start together, finish together–the white river 50 miler

 

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Team Red Shirt – photo by Amy Wismer

The night before the White River 50 Miler, I fidgeted in my room at Crystal, wondering why I was there. I’d not trained for the 9000+ feet of ascent, let alone the distance. Work and other part of everyday life had impeded my grand plans to train. Those three repeats up and down Mount Si? Nope. Those trips up to the pass to get in some long work? Nope. Those back-to-back twenties? Nope. My first DNF (did not finish) in seventy marathons and ultras was a real possibility – and part of me was afraid of that.

Kris, my wife encouraged me to try it. “You should go do this – what do you have to lose?” she said. This was her polite way of saying “Can you please stop moping, just go out and do this thing?”. The more I thought about it, the more I saw her point. Also, it had been too late to cancel my room at the Alpine Inn – meaning I would have been out about $100 in addition to the race fees.

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Bob and I before the start, with no idea what we were in for – photo by Amy Wismer

At the start the next day, I hung out with two ESR friends Justin Carpenito and Bob Wismer at the start. An injury had dashed Bob’s wife Amy’s plans to join us, so she was providing logistic and moral support. Amy reminded me that I needed to represent those of us entering a new age group this year. Now there was some more motivation not to drop out. As we started shortly after six AM, I was thinking that I really had no idea what I was in for.

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Off and running – photo by Glenn Tachiyama

Start to Ranger Creek (mile 0 to 11.7)

The first several miles were pretty mellow. I was so focused on moving that I ran past the first aid station at Camp Sheppard without stopping. It was a really good thing I was carrying two bottles and lots of fuel, because the big climb started within a mile.

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Near Camp Sheppard , very early miles – photo by Ross Comer

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Things get steep fast – photographer unknown

The steep switchbacks spread the field out quickly. By now, I’d fallen back from my friends and was soon running solo in the woods. By the time I reached the Ranger Creek aid station, I really wasn’t sure there were 38 more miles in my legs. Doubt lurked in my head.

Ranger Creek, out and back (mile 11.7 to 22.1)

At Ranger Creek, I topped off my bottle, ate a bit, and then set out for the last part of the climb before we’d drop towards Corral Pass. This was really nice – we’d run along cliff’s edge with amazing views down to the start, and out to mighty Rainier.

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Looking down towards the start – photo by Eric Sach

Falling in with Bob and Justin around then was a good boost for me. I confessed that I wasn’t feeling good about my training, or my mindset. Bob turned and looked at me, then pointed out to the amazing panorama of Rainer off to our left, saying “Where else would you rather be than here?”.

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Justin near Corral Pass – photo by Ross Comer

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Bob near Corral Pass – photo by Ross Comer

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Your author near Corral Pass – photo by Ross Comer

Bob and I first met about ten years ago while doing the Nookachamps Half in Mount Vernon. Since then, we’ve logged miles during a number of marathons and ultras together. I’ve long admired the way he and his wife Amy pursue things like this as a team. Even when one of them is injured, they’re actively supporting and cheering on the other (like today). And they’ve accomplished some pretty amazing things along the way. Always positive, always thoughtful.

I dropped back from the group as we headed back towards Ranger Creek, but I thought lots about Bob’s words. I never thought I’d be running the Cascades as I approached age 50. When reflecting on what brought him to the starting line of his record-setting 24 hour run in Brive-la-Guillard France, Scott Jurek talks about how when his discomfort and fatigue become unbearable “I will run because I can”. He tells us that when he struggles to hold a pose, his yoga instructor reminds him that “this is what you came for”.

Today I had the opportunity to go farther than I had before. I’d been consumed by all of the things I’d not done to prepare, almost planning excuses to fail. The thing to do was to lean into this difficult pose, and just run – “because I can”.

Ranger Creek to Buck Creek (mile 22.1 to 27.2)

The trip down from Ranger Creek was pretty smooth. I tried to take the downhill from Ranger Creek back to Buck Creek easy, saving my quads for later. I ran mostly solo, taking care not to turn an ankle on the roots and rocks arrayed on the trail.

