics aren't central to the song. It's one of the greatest rock anthems of all time - who even listens to the lyrics? I certainly didn't. Not until it started playing endlessly in my head. When you are forced to listen to a song 15 times in a row, you get past the awesome guitar solos and the ethereal mood of the song and you start to wonder, "What the F--- is this song really about?" At least I do.

When I first heard the song it seemed to be about some rich lady who bought her way into heaven. The line "your head is humming and it won't go, in case you don't know" seemed appropriate to the endless loop I was experiencing. But it took a long time for the story to come together in my mind.

As I got into it, there seemed to be a lot of non-sequiturs. Consider the line "in a tree by the brook, there's a songbird who sings, sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven." Where did THAT come from? We were just talking about the Stairway lady. It made me wonder.

In time I realized the song is not a linear story. It's a series of images altered by the later context. It's kind of like a movie that starts in the middle of the story and only later supplies the context to understand what you've seen.

"There's a lady who's sure all that glitters is gold, and she's buying a stairway to heaven." The lady and her stairway represent materialism. There's also a hint that she may be misguided because all that glitters is NOT gold. "When she get's there she knows, if the stores are all closed, with a word she can get what she came for." Money, privilege and power. Pretty simple so far. "There's a sign on the wall, but she wants to be sure, 'cause you know sometimes words have two meanings." She doesn't trust anyone. Money has cut her off from people.

Then comes the apparent non-sequitur. "In a tree by the brook, there's a songbird who sings, sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven." So far the song has been about a lady and a stairway, or if we're already on the metaphorical bandwagon, it's about materialism and the way that cuts us off from other people. We can't understand this line except in the context of the rest of the song, but we'll soon see that a change from an old way of thinking to a new one is the real theme of this song. So eventually we'll understand that this line starts the real theme of the song and everything that came before it is a metaphor for the old way of thinking.

The refrain is "Oooo, it makes me wonder." Wonder what? The singer is rethinking something. But what?

The story takes a personal turn with the line, "There's a feeling I get when I look to the west and my spirit is crying for leaving." This is a lovely poetic line that boils down to "Facing death makes me think about what's important in life." Because the sun sets there, west has been a metaphor for death since at least ancient Egyptian times.  

"In my thoughts I have seen rings of smoke through the trees and the voices of those who stand looking." Rings of smoke denote campfires, indicating that people live there, despite being hidden. Those who stand looking are people who witness evil, but say nothing. The people in his thoughts are coming out of hiding to stand up for what's right. 

"And it's whispered that soon, if we all call the tune, then the piper will lead us to reason." The vision continues.The tune and the piper are musical metaphors connoting the spread of the goodness and truth seen in the vision. "And a new day will dawn for those who stand long and the forest will echo with laughter." As the vision gathers momentum, the people are no longer hiding in the trees.

But we're still not sure what this great vision really is. Does it have anything to do with the lady or the materialism she represents?

In the next few lines, we the listener are brought into the song somewhat ambiguously. "Your" and "you" could refer to the lady, but as we'll see later, they don't. "If there's a bustle in your hedgerow, don't be alarmed now. It's just a spring clean for the May queen." Very poetic again, and very British. Some translation is needed. In rural England the hedgerow is the line of shrubs denoting the property line between your estate and the next, so a "bustle in your hedgerow" means something is changing in your life or your mind. The May queen was chosen by a village to represent youth, beauty, newness, and hope for a better future. So this line boils down to "if your old ideas start crumbling, don't be alarmed, you have new and better ideas forming in their place." It's also possible that the May queen is another reference to the lady, though significantly changed in her ways.

"Yes there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run, there's still time to change the road you're on." This is a major clue to the still nebulous vision. It's a vision about a change for the better, one that we the listener can make.

"Your head is humming and it won't go, in case you don't know. The piper's calling you to join him." Since the bustle, hedgerow and May queen were so mysterious, this stanza restates and clarifies the previous one. The piper, as mentioned earlier, represents the vision, now evidently an idea because it is humming in our head. It's also a popular idea because here the piper is portrayed like the Pied Piper whose pipe magically lured rats and children to follow him.

