Getting On and Taking Advantage

A warm welcome to the readers of RunBikeThrow, my blog, and Happy Planet Running, my Zero Waste business website. I hope you are well and staying safe through all this.

The RBT family – me, my wife Joyce, and my daughters and their partners, and my siblings and their families, are all fine and doing their best to get on with the business of life while taking the appropriate precautions. I’m fortunate that while Happy Planet Running is on hold with the event companies, I have important work to do at my office job, as does my wife at her job, and we are both able to work from home.

It’s been a strange couple of weeks, as normally at this time I’m very busy with March races, or planning the April ones, in addition to everything else that goes with an active professional life. It feels odd to wake up in the morning with nowhere to go, no people to meet, no group runs, and no events to support.

And I’m not alone here. Last weekend I was talking with the race director of a local 5K that celebrates St. Patrick’s Day. “Normally at this time my phone would be ringing constantly with people mad at me about something,” he told me. “You know, I miss the stress.” As do I, to a point.

And yet, haven’t all of us busy people secretly (or not) wished for a break from so many responsibilities? To have time with our spouses and kids? To cook more at home? To finally finish that side project, or work on our Great American Novels? I sure have. And here it is.

So we’ve been taking advantage of this enforced isolation. We are cooking more. We’re going on walks together. I’m finally able to organize my business stuff, and clean out some closets. And yes, I am actually working on a novel. One I started years ago and finally decided it was time to get done.

The world we live in right this moment wouldn’t support the story I’m telling, but dammit, we’ll get through this, and although our world may be transformed in ways we don’t fully grasp yet, I have faith that people will be able to gather again, and celebrate together, and do all those things we 21st century people do.

And maybe, just maybe, we’ll be a little more compassionate toward each other, appreciate our common ground and respect our differences, and better understand how precious is every human life.

My best wishes to you all, and I hope to see you at the races someday soon!

Jeff

The Only Way

THIS MONTH I AM CELEBRATING an important anniversary. I know this because LinkedIn told me so.

You see, in 2017 I founded my zero waste event services company, Happy Planet Running. And this month marks the start of my fourth year. Holy smokes. It really does feel like just yesterday I was filling out the incorporation paperwork and filing it with the State of Michigan. And I had an attorney as my registered agent, and business insurance, and business cards. It was real.

And I’d started it at age 55.

2019 – I’m holding the landfill trash from an entire weekend of trail races.

I am not the first person in my family to start a business in his fifties. My father was let go from an executive position when Burroughs and Sperry merged into Unisys (and inconsequentiality), with all three of his kids in college. The script called for finding another large company to work at until 65 and the gold watch. Instead he founded his own PR firm and ran it until just before he died at 76. It paid the bills and kept him comfortably busy and connected to the world.

I asked him once, “Dad, why have your own business at your age?” At the time, I was full-time corporate and enjoyed it, like he’d done most of his professional life. His answer, “Because it’s the only way to do it,” surprised and amused me. My friends who owned small businesses spent a lot of unpaid time and effort behind the scenes doing the paperwork and other mundane stuff. I just couldn’t see myself doing that.

And yet here I am, and I supported 41 events last year, and will likely do the same number or more this year, God willing and we survive the latest virus scare.

I call the evolution of all this both inevitable and unexpected. Inevitable because like my dad, I can’t handle sitting around doing nothing, even when I intentionally carve out time to do just that. Like when I voluntarily cut back to part-time employment in 2015 to “pursue other interests” – which was true.

I’d wanted to do more running, more long bike rides, more volunteering at events, and get back to creative writing. And I did- up to a point.

And ziplining. Don’t forget ziplining! (Although this was part of a business trip.)

The unexpected part was what I actually ended up doing with most of that freed-up time.

The key was seeing dumpsters fill up with event waste that could have been recycled or composted, and getting fed up enough to do something about it. Which led to research into Zero Waste practices, which led to volunteering at a Zero Waste event, which led to pitching it to an events company in Ann Arbor, and, eventually, creating a business that continues today.

So far, no one has asked me why I would start a company “at my age.” Perhaps that’s due to 21st century business realities, where startups sprout up like weeds and no one expects to work at one company for forty years. But if someone does, I have an answer ready.

“Because it’s the only way to do it.”

Thanks, Dad.

It’s Okay. No, Really, It’s Okay.