I rolled back into Buck Creek, just past mile 27 at about 6:19. Bob had come in a bit ahead and Amy was making sure he had everything he needed. I took my fuel out of my drop bag, ate some PBJ, and downed a bunch of liquid along with some electrolyte tabs. We were in for a tough climb, so it was time to fuel up. Amy came over and gave me some sunscreen, and dumped water on my visor – it was getting warm, and this got me into the habit of stopping to drench my head and neck at each opportunity. Then it was time to go, before I had too much time to think about it. We had 23 miles ahead of us.

Buck Creek to Sun Top (mile 27.2 to 37)

The four and a half miles to Fawn Ridge started out easy, but quickly got steep and tough. Some negative mind-fog had rolled in again, and thought to myself “just keep moving”. When I saw the aid station up ahead at mile 31.7, I’d already been on the course for over seven hours. There I quaffed down more fluids and fuel, and then set out again.

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Slogging out that last half mile to Sun Top – photo by Glenn Tachiyama

The trip from Fawn Ridge to Sun Top was the hardest part of the day for me. The climbing was relentless. We hit a false summit around mile 34 or 35. Then just after coasting downhill a bit, we had to slog up to Sun Top on trail that was both steep and exposed. Just keep moving, I told myself, even as my confidence waned more. As I climbed that last half mile in the sun, my steps got small, but my feet didn’t stop.

Sun Top to Skookum Flats (mile 37 to 43.4)

At Sun Top, I met Bob and Justin again. We sucked down lots of fluid and fuel. I gingerly lowered myself into a chair, wanting to rest my legs a little. Knowing what the problems gravity presents after 37 miles and nearly 9000 feet of climbing my friends warned me to “beware the chair”. I lingered a bit longer there, catching up with them just down the road. That first turn on Sun Top gives possibly the nicest view of Rainier on the course – a great way to start down the hill.

This is where things turned around for me in a big way. We were all tired, our bodies hurting as we ambled down the road. There’s something about running as a team that shifted our focus away from those inner voices telling us negative stuff. It’s hard to describe how that emotional veil lifted as we swapped stories about life.

And we kept moving. One of us would set a new pace, and the other two would follow. Now we knew we’d finish this thing. “Start together, finish together” became the motto. We were a team, pulling each other along. Justin and I celebrated milestones marking new longest runs, and Justin got us to celebrate by running into the Skookum Flats aid station.

Skookum Flats to the Finish (mile 43.4 to 50)

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Recharging for the last 6.6 – photo by Amy Wismer

When we were recharging, Amy complemented our ability to speak in complete sentences that mostly made sense. I caught up with my friend Wendy, who was working the aid station – she’d been there when I’d completed my first marathon in Anchorage, sixteen years ago. Back then, I never would have imagined I’d do something like this. But here we were.

Team “Red Shirt” set out on the Skookum Flats trail with 6.6 miles to go. Quick math told us that getting in between 12 ½ and 13 hours was within reach. The problem was that the “Flats” really wasn’t so flat, and there were roots and rocks to contend with. We’d run a bit, then would walk a while. Eventually the trail narrowed and climbed until we were a couple of hundred feet above. Good thing most of my blood was flowing to my legs, otherwise I might have been more conscious of the steep drop-off on my left – not much to grab onto on the way down.

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Team Red Shirt running along Skookum Flats – photo by Ross Comer

With a bit under a mile to go, Bob started to run. No one said much, we just kept moving. As we got close to the finish, things leveled out and it got a bit easier.

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Bringing it in – photo by Amy Wismer

Winding out that last little section as we entered the airport, we could see the turn to the finish up ahead. We turned it up a notch as we got closer. We crossed the finish together in 12:59:28. “Start together, finish together” had worked. Amazing feeling.

I’ve completed 70 marathons and ultras in my life – roads, trails, flat, and not. Some were harder than others, but I’d never experienced anything quite like this. Next time around, I’ll prepare – more hill training, and more quality miles – build my spirit and body up a bit more.

But two weeks later, I’m still taking in the experience. It was a great reminder to trust ourselves to dig deep when we need to. To just keep moving, and focus forward. And the team feeling to finishing with Justin and Bob was amazing. Working together kept things positive, and brought us in smiling.