"Dear lady can you hear the wind blow, and did you know, your stairway lies on the whispering wind." There's a lot going on here. Blowing wind is a metaphor for popular opinion, just as it was in many other songs from this era. Now we see the flaw in materialism, represented by the lady. Her money is only good if people accept it. And her reliance on it has cut her off from those people to the point where she may not be able to hear them at all. "Dear lady" is a clue that the lady also represents the materialist part of ourselves, one of the "two paths you can go by."

"And as we wind on down the road, our shadows taller than our souls." I really love this image. This song could have been about other people's flaws, but it's not. As time goes by, we inevitably grow more materialistic. One day we realize that we haven't lived up to the idealism of youth. Our material selves are now more important to us than our spiritual selves. 

But why shadows? A close inspection of the entire song shows a consistent differentiation between things seen and things heard. Things seen are false and misleading. Things heard are real and from the heart. This might seem strange, but remember, we're listening to a song. The truth is coming to us aurally, not visually.

"There walks a lady we all know, who shines white light and wants to show, how everything still turns to gold." The shadows of the previous line come from the shining white light of a materialistic point of view. If we cast a shadow, it's because our materialism is showing.

"And if you listen very hard, the tune will come to you at last." The tune returns. Like last time, the tune is the new way of thinking, the second path, the non-materialist way of living that is more genuine, and keeps us connected to other people.

"When all are one and one is all. To be a rock and not to roll." It's too bad this line is so hard to understand in the recording because it really ties everything together. If the new way of thinking is good for one person, it's even better for a group. If enough like-minded folks get together and form a community then we'll live in a real, solid and reliable paradise.

"And she's buying a stairway to heaven." If not, the materialists will take advantage of the rest of us.

So that's how I interpret the song. It has added immensely to my enjoyment of Stairway to Heaven. I hope it does the same for you.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

It's been a long time

To date I've used this blog exclusively for trip reports. But it's been almost five years since I last posted one. There are several reasons for this, but the main one is I'm old enough now (53) that what I accomplish in the outdoors is no longer newsworthy. No FKTs, no high placings, no races at all lately. I've been recovering from an ankle sprain that I refused to acknowledge until it got much worse than it ever should have. It had been so long since I got injured, I thought it would never happen to me. Live and learn.

I've also known for many years that I write best during or after solo hiking or running. I've never been more prolific than during my Calendar Triple Crown. On that trip my journal was my substitute companion. When I came back a minor celebrity, I had more human contact than I could handle and the writing suffered. I tried to write a book about my big trip, but I just didn't have the time or desire to write it. On the other hand I came back so much more confident and happy that my life quickly changed for the better. I started a second career as an adventurer. I got married, something I had all but given up on after turning 40. I helped raise an amazing step son who is now in college. The marriage didn't work out, but Sophia and I are still great friends, so there was a minimum of grief involved. Neither of us wanted any of our friends to have to choose between us, so we kept the separation quiet. When people found out, it was old news and we could prove to people there was no drama. Some people understood; some didn't.

But now I hike and run alone again much of the time, and I find stories bubbling up from my subconscious. So I've started writing again. About anything. It doesn't matter. Like running, writing well takes lots of practice. So I hope you enjoy reading my blog. But it's going to be different this time.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

2009 Western Status Endurance Run

2009 Western States Endurance Run

11 ½ hours to Foresthill. Then another 11 ½ hours to Auburn. That’s the short version of my race report.

I have trouble keeping my expectations realistic in a 100-miler. It’s due in part to the slow pace inherent in such a long race. It’s hard for me to believe that five miles an hour is a blistering pace. Other people’s high expectations are another factor. Because I’m a well known hiker, some people assume I’m also a great runner. Two years ago a couple people actually picked me to WIN Western States! Whoa! Even with a Barkley course record now added to my resume, I’m not in the same league as the real contenders. A sub-20 hour finish is about the best I could ever hope for.

Because this year’s Western States was a focus race for me, I expected to better my 21:20 finish of two years ago. As mental preparation, I visualized a breakthrough sub-20 hour finish. I also tried to embrace secondary goals of a PR and a silver buckle, but thoughts breaking of the 20-hour barrier made that difficult. It never crossed my mind that I might not finish.