This running life can be funny. Two times recently I’ve had to be told, or tell myself, that something perfectly normal and reasonable is okay. As in, I was actually feeling guilty about something I had no business feeling guilty about.

The Thursday after I got back from the Grandmaster Ultra 50, I went to Body Specs for a recovery workout. I chatted with Skip, the owner and head trainer, about my experience at the race, and how I’d won by a single second. I was downplaying it a little because it was a small field and a close finish.

Skip said something to me then that I just had to turn into a meme. Here it is.

Meme: Trainer with arms folded saying IT'S OK TO WIN - WE DON'T TRAIN YOU TO LOSE

He explained that he wasn’t really a fan of the “everyone who participates is a winner” mentality. Competition is healthy, and if you win, that’s a good thing. If you lose, then learn from it, improve, and try again.

“Yes,” I said, “but there are people out there who will always finish ahead of me, even if I run the best race I can. The finish order depends a lot on who shows up and who doesn’t. My usual goal is to set a personal best, or beat a certain time, or to do better than my previous effort. That’s something I can train for.”

We agreed in the end that winning doesn’t necessarily mean finishing first, but he trains people to perform their best and hit their goals, not to do less. And I shouldn’t discount winning, even if it’s by a single second in a 50-mile race. I showed up, I put in the effort, and I finished first. It’s okay to win. I’m keeping the belt, thank you.

My second, “it’s okay to…” moment happened this weekend. For the first time in what seems like forever, we had a sunny Saturday for club run. I’d really enjoyed the sun in Arizona, but the two weeks since then had been unending cloudy gray gloom. It felt so good to run in the sunshine that I stretched my original plan of 10-12 miles to fifteen.

PR club run, Saturday, Feb. 22. I’m in the yellow jacket. (Photo courtesy of Bin Xu.)

That afternoon I lay down for a while, accompanied by some of our resident furry nap coaches. I looked out the window at the bright blue sky and thought, I’m wasting all that sunshine. I should be outside doing something. Anything other than lying here doing nothing.

As an ultrarunner I already know I’m nuts, but this was really ridiculous. Not only was there no work to do outside, I’d run for over two hours in the sun that morning. I had to tell myself that resting was okay. Essential, even. Running is the exercise, but recovery is what makes me stronger.

The cats knew better how to take advantage of the sun, stretching out on the patches of sunlight that fell on the bed and basking in its warmth. I guess they were better coaches than I gave them credit for.

These guys understand the importance of rest. And enjoying life in the moment.

50 Miles in the Desert: A Grand(master) Adventure

IT WAS A PHOTO FINISH.

If only there had been a camera at the finish line.

Chris and I descended a sandy slope onto the road and charged toward the finish straight ahead. After fifty miles on rugged, rocky desert trails, we found the strength to sprint, and over those last hundred yards we continued to accelerate. After running nearly the entire race together, the top two spots in the Grandmaster Ultra 50 were ours. We hit the line side by side.

As we caught our breath and bumped fists, a woman carrying a large velvet bag walked up to us. “Which of you finished first?” she asked.

My co-finisher and I looked at each other and shrugged. I’d been looking straight ahead and only knew it had been close. He had no idea, either.

She looked equally puzzled. “The problem is, I only have one winner’s belt.”

So which one of us would get it?

** Okay, if you really need to know right now who won, you can skip to the end of this post. But I’m a writer and I’m trying to tell a story here. I hope you’ll humor me and stick it out. **

The Grandmaster Ultras take place in the northwest corner of Arizona about 100 miles northeast of Las Vegas. As its name implies, it’s open only to people 50 and older. The race window is 8 a.m. Friday to 8 a.m. Sunday, and runners have their choice of 50K, 50 miles, 100K, 100 miles, and 48-hour total distance.

The event is a UTMB qualifier, so that was one attraction. The venue was intriguing too. The Burning Man 50K, my only other desert ultra, is pancake flat on firm clay, never far from Black Rock City. The GM Ultra is in God knows where, with cacti, hills, rocks, and tricky terrain. If you fall and twist an ankle, help might take a while, though I suppose you could hitchhike on the occasional ATV rumbling along the trails.

I began my involvement in this race by freaking out the race staff.

I picked up my race bib at the race tent behind Beaver Dam Station Friday afternoon. My race didn’t start until Saturday, so I went up the road for a five-mile “dress rehearsal” run in full gear. This included testing my new snap-on bib attachments. They don’t put holes in your clothing like safety pins, but I needed to make sure they wouldn’t fall off.