Start together, finish together – it works.

Some favorite moments

  • Believing Kris when she said “You should do this, what do you have to lose?”.
  • Conversation with Tom the night before at the Alpine Inn about races old (fast ones for him) and new. Tom also finished his first 50 miler the next day.
  • That moment just after starting that it really sunk in that I had no idea what I was in for, or what it would be like.
  • Bob’s pep talk as we headed back to Ranger Creek.
  • Amy’s smile and her help getting me focus forward for the second half.
  • Digging deeper on that last half mile up Sun Top. Wouldn’t have believed I’d be able to do it.
  • Falling in with the “Red Shirt Team” after Sun Top.
  • Learning that it’s easier to run level than downhill after 37 miles.
  • Bob running into someone he’d met at the Kettle Moraine 100 in Wisconsin several years back – mile 40 was best small world story of the day.
  • Getting passed by Jess on the Skookum Flats Trail – she was running the course for the second time.
  • Internalizing Scott Jurek’s message that “this is what we came for”.
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six years past …

On July 7, 2008 I woke up in Harborview Hospital in Seattle.  I’d been in an induced coma for six days, after being in a bad bicycle accident

I reflect on this each July, marking the anniversary of the accident itself on the first by riding my bike into work.  I take the same route I took that morning six years ago.  The first time I visited the site after it happened, you could still see my bike’s outline painted on the road.  That’s long since faded.  

Each time I ride towards the site, I hold my breath a bit, like I’m diving into water.  When I pass, it’s relief.  Strange ritual –but I do this each year to show myself that I can. 

When the accident comes up in conversation now, I’m struck by a sense of distance from it.  That’s good.  Over time our scars fade – even if they never quite completely disappear.

When I reflect on those days in 2008, I feel appreciation for the love and support from my family and friends that pulled me through this.  My strange ritual is a reminder to appreciate these things every day.

I wouldn’t have chosen this particular adventure, but I’ve been given a great opportunity with it.

Reflect, hold your breath, then dive in. 


a day in the woods with friends

Once in a while, we have the good fortune to be reminded about why we love doing what we do.  That was what doing the Redmond Watershed Twelve Hour event was for me.

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a married couple running the watershed trails – photo by Takao Suzuki

I’d done this run the previous two years.  The shift to time verses a set course length makes it much more about running your own race.  People settle into it, and have fun.

My original goal this year was to cover 50 miles.  That shouldn’t be  a problem, right.  You can almost walk that far in twelve hours, right?  The problem with this was that I’d not really built the proper mileage base.  I could confidently do 50k, but 50 miles?  Also, I’d just gotten back from a business trip to Chile the day before, and was feeling a bit like I’d run back from Santiago.

So the plan changed to a 50k training run with friends.  And that’s what we did.  What made it even better was that my wife Kris and I were celebrating our 20th anniversary with this jaunt in the woods.  In preparation for the Light at the End of the Tunnel, coming up in July, her day would be a 20 miler.  We almost never get to run together.  And what made this venue great was that there was no time pressure at all – we just needed to keep moving.

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running down the aisle, celebrating twenty years – photo by Takao Suzuki

We ran with friends too.  A bunch of the Eastside Runners crowd was out there, as were several folks I’d met doing local trail ultras.  We spent the time sharing stories, debating fine points of runner’s etiquette, and sometimes just enjoying some quiet time in the woods. 

This is what the race was about for me – enjoying time with friends (including my best friend), while getting some time on my legs.


dizzy daze–41 miles of looping

I’m celebrating a milestone birthday this year, and have decided to mark the occasion with a nice 50 miler in July.  My dilemma is that this requires some conscious training.

For the better part of the past five years, I’ve run marathons and 50k’s often enough that I’m more or less “trained” for them.  It’s convenient – I don’t really have to think twice.  If it fits on the family calendar, I can do it.  But adding another twenty miles or more makes it a new ballgame.  I’ll have to plan for this.