At the starting line I was relaxed and ready. When the gun went off, I was well back from the line and about 100 people started ahead of me. But my efforts not to get caught up in the mad dash were undermined. A huge group of runners took a wrong turn in the first mile. When I got there, people off to my right were yelling “Wrong way!” and turning around. I stayed straight and suddenly there were only about 10 people in front of me! We all knew the thrill would be short lived but several of us took turns in the lead before the big dogs came charging through. It was hard to stay cool and gauge my proper pace amongst the likes of Jurek, Mackey, and Koerner so I arrived at Escarpment way too soon. At least I wasn’t out of breath.

I calmly let the faster runners pass as I settled into a comfortable pace, enjoying the views of the high country and cruising through the early aid stations in the cool morning air. At Robinson Flat I was surprised to see my wife, Sophie. She was surprised to see me as well since I was 15 minutes early, but had an Ensure waiting for me nevertheless. Her day was shaping up to be even more trying than mine - and a lot less fun.

She had some last minute logistical scrambling when the crew vehicle broke down the night before the race and was towed to Tahoe City. As we walked a mile to the start, Sophie reminded me that I’m good at being self-sufficient, and apart from a headlamp there was nothing I really needed from them. She guaranteed that she would find a way to get to Foresthill.

The plan had been for Sophie, a former WS top-10 woman, to pace me from Foresthill and our good friend Roger Dellor, WS 60+ age group course record holder, to crew me at Bath Road and Rucky Chucky Far Side, after both volunteered at Dusty Corners. In the revised plan, volunteering at Dusty was impossible. After the start, Roger stayed behind and handled the car repair while Sophie searched for a ride, which she fortuitously found with Darcey Rambach.

Sophie met me again at Michigan Bluff, where I was still 15 minutes ahead of my splits. But it was brutally hot. She didn’t want to blow my confidence by saying anything, but we were both thinking the same thing: Shouldn’t I slow down a little in the heat? But I rationalized about being a powerful hiker; climbing out of these canyons is where I’m strongest. Besides, I feel great!

Roger was there to crew me at Bath Road. He had found a rental car and drove all the way to Dusty Corners, long after I’d been through, to bring them ice and apologize for he and Sophie not showing up to volunteer. He would meet Sophie and me at the Far Side with our headlamps. We wouldn’t have to run down to the river in the blazing afternoon sun carrying our lights after all!

I arrived at Foresthill School at 4:35pm, now 25-minutes ahead of schedule. I couldn’t help but rejoice. I was out of the canyons and seemed to have survived the worst of the heat. I was running in the top 20 and feeling good enough to race from there. And I had the best pacer in the world to help me do it. In short, I was having the race of my dreams!

I exuberantly waved to friends as we turned onto California Street, but as soon as we hit downhill trail, my quads started hurting and I said I needed to slow down. Sophie started encouraging me to keep up my spirits but I reacted badly, wondering why she was breaking out the kid gloves already. Was I not crushing the course? But she could see what I could not, that I’d started struggling, abruptly, on cruiseable downhill. By Dardanelles, it was obvious to me too. Running had become difficult. At the aid station I tried to regroup. I put ice in my hat, ate a Gu and took off quickly, wasting no time. I was looking forward to a walk break on the big uphill just ahead. In the canyons every uphill had perked me up and renewed my spirits. But this time is different. My legs are jelly, my energy is gone and my stomach is getting upset.

This is new for me; I’ve never been nauseous in a race before. If I have gastro-intestinal problems, it’s always extra bathroom stops; annoying, time consuming, but otherwise benign. At Peachstone, I down a Coke, hoping the sugar and caffeine will revive me, but I don’t feel right.

I sit in a chair for the first time and promptly throw up. I’m scared. I don’t want to get up. Sophie insists I sip on broth if I’m sitting. She reminds me of friends who have had similar experiences and came back running after a death march. I just need to take care of myself. And I need to keep moving. Krissy Moehl races through. She had recovered well from a bad patch and went on to finish strongly. Sophie finally coaxes me out of the aid station, but I refuse to even try to eat or drink anything. I am afraid of throwing up again.

