Truth, or Trail Lore?

As a trail and ultra runner I’ve had my share of unusual experiences, and heard a bunch more, because we love to share our stories. And I suspect that we fall prey to Fisherman Syndrome – the temptation to stretch the story a little each time. The hills keep getting a little higher, the creeks deeper, and the bears bigger.

You think you’re good at discerning truth from fiction? Have a go at the questions below. Which of these things really happened to me, and which did I make up or “exaggerate” a tad? Have fun!

  1. Complete the sentence I actually overheard: “Never stand between a runner and …”
    1. His carbs
    2. The finish line
    3. Coffee
    4. An oncoming vehicle
      .
  2. Which of the following did I experience at the Burning Man 50K? (Hint: there may be more than one correct answer.)
    1. Sunrise over the playa
    2. Losing a toenail
    3. Being offered whiskey by spectators
    4. Running with a naked woman
      .
  3. I was looking for my drop bag at an aid station at the Kettle Moraine 100. What was the actual advice a volunteer gave me?
    1. “We have them sorted by bib number.”
    2. “Sorry, some of them haven’t arrived yet.”
    3. “Are you sure you’re at the right event?”
    4. “Take any one you like, they all got the same shit in ‘em.”
      .
  4. How many of the following happened to me at the 2014 Green Swamp 50K in Florida?
    1. Face planted four times on a pancake-flat course
    2. Stepped on a snake
    3. Was saved from getting lost by someone who did get lost
    4. Flew home that afternoon to run a 5K the next day
      .
  5. Which of the events related to Run Woodstock freaked me out the most?
    1. My first “natural run”
    2. Being chased by baby raccoons on a training run
    3. Headlamp failing in the woods in the middle of the night
    4. Seeing the following sign at midnight on a high chainlink fence just off the trail:

Ready? Answers below.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

Are you sure you’re ready?

.

.

.

.

.

Okay, here we go.

 

Answer to #1: “Never stand between a runner and his carbs.”

It was after a race, and there were slices of cake on the food table. Someone was blocking me from the piece I wanted, and I sort of lunged around him to get it. I apologized, which triggered the remark from a spectator. Note that I think the other three choices are also sound advice.

This will do for starters.

Answer to #2: All of them.

During the first loop I felt a sharp pain in my left food. At the water stop I took off my shoe and sock. The problem was my big toe. As I peeled off the tape, the toenail came off with it. No big deal. And there was no more pain! And sunrise over the playa was absolutely amazing. Well worth getting up at 5 a.m.

I did run with a naked woman for a while (and she finished ahead of me – oh, the shame). Spectators offered many interesting things to us, including whiskey and mystery liquids. You can read all about it in this previous post.

Answer to #3: Choice (d) – “Take any one you like…”

There were lots of drop bags at this station. My mind keeps stretching the number and the area, but here’s an actual photo of some of them. Fortunately I did find my actual bag without too much trouble. I don’t remember if they were sorted by bib number. It would make sense, come to think of it.

Answer to #4: Choices (c) and (d)

Out in the middle of nowhere, I was happily running along when a woman approached from the opposite direction. “No,” she said, “wrong way. I just found out.” Sure enough, a few hundred yards back was a turn we’d missed. Good thing, or I might still be out there.

And 2014 was the year I’d set a goal to run every race put on by RF Events. Green Swamp was a Saturday in Florida, and Shamrocks & Shenanigans was the following day back in Ann Arbor. So I flew home the same day, and ran Shamrocks the next day. The staff still talks about it.

The other two answers are close. I didn’t step on a snake, but I almost did. And I actually face planted six times on a pancake-flat course. Pesky alligators.

Answer to #5: Choice (b) – yep, the baby raccoons!

I wasn’t afraid so much of them, but of Mama, who must’ve been somewhere nearby. So I booked the hell out of there.

Headlamp failing is certainly cause for concern, but I wasn’t worried. First, an aid station was just up the trail with my drop bag, in which was a spare headlamp. Second, I always carry two light sources at night, so I had a small flashlight as backup. Be smart out there!

As for the zombie warning sign? I wasn’t freaked out at all. I put it there! I set it up around midnight and removed it before sunrise. Only the 100-mile and 100K runners got to “hallucinate” that sign!

And my first “natural run”? It was somewhat uncomfortable at first, but after a few minutes it’s just people with no clothes on. And running, which is always good. You can read about it in this previous post here. And if you infer that by “my first” means I’ve done others since? You infer correctly, dear reader. Try it sometime!

Do you have any funny, strange, or freaky running experiences you’d like to share? Post away!

Catch That Sunrise

My feet flew as I barreled down the singletrack, trying to keep an eye on the runners ahead while dodging rocks and roots and stepping on slippery leaves. I’d never run this trail before, it was still a bit dark, and I was fully focused on trying not to become a casualty.

Finally we reached the bottom and emerged onto a paved path for a short segment. The lead runners stopped to let the rest of us catch up.

“Did you all catch the sunrise?” one of them asked us.

It was 7 a.m. in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and I was at the U.S. Trail Running Conference. This event includes a morning trail run before sessions begin. And thus a bunch of us, including a couple of pro trail runners, had set off into the woods in dim dawn light.

We agreed we’d all run together. Well, “together” is a subjective word. Before long I was alone, between the pros and the less ambitious who wanted to take it easier. It was either slow way down or try to keep the leaders in sight. I chose the latter and succeeded, mostly. It was all downhill for the first part, and I was way out of my comfort zone.

Catch the sunrise? Hell, it had been all I could do just to stay vertical. I’d had zero opportunity to catch what was happening around me. From that point we went uphill, so things were harder physically but easier mentally, and I had time to appreciate the beautiful woods we were running through. Which is one main reason why I run trails.