At the beginning of March, while running a marathon in the Redmond Watershed, my friend Brian Pendleton gave me some great advice.  The White River 50 miler can be viewed as a 50k plus another twenty miles of hiking.  The more significant climbs are ones I’d probably want to walk.  And with a net ascent of about 8700 feet, it will be important to build my base mileage up a bit.  The other suggestion from Brian was that I consider doing the crazy Dizzy Daze run, put on by our friends Betsy Rogers and her husband Matt Hagen.  It’s a 12 hour event – the goal is to cover as many miles as you want (or that you can) between 7am and 7pm.

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That’s what brought me out to Green Lake this Saturday morning in March.  I wasn’t sure what sort of effort I’d be able to coax out, so just decided to relax.  In fact, I relaxed so much that I ended up starting about 40 minutes after just about everyone else.  That’s a nice thing about timed events – starting late doesn’t have to be a big deal.  It’s about the miles you cover.

As luck would have it, Brian showed up at about the same time, so we set out together.  We spent the first several loops running/walking and swapping stories.  The week’s rain had let up, so the conditions were great. 

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I did my middle loops solo – keeping a steady 9:15/mile pace.  After doing this three or four times, I was ready for some company again.  Solo loops around Green Lake can be sort of like watching paint dry.  But spending it with friends make the miles much easier.  We saw our friends Leslie, Lee, Stan, Monte, Paige, Ross, Rick, and Lisa on the course.  There were other friends who volunteered (hey SRL!). 

We spent the next two loops circling together, and passing the time.  Brian’s goal was to call things good at 50k (he was going to do the Cupcake Run the next day, so needed to leave something in his tank).  I was aiming for about 41-42 miles.  That would be ten more than I’d covered in a day before.

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Brian’s wife and friends had set up a “rogue” aid station roughly at the midpoint of our 3.2 mile loop.  They’re raising money for the ALS Association (Brian is living with ALS), and were out there cheering us on just when we could appreciate it the most.  The last time around was a bit tougher.  Brian’s IT band was bothering him, and my feet were hurting.  We can look past the immediate aches and pains, and focus on our goals.  For me, it’s about getting ready for White River.  For Brian, I think it’s about getting to event #200 (12 more to go).

We parted after he’d completed his miles, and I did my final two loops alone.  About halfway through the final loop, my GPS clicked over the 40 mile mark.  I’d never imagined I would do something like this.  You can argue that these are (very) flat miles.  And it’s true that there are going to be tougher runs ahead, as I prepare for White River.  But I was happy to have covered these 41.6 today.

Please consider giving to the ALS Association.  They fund continuing research towards a cure, as well as treatment and services for people living with ALS.  Do this in honor of people you know who have been affected by this wicked thing, or in honor of our friend Brian as he runs towards marathon/ultra #200.  Pictures provided by Christy Hammond.


chuckanut–running the ridge

The Chuckanut 50k is a northwest favorite.  It usually draws a good field, and the course has a bit of everything. The scenery feeds your heart, but parts of the course might make your soul cry a bit.  There is over 5000’ of ascent and descent – which you will remember when you’re trying to take that final flat 10k fast. 

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climbing up the chinscraper – photo courtesy of Glenn Tachiyama (http://www.tachifoto.net/).

I’d signed up for Chuckanut on kind of a whim, thinking it would be a great stepping stone on my to longer runs.  Drove up Friday afternoon, glad that I was staying about five minutes from the start.  It was nice to coast over about 30 minutes before the start, without a worry.

They sent us off at eight on the dot, all 400 of us packed into the narrow interurban trail leaving Fairhaven.  As we set off, I got to see a bunch of familiar faces – Chrissie out there doing her first 50k (just three weeks after breaking her tailbone!), Gunnar from work – intense and focused on the trail as he is at work.  I chatted with Barb and Lisa during that first stretch too.

By the time we reached the first aid station, the pack had spread out quite a bit – which made the single track climb that followed much more relaxed.  I settled into a steady walk (up the hills) and easy run (on the more level or downhill parts), knowing we had some hard miles ahead.

The hardest part of the course for me is the three mile stretch up Cleator.  Two years back, this had been an icy slog.  This time was much easier – we’d been blessed with great weather.  I reminded myself to be patient, but was very happy when we made the turn on to the Chuckanut Ridge Trail, around mile 13.1.