I stagger horribly up the big climb just before Ford’s Bar. I shuffle, hunched over, arms clutching my queasy stomach. Sophie demonstrates strong hiker form, coaching me to use arm swing to power my legs forward, calling on muscle memory from thousands of miles of hiking to override my defeatist thoughts. She tells me I don’t stagger when I use my arms, but I’m paying more attention to my ailing stomach than her words. I’m nauseous and dizzy. Sophie tucks in behind me, watchful that I don’t stagger off the trail. She cools me with water from her bottles. She reasons with me, trying to get me to understand that I am bonking for lack of fuel, but I refuse to eat or drink.

At Ford’s Bar, I spend even more time in the chair. Again, Sophie makes a deal with me: I’m allowed in the chair as long as I am trying to eat. The watermelon goes down surprisingly well, but I can’t stand even the thought of anything else. She coaxes me to sip on the salty soup. Everyone says I look better, but I still refuse to get up. She challenges me, “You’re tough enough to finish Barkley! This is much easier than Barkley!” Although she doesn’t say it, all I hear is “wimp.” While I sit, more runners pass through the aid station, but I don’t care. Victor Ballesteros sped through leading a train of others running to the river. Craig Thornley calls out encouragement, but I don’t have it in me. I want to quit. Sophie wants me to leave with them, hoping their energy will pull me. She resorts to tough love. “No! You have to get moving now. You don’t want to stop here! This is the worst place to quit!” (Apologies to the good folks volunteering) There is applause when I finally stand up. Side-by-side we leave the aid station as Dan Barger effortlessly floats by, disappearing on the switchbacks below.

Rucky Chucky seems an awfully long way off. Sophie doesn’t even ask me to run anymore; a good walking pace is challenge enough. While trudging along the normally runnable Sandy Bottom stretch we are passed by a steady stream of runners, including Nikki Kimball, Caren Spore and Meghan Arboghast. Finally, I get it through my head that, yes, I AM bonking and eat a Gu. My entire stomach empties in rebellion. Copious amounts of liquid are ejected in four good heaves. Where did it all come from? Evidently my stomach hasn’t been processing anything I’ve consumed since the hot climb out of Volcano Canyon to Bath Road. I’m feeling better after the purge, but the experience has reinforced my fears. I refuse to eat or drink again. Sophie reminds me that I crossed the river at 9pm last time. My chance for a PR is vanishing with the daylight, but I don’t care. Mentally I’m done.

At Rucky Chucky, I step on the scale and surprisingly I haven’t lost any weight. Sophie urges me to cross the river in the last bit of daylight, but I sit down again, trying to get sympathy from the medical people. I just want permission to quit. They took my vitals and said I was fine to move on. The prognosis was that I was bonking and so, again, I was fed chicken soup. Three cups this time, but I couldn’t be enticed to eat anything solid. Scott Wolfe, who had endured a bad Cal Street section as well, commiserated in the chair next to me, but drank and ate what he could and moved on. Sophie pleaded with me, reminding me that Roger was waiting on the Far Side with our lights, worried about me. So I got up and we crossed the cold, waist-high river in the dark.

It wasn’t Roger waiting, or the headlamps that got me up. It was the thought of Roger’s rental car. I could quit over there. I just didn’t want to struggle through another 20 miserable miles. Sophie notes that I’m walking better than ever up to Green Gate, but in my mind I’ve only got two miles to go, not twenty.

At Green Gate she realizes that my mind is made up and knows this is going to be a battle of wills. I’m very stubborn when I’ve got my mind set on something. That usually works in my favor, allowing me to focus on a goal and persevere, but, what happens when my goals and expectations don’t match the reality of the moment? Does it have to be all-or-nothing? My sub-20 goal was long gone. I couldn’t motivate myself with a ”just finish” or even a “sub-24” goal. My will was on the wrong side.

