Wednesday, September 24, 2014
We don't see the Beginning of something until we've traveled long enough on one path to notice that something HAS begun. We often don't know how long the trail will be, so there's no way to mark the Middle. Even The End is seldom our choice, so only afterwards do we realize the season we thought would continue is over. The Beginning, the Middle and The End are labels we add later to comprehend history.
Saturday, August 2, 2014
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
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
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.
Saturday, July 19, 2014
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
11 ½ hours to Foresthill. Then another 11 ½ hours to
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
Because this year’s Western States was a focus race for me, I expected to better my 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
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
I arrived at
I exuberantly waved to friends as we turned onto
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
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
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 , 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
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?