This is possibly one of the more fun places to run in this part of the country.  We run along a fairly narrow ridge, nestled between a long drop on the right, and one that would involve less-than-fatal injuries on the left.  Even those of us who don’t like heights will find this scramble liberating.  You focus on getting your footing right, while trying to enjoy the view along the way.

The run along the ridge, and then back on the Lost Lake trail reminded me why I was out there.  Along the way I thought about my friend who’d wanted to be out there, but was ill.  We’d shared some miles, and stories together.  I hoped he’d be out on the trails again soon – things had been tough for him lately.

When we came to the base of the climb to the Chinscraper, I was tired, but felt pretty relaxed about what was ahead of me.  The climb was longer than I remembered, with the steeper parts slowing me to over a 20 min/mile pace.  When I reached the final climb, I pushed hard – making up this time without having to use my hands to help.  Better than last time – felt good, but I definitely paid for it on the long steep downhill that followed.

And it was sorely tempting to pound down those hills.  But having done this once before, I remembered having spent my legs doing this last time.  So I downshifted and hoped I’d have something left during the final 10k.

I wouldn’t have guessed that my fastest mile splits would come so late.  I was on the edge of losing faith, but somehow managed to keep moving.  Each mile got a bit faster than the last.  Down below 10, 9:30, 9, then below 8:30.  It didn’t feel fast, just hard.  But it was great to keep moving.  Rounding the final turns before coming out into the open air I was able to dig even a bit deeper. 

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pushing to the finish – photo by Ather Haleem

I crossed the finish in just under 6:22 (chip time), and felt better about my effort than other recent events.  I put on some dry clothes, enjoyed some wonderful lentil soup, and watched some friends finish. 

charts and graphs for running geeks

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The splits mostly reflect the course topology, but comparing the first and last 10k makes me feel good.  By the orange line (indicating pace) you can see that there was a bit of walking involved.

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watershed moments–reflecting beyond these 26.2 miles

I’ve logged hundreds of miles in the Redmond Watershed Preserve.  This started when I was training for the New York City Marathon twelve years ago – the terrain is mixed, and the hills don’t dominate. 

Following my muddy 50k foray at Lord Hill the weekend before, my marathon goal for Northwest Trail Runs’ Spring Run for Fun was just to finish.  I was still recovering, and had just two more weeks before the Chuckanut 50k

Running the marathon in the Watershed may not have been the wisest choice, but I’d call it a guilty pleasure.  It’s a chance to get together with good friends and do some miles on trails.  That’s what gets me out of the house on a wet winter morning.

38 degrees and rainy didn’t feel like so much pleasure  when arriving at the rainy Watershed.  Some of the more creative runners got into the ranger’s office, and started up the heater.  At the time it felt as decadent as a good cabernet paired with dark chocolate.

We started together, all of us crowding the Trillium trail.  Once we got moving, we felt warmer, which is usually the case. 

I took that first loop a bit too briskly – and knew it at the time.  The memory of a sub-four hour time here in 2011, stoked some delusion, but that was a different time, in different weather. 

I’d settled into a better pace during the second loop, and about midway through fell in with friend of mine.  We spent the next six miles or so talking.  We talked about training – aiming for Boston Marathon qualifying times, speed work vs. threshold training, building up volume.  As we started loop #3 together we started waxing a bit philosophical.

Through a series of conversational twists and turns, we started talking about death.  There’s an irony to speaking about death when you’re running a marathon.  After all, running requires a vitality that the dead simply cannot muster.  On the other hand, sometimes in the later miles, you might feel as though the reaper is sneaking up on you. 

In this case, we’d happened upon this topic because it’s part of life.  I recalled a recent article written by Roger Angell in the New Yorker about aging.  It’s a good read – seems an honest and sometimes humorous take an often inevitable part of life.  In this philosophical vein, we agreed that while neither of us fear death per se, the decline that can precede it is a different story.

Then he shared with me that he’d been diagnosed with ALS.

I was stunned.  He’s run over 25 marathons and ultras in the past twelve months.  With good fortune, he’ll complete his 200th lifetime sometime this year.  And in addition to being accomplished in the running community, he’s one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. 