Sophie used every argument she could think of, but in the end, she simply wouldn’t allow me to quit. She said I might hate her now, but I’d thank her later. She thrust a cupful of pretzels, fig bars and other nibbles in my hand and told me to eat as we walked to Auburn Lake Trails. She was right. Once I began eating, I started perking up. Though I walked that whole segment and the next, quitting didn’t enter my mind again. At Brown’s Bar my weight was down 3% and the medical volunteers held me until I drank a liter, but I was thirsty and it went right down - and stayed there! They allowed me to proceed. After that we started running short sections again; I was back from the dead!

I kept moving with renewed energy and spirit as I efficiently passed through Highway 49. I grabbed a Gu and chips at the long-awaited No Hands Bridge as if I was in a race. We finished in 22:52, well ahead of the 24-hour mark. Amazingly I’d finished in time for a silver buckle! It’s Sophie’s buckle – she earned it as much I did. Without her I would have quit and regretted it later. Sophie knew that; she knows me well. Like I said earlier, I’ve got the best pacer in the world!

Flyin' Brian Robinson

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Big Sur International Marathon

I've been interested in the Big Sur International Marathon (BSIM) since I moved to Monterey. It's by far the biggest race in the area. Skyler's Boy Scout Troop runs the aid station at the marathon finish and aid stations 3 and 4 at the half marathon. I've gotten directly involved as well by joining the BSIM board and taking over as aid station coordinator for the half marathon which is run in the fall.

There are lots of jobs to do for the marathon as well, but I've limited my participation to those jobs that will allow me to actually run on race day. The marathon is run in conjunction with several shorter events, but the 3K "JUST RUN!" kids fun run was moved to the day before the marathon, so I helped set up and take down the start/finish area.

Even though I was free to run the marathon, it was far from clear that I should. I have not run a step since Barkley. My left shoulder has been too sore. But if the pain relented, I figured I had enough left-over fitness to run. My wife said I'd be crazy to do it with nothing to prove and Western States coming up in June. Sophia is right, but I couldn't resist. Highway 1 is closed to traffic for the race! That's a superb drive, but seeing it on foot is even better.

The race was sunny and warm, just short of hot. The scenery is by far the best of any road marathon, and matches some of the best trail races I've run. With 4,500 other marathoners and another 5,000 people walking shorter sections, it's a very big event. But it never felt too crowded or disorganized. The live music along the course fit right in with the scenic beauty. A grand piano at Bixby bridge is the most famous, but the drummers at the base of the climb to hurricane point were my favorite, helping runners summon the energy to climb. I can see why Big Sur is a destination event that draws runners from all over the world.

I was happy just to be able to participate in this race, but I'm also a "results" guy at heart so I ran hard. My lack of speed training made my legs much more painful than my shoulder. Fortunately I didn't injure myself posting 3:19:06, 7th in my age group.

We never saw each other on the course, but my good friend Whit Rambach was just one minute behind! His wife Darcey and Sophia were awarding finishers medals, so our medals came with a kiss! We helped them out at the finish line the rest of the day, but Whit gets kudos for imitating Clark Kent. He wore his BSIM board uniform while working at the start line. Then he checked the blue blazer, white shirt, tie and slacks at the sweats check, and put them back on to work at the finish line. Wow! Why didn't I think of that?

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Barkley 2008: A Full Measure of Fun

Looking at the starters of this year's Barkley Marathons, I thought, "This year it's going to be a race, not just a race of attrition." But it feels that way every year. If this was any other race there'd be no question about finishing. But this is "the race that eats its young." "The only thing that buckles here is your knees."

Blake Wood and Jim Nelson were there, two of the 6 past finishers. Andrew Thompson, Blake and I are the only ones ever to embark on an ultimately futile Loop 5. All three of us were there. Greg Eason and Andras Low were back after successful "Fun Run" finishes last year.

In putting together a plan for this year's run, I reviewed everything I've done right and wrong preparing for Barkley over the last two years. The first thing I got right was to train hard. Before the 2006 race, I hiked with a pack up and down the steepest hills I could find. Because "running" 100 miles in 60 hours is a 36 minutes per mile average pace, I wasn't worried about having to run very much. But just being in good shape wasn't enough. I lost way too much time to navigational errors. My time for 3 loops was too slow even to qualify as an official "Fun Run" finish. Barkley is notoriously hard on "virgins." Read my 2006 race report here.