Closeup of the snaps. They worked well! I will use them again.

The practice run went smoothly, and the back muscle I’d strained the week before gave me no trouble even with a full pack, so I cruised back to the station feeling good. Someone took a few pictures of me, even. Then one of the race organizers ran out of the timing tent. “Are you running today?” he called out.

“No, just warming up.”

“Well, then, thanks for wearing your bib,” he shot back, going back into the tent.

I’d come by at a bad time; they were trying to locate a runner they’d lost track of, and just then someone had called, “Runner coming!” It was too soon to be an actual 100K or 100 mile runner, so they were really confused. I finished my run and returned to the tent to apologize. Things had been straightened out by then, and I was quickly forgiven.

Temperature at race start Saturday morning was 35 degrees but warmed up quickly, so my jacket came off in about an hour. I lagged a bit the first mile to take a few photos and retie my shoes, so at the 50K and 50-miler course split I had no idea where I stood. I’d chatted with a few runners the first two miles or so, but now I was alone, with no other runners in sight ahead. The course was marked with orange flags every few hundred yards, so I wasn’t worried about being on the wrong trail.

Chris caught up with me around the four mile mark. He’s from southern California and works at a wastewater treatment plant. I’m not sure how interesting that is to others, but as the owner of a Zero Waste services company, I wanted to hear about it.

Chris striking a pose on the trail. It’s some kind of trail hand signal.

We ran together and talked until the second aid station, where we found out we were the 50-mile front runners. I needed some extra time there, so he went on ahead. For the next few hours I would catch a glimpse of him ahead, sometimes closer, sometimes farther. I thought about trying to catch up, but it was too early to push; there was a lot of race left.

And then, just before the halfway mark, the trail became very runnable dirt, and I did catch up. We reached the Three Corners monument (Arizona, Nevada, Utah) and took an extended break.

Mandatory tourist moment. Look, Mom! I’m in three states at once!

I dropped off my pack and hiking poles, and went from two water bottles to one. A tad risky, but the reduced bulk and weight was a big relief. Chris also introduced me to Gordy Ainsleigh, founding runner of the Western States 100, who was there qualifying for his own race!

Gordy (left), and Chris. Never would have known without him!

We ran together the rest of the way. Our goal was to “beat the sundown” at 6 p.m., which meant finishing under ten hours. We were right on the edge, so we helped each other keep the pace up. I also felt safer; it was pretty desolate out there, and I was now without poles. And the miles just seem to pass faster with company.

As with all ultrarunners, we had our highs and lows along the way. I had a low stretch from miles 30 to 35. The heat, the tedium, and seemingly endless stones were taking their toll, and my gut began to hurt like it had at the 2019 Potawatomi 50. I suspected it was lack of water to aid digestion, so I stepped up my hydration and the pain gradually faded away. After mile 40 I got a second wind and had a “high” all the way to the finish.

Me at a “high” moment early in the race. (Photo courtesy of the event’s Facebook page.)

Chris had lows from miles 35 to 44, and needed to stop now and then for 30-second “walk and water” breaks. I walked with him until he was ready to resume running. In return, when I took extra time at the aid stations, he’d walk until I caught up again.

And so we covered the remaining miles, and emerged onto the ridge above Beaver Dam Station with the sun still up. We checked our watches, saw we could beat ten hours, and took off down the slope and onto the road to the finish line.

** SPOILER: Here’s the result. If you’ve skipped ahead, this is your last chance to go back and read the thrilling narrative that leads up to this part. **

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** Okay, here we go. For reals now. **

We all stood there for a moment. Then, joking that she didn’t know how we could each wear the belt half the time, she walked off, presumably to check with other witnesses to the finish. We sat down in conveniently nearby camp chairs and just enjoyed being done.

Then she was back, and she handed the bag to me. “You finished first by one second,” she said. Nine hours and fifty-six minutes of running, and I was champion by one second.

Holy crap, talk about an overpowered award. Do I need a costume and theme song now?

Chris was fine with the outcome. He accepted the second-place trophy graciously and we both posed for photos by the finish line. It was a real pleasure, my friend. Hope to see you at another race.

So there it is, my second ultramarathon win when I hadn’t expected to sniff the podium at either one. Life is funny, isn’t it.