He talked about how unpredictable a path ALS takes in the body.  There’s no telling how it will progress, and what the effects will be, or how long he has left with us.

About fifteen or sixteen miles in, we hugged and he ran back to join another friend. 

He’d shared some very human feelings of fear and sadness.  But being out on the trails each week pursuing number 200, while spending the miles with friends contemplating what all of this means,  seems a great example of what psychologist/philosopher Viktor Frankl calls the “will to meaning”. 

Much courage, much grace – seems fueled by love for things big and small in our lives.

As I completed my own race – legs tired, feet hurting, and body chilled, I reflected on our conversation.  And I’m still doing that.

Words sometimes fail us when expressing feelings about life’s harder turns.  But love doesn’t.  Share it, and keeping covering the miles together.


keeping a diamond in your mind : the lord hill 50k

 

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after the first climb up Old Lord Hill – photo by Takao Suzuki.

Always keep a diamond in your mind
Always keep a diamond in your mind
Wherever you may wander, wherever you may roam
Always keep a diamond in your mind

– Tom Waits

Running is a great way to restore perspective when life gets complicated.  Things had been busy and pretty stressful lately.  When you feel like you can only half of what needs to be done, it’s unsatisfying.  I thought some meditative time under the trees would do me some good.  My training had been okay – just adequate.  I felt confident in my preparation for the distance, but didn’t think it would be pretty.

The two other times I’d run at Lord Hill had some twists too.  Once had been a 9 1/2 mile 10k.  The other time, I’d forgotten my trail shoes, which made things interesting.

And this time, I got more time under those trees than I’d bargained for.

The morning of the event was kind of gloomy.  There had been some threat of snow, but instead it had been gray, cold, and wet.  A typical February morning in the northwest.  A cold, wet blanket.  The challenge is not to let it get you down too much.

As I lined up at the start, I thought about a nice dinner out with some old friends from years past a few nights before.  We shared stories about the thirty years since we’d last seen each other.  Harriett and Dave were visiting the northwest from Atlanta.  Each morning found them bounding for the slopes on Mount Baker or Stevens Pass, heading out to take in the beauty of the Olympic Peninsula, or visiting Vancouver. 

Our dinner together helped me shake some of the cobwebs that had gathered in recent weeks.  I knew that the Lord Hill course was a tough one, and that I’d get to slog up the big hill three times.  But that’s part of the fun, isn’t it?

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looking down from the top of the hill, runners coming up.  photo by takao suzuki

The first time we climbed, it was pretty tough.  And each time around, it got tougher.  Several hundred sets of feet climbing the steep muddy hills, backsliding and nearly falling.  Traversing through the dark woods over logs – not sure whether you may have taken a wrong turn.  It’s too easy to focus on the pain that the miles can inflict on us.

But it’s also important to remember what brought us to the starting line.  Years back, I’d never imagined being able to cover over thirty miles up and down those hills, and through the mud. 

Perspective is one of the blessings we gain over the years.  In this case, it was a gift that two friends gave me by sharing stories from their trip over dinner.

I could write about how each turn felt, or how I didn’t know how I’d finish when I was around mile 13 and struggling.  But the real story for me at Lord Hill Park that day was stepping back and thinking about the opportunity we all have each day, with each challenge we choose.  I saw some good friends on the trails, and enjoyed the crazy challenge we’d all accepted.

The day was wet, cold, and gray.  The forest was beautiful and quiet.  Traversing the technical pieces where the trail was only discernable because of the muddy footprints in front of me was excellent.  And yeah – it may have been my second-slowest 50k ever.  I’ll just learn from it, and remember that I’m blessed to be out there.

charts and graphs for running geeks

Loop over loop, the times got longer.  The mile splits are not very useful, as the elevation varies – there was a total ascent of over 5600’ on this course.  Tougher than the last time I’d done it, which had been the July before last, when it had been dry, and much warmer.

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Here’s the elevation plot for the course.  We did three 10 mile loops, capped by the final insult – a steep climb up to the foot of Old Lord Hill, and then a steep run back down to the finish.

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Here’s the heart rate plot – there were a couple of interesting spikes there, but the cumulative average remaining pretty steady.

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