For 2007, I did similar training and focused on learning the course. I arrived at Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee a couple days early and scouted the sections that had given me the most trouble. I did much better, finishing 4 loops just under the 48-hour time limit, and set out on a 5th loop, but quit in a sleep-deprived stupor when it became clear that I could not finish under 60 hours. Read my 2007 race report here. More great information can be found on Matt Mahoney's unofficial official Barkley site.

This year I decided the key would be making time to sleep during the race, and the only way to do that is to run faster. So the crux of my training was running, not hiking, up and down lots of hills. I limited my long runs to about 3 hours so I could run hard the whole way. Only when my time on a 16-mile run with 14,000-feet of elevation change got down to 2:42 did I switch to a 20-mile route with 16,000 feet of elevation change. To get the effect of a longer run, I ran the same course on two or three consecutive days. Laz has commented about me logging my runs in feet of elevation change rather than miles, and it's true. I consider elevation change to be more important than miles when training for Barkley.

The hard running paid off handsomely. I was repeatedly able to recover from hard efforts during a loop and maintain a faster pace. Sleep allowed my brain as well as my legs to function better. With a total of just 3 hours sleep over two nights, I seldom felt sleepy on the trail and never hallucinated. I had much less trouble navigating at night, even though it was foggier this year than last. With no fog in my mind, the fog on the course didn't seem so bad.

I also wanted to lighten my load. The past two years were so hot it was necessary to carry a hydration bladder. When race day dawned rainy and cool, I switched to a water bottle. The cool forecast also allowed me to wear most of my clothing. The past two years my rain gear spent most of the time in my pack; this year I wore it almost all the time. I also reduced the amount of food carried by eating more between loops. With all the reductions, my supplies fit into a fanny pack instead of a backpack.

Unlike last year, I didn't lead from the start. Byron Backer took care of that with a blistering pace up Bird Mountain. I barely kept him in sight. The rest of us strung out down the switchbacks in small groups of just 1 or 2. Byron had just torn out his page when I arrived at Book 1, got my first page, filled my water bottle in Phillips Creek and took off after Byron. We were more or less together from there to Bald Knob. Byron had scouted this section a few days before and gotten lost. Even together we both managed to miss the first switchback descending from Bald Knob. So we ran cross-country until we picked up the trail again just before Squire Ridge. We had no more problems until Fyke's Peak where we searched 20 minutes in vain for a missing book, looking under every root ball in the area.

Down Fyke's, Byron got ahead of me several times. He had scouted the ridge and was choosing better routes. I spotted him up ahead from the top of a cliff before back-tracking to find a way down. I was very impressed that he wasn't following me around. Byron told me he'd probably struggle at night, but if he can overcome that weakness, he has a bright future at Barkley. He and Carl Laniak distinguished themselves among this year's rookies as "Fun Run" finishers.
Unfortunately, Byron's independence cost him at Book 5. By the time he found the book, I was just a tiny figure nearing the top of Testicle Spectacle.

I cruised through the rest of loop 1, and after a short break, most of loop 2. Night fell for the first time as I arrived at Raw Dog Falls. Rat Jaw was easy to navigate at night because the saw briers had been cut down. With the power line overhead, and a huge swath of open ground to follow, I erased all memories of struggling in the fog last year.

My first tough challenge came on the one major course change. This year the Camel Humps were reinstated to compensate for improvements to the North Boundary Trail. I was lost in the fog for quite a while. Eventually I followed the cliff tops and made slow progress. After that I fell hard coming down the Chimney Top Trail. Anticipating a sleep break when I got back to camp, I was running fast when I hit a muddy spot, crashed hard and slid off the trail. By the time I got back to camp, the bruise didn't hurt anymore.

Loop 1, at 7:07, had been so fast that I worried about blowing up, but after rounding Loop 2 in 9:23 feeling good, I stopped worrying. It was 1:30am, time for a well-earned rest. Sleeping in multi-day races makes so much sense I'm surprised how few people have tried it at Barkley. Nighttime pace can be glacial, so sleeping at night doesn't sacrifice much mileage. And the dividends paid are tremendous. After sleeping, I made fewer navigational errors and ran faster, more than making up for the time lost.

Loops 3 and 4 are reverse loops, which make Big Hell and Zip Line very tricky in the dark. I'd been hoping to start down Big Hell at first light, but I was well ahead of that pace and unwilling to give up too much time. After a 2 1/2 hour pit stop in camp to eat and sleep, I set out at 4am. I arrived at Chimney Top in total darkness. In the fog, I walked 3/4 of the way around Chimney Top before backtracking to the book. As I set my compass bearing to descend Big Hell, Carl Laniak, Greg Eason and Andrew Thompson were just topping out. Andrew said Blake Wood was somewhere behind, so I descended Big Hell looking for lights. When three lights suddenly appeared, I scurried off to my right to meet them coming up. Eventually I realized the lights were not runners but houses way off in the distance which became visible when I broke below a fog bank. Rats! I was lost on Big Hell. When I reached the bottom, I was in thick brush on an unfamiliar hillside above a near vertical drop into the creek. There was less brush down below, so I decided to slide down. I fell so fast, I panicked, grabbed hold of a sapling, and wrenched my left shoulder. The reflex action had been pointless because I had to let go again, sliding into the water. As I scrambled out, I could barely move my left arm. I thought my race might be over, but even if it was, I had to hike out. From the size of the creek, I decided to search upstream for the confluence, and as I walked, the pain in my shoulder subsided to a manageable level. I would learn later that I dislocated my collar bone where it attaches to the sternum.

When I got to the beech tree and retrieved my page, it was light enough to put away my headlamp. I could the water bottle with that hand, or feed myself with it, but I couldn't use it when scrambling uphill or downhill because it hurt too much to reach out. In the daylight, I started cruising again. Except for the shoulder, I felt almost as good as the first day. With no more navigation problems, I completed Loop 3 in 10:41, for a three loop total of 29:56:49. I was thrilled to finish the Fun Run in under 30 hours!

Since it was daylight and I was feeling pretty good, I wanted to minimize the time spent in camp. But my feet were pruned up from all the rain and I decided to let them dry thoroughly before applying Hyrdopel. The stop took half an hour.

I began Loop 4 a little after 3pm wondering how far I could get in the daylight. Big Hell and Zip Line were certain, but by pushing hard, I got over the Humps, down Rat Jaw, up Meth Lab and down Testicle before breaking out the headlamp! It was an unmaintainable pace, but I didn't care. I just kept rejoicing every time I passed another spot that would have been tough to negotiate at night. It was rainy, wet, foggy and muddy, and I knew it was going to be a very bad night.

Darkness immediately confirmed my worst fears. After taking just 5 1/2 hours to do the first half of Loop 4, it took another 3 hours to cover the 3 miles up Fyke's and over Stallion Mountain. The fog was simply awful. Going up Fykes, I kept getting lost and having to backtrack. Wearing my headlamp was useless; the fog was so thick I could barely see the ground. On Stallion Mountain, even with the headlamp in my hand, I could only see halfway across the width of the road. I had to angle back and forth to identify all the junctions properly.

The worst moment came near the summit. There's a big blow down to walk around and the road turns before emerging on the other side. The whole area is relatively open and flat, so it is very difficult to tell which way the road continues, even in daylight. Fortunately I'd made a mental note of the problem spot. Even so, I walked around the entire blow down several times before finding the road. By then I was completely disoriented. I had to get out my map and compass to be sure I was following the road in the right direction.

I heaved a big sigh of relief when the road to the Garden Spot finally appeared out of the fog. It was 11:30pm and all thought of cruising was long gone. I was just thankful that I still had some time in the bank, although that was disappearing fast. On my way to the Coal Ponds I got lost again, regaining the correct route only after crossing between two of the ponds. At Son of a Bitch Ditch and Bald Knob, I managed to stay on the trail only because I know those sections so well. But the fog got thinner as the trail improved.

When I got back on maintained trail, I knew I'd complete Loop 4 before dawn. I tried really hard to start cruising again, reminding myself that the sooner I got there, the sooner I could get some sleep. But I was too sleepy to run well and the muddy trail was dangerously slippery. Jogging along as best I could, I never managed to get an efficient stride going. Fatigue set in on top of sleepiness as the hours passed. About 2:30am, on the way down Jury Ridge, I stopped for a quick nap. My sleepy eyes weren't working very well and I was risking a disastrous fall on the narrow, sloping side-hill trail. I lay down in the wet leaves with rain misting down on my face and rested my eyes until I started shivering, about 10 minutes. I got up and warmed up my cold cramping muscles by walking.

The sleepiness cleared as I reached the last book at Philips Creek. From there I was able to push myself over Bird Mountain and back to camp in an hour and fifteen minutes. It was 4am and I'd just completed Loop 4, the hardest loop at Barkley, in 12:52.

I was exhausted, but I forced myself to eat and tend my feet before going to sleep. At 4:15am I set my alarm for 5:45am and fell asleep in seconds. When I awoke, I took a caffeine pill. I was groggy, but able to focus. I lubed my feet and reapplied sunscreen for the last time. I put on dry socks and shoes, hoping in vain that it would ease the pain in my feet. The only thing I forgot to bring was a hat. Day 3 would be the sunniest yet, but a little sunburn wasn't going to stop me.

Starting in the dark at 6:06am, I decided to do Loop 5 clockwise. The first navigational challenges are farther out and easier to solve in that direction. I also find that the North Boundary Trail is best to do when fresh. It's possible to really cruise on it. Marching up and down Zip Line and Big Hell is slow no matter what.

Dawn broke just as I arrived at Book 1 and I put away my headlamp for the last time. I climbed Jury Ridge and Not Jury Ridge for the last time. Everything I did was for the last time. A new day was dawning. The last day. It was still raining, but the temperature was rising and I'd be done before it got cold again. Every hour I felt stronger. With each passing obstacle, I felt free to push a little harder. I'd be done soon. I'd be done sooner if I pushed and I really wanted to be done sooner so I could rest. I told myself not to think about rest yet. I needed to stay focused.

It was Monday morning. Fool's Weekend was over. I heard a crew with chain saws working near Rat Jaw, while back in camp, runners and their crews were packing up. Many had already left to catch planes or start long drives home. It's only fair, I guess. At most races the front runners go home before the last runner finishes. Barkley's different.

Meanwhile, I ran down Frozen Head and cruised over the Humps. At Indian Knob I faced the last cross-country downhill on Zip Line. It was the last section where I walked downhill. I cruised up Big Hell in just under 40 minutes, sweating profusely. For the first time in over 50 hours I took off my long sleeve shirt. When I hit the good Chimney Top Trail, I took off at a full run. My feet hurt, my knees hurt and my quads hurt, but I didn't care.

A shout went out as I came running into camp. I was early. It had been an incredible last loop. 10:17 was better than most people did on loop 1! My official finish time was 55:42:27, besting Ted "Cave Dog" Kaiser's 56:57 course record!! I can still hardly believe it. I have great respect for Cave Dog and his many achievements, and am very proud to have bettered one of his marks.

There are no finishers awards at Barkley, but Gary's warm handshake and congratulations all around were better than any bauble. The energy jacked me up for another hour. I felt fresher than I had all day. I stood talking to the 15 people or so who had waited so long to watch me finish. I signed a couple autographs, posed for some photos, including one with Blake and Jim welcoming me into the finishers club. It was wonderful.

Eventually the euphoria wore off and fatigue began to take over. I sat down. Andrew gave me a pair of Crocs to wear and cooked the last of the Barkley chicken over the fire as I took a shower. After eating, I slept for 9 hours, but that was only a start. Including naps, I slept close to 12 hours a day for much of the next week. My quads, knees and feet all hurt like hell, but should recover fully. My dislocated collar bone will leave a permanent bump on my chest, right where a finishers medal might hang. So it seems I got a Barkley "finishers award" after all.