Another trail run, same conference. Had more time to enjoy it this time.

More than any other activity I do, trail running forces me to be in the moment. In addition to studying the trail terrain and trying not to get lost, I need to be body aware. How are my legs feeling? Am I breathing evenly, or too fast? Do I need water, or salt, or fuel?

When the mind strays is when bad things happen. Most of my falls on a trail have happened on level ground when I’ve zoned out a little. This includes last January’s snowshoe 5K, when I successfully navigated the singletrack’s hairpin turns and quick elevation changes, only to face plant twice on the wide, groomed straightaway a quarter mile from the finish line.

That said, in training runs, and even in a large part of trail races, there is time to look at the beauty around me and remember why I’m out there in the first place. At the Grandmaster Ultra 50 last February, just after I left an aid station the trail led into a valley. But I had to stop before the descent and just gaze at the scene that opened before me, a wide vista consisting of the valley floor, the mountains in the distance, and the myriad of colors everywhere.

Stark but stunning. (Pictured: Chris, who I ran with most of the way.)

I don’t have a photo of it, but one wouldn’t even come close to doing it justice. It was worth the couple of minutes standing there taking it all in. That race in particular I was “in the moment” a lot. Desert running will do that, with the scenery and its demands on the body. I was so grateful to have run that race, and others. They reset my perspective.

Do we focus on being in the moment in our regular lives? It’s so easy to get caught up in the thousand little things we “have to” get done that day, or what we have coming up, or reliving what happened the day or the week before. It can clutter up our minds so much we forget to feel alive. And while every moment is a gift, it’s a fleeting gift. It’s here, and it’s gone. So don’t forget to use it.

And take the opportunity to catch the sunrise now and then.

The Best Laid Plans

“Life is what happens when you’re making other plans,” has never been more true than this year.

I was in Denver last week to attend a five-day photography workshop in Rocky Mountain National Park, capturing fall color and wildlife under the direction of a professional photographer. I’d also visit my daughter Rachel and get in a run with my niece Robin, who’d just moved to Denver. It promised to be a really good time. I even bought a new camera for it.

Eighteen-hours of driving later, I arrived at my daughter’s place and got some lessons in the basics from one of her friends, also a professional photographer. I wanted to be familiar with manual mode for tricky lighting or for special effects. I was armed and dangerous, ready to start clicking that shutter.

And then a message from the instructor appeared on the workshop’s Meetup page. He was sick. A followup call confirmed it. He had flu-like symptoms and was on his way to the hospital. The workshop was officially cancelled.

What to do? I called the other attendees, who said they were going ahead with shooting in the park, and they invited me to join them. I thanked them but decided to do my own thing instead. Without the expert instruction, spending five days in the park didn’t seem all that attractive anymore. But I do love Estes Park so I spent an afternoon there practicing with my new toy. And I got in that run with Robin, and Rachel joined us too!

The following photos were taken with my new (used) Olympus E-M10 Mark III, at various aperture, shutter speed, and ISO settings. I didn’t crop or edit these photos, except where really needed. I’m not claiming any of these to be good; I was just playing around, learning what this camera can do. But I’m hoping you might find them interesting.

These shots were taken at a park in Denver. You can see the effect of aperture here. Low F-stop (large opening) means things close up in focus, while large F-stop (smaller opening) brings everything in focus.

Low f-stop.

Higher f-stop.

In Estes Park, along with experimenting with exposures, I worked on the four basic elements – line, color, pattern, and texture.

These were studies in “line”:

By visitor’s center.

Lake Estes and power station.

Creek by coffee shop.

Along the road.

Near Lake Estes.

These were texture:

These were pattern:

And this one was for color. Notice that every color of the rainbow is represented in the photo.

Behind coffee shop. (Colors not retouched.)

Later this month I’m off to the U.S. Trail Running Conference in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Warm weather and great trails. Looking forward to some good running and more opportunities to use the new camera!

The Long and the Short of Running

A couple Januarys ago I had breakfast with my running coach, going over my planned race schedule. It would follow a pattern I’d established, of a target race in late May or June (100-miler or more), with shorter ultras in the spring to leapfrog up to it. So we mapped out a 50K and a couple of 50-milers. “Now we can plug in your shorter races,” he said.

And by shorter races, we were including marathons.

Even at the time we laughed about it, imagining what a standard recreational runner (or any non-runner) would be thinking if they’d overheard us. But that’s how I think of it. There are ultras and there are non-ultras; there’s a clear line. By definition, a marathon is not an ultramarathon. (Unless you get lost. I once asked a race director if I could get credit for an “ultra-half” for running 14 miles on a 13.1 course.)

This attitude has some funny characteristics. For example, every April there’s a trail marathon in my area. (Present-year disclaimer, etc.) Anyway, I work it as part of my zero waste events gig. And before I get down and dirty with that, I run the marathon.

Thing is, there’s also a 50K option, which means you run an extra five-mile loop following your 26.2. And for me, those five miles mean the difference between a fun “short race” and an “ultra” which on those trails is, well, hard. As in automatic bonk afterward, while I can finish the marathon and get right to sorting Gu wrappers out of the water bottle bins.

Me (far right) after a measly ol’ marathon.

And after those five extra miles on the trail.

Why? Who knows? It has to be mainly mental, although you’d think someone who’s run multiple 100s wouldn’t feel that little extra. Heck, I even pitch 50Ks to skeptical folks as “just a marathon with a five-mile cooldown.” But there we are.

I’m sure none of this makes any sense to runners who’ve never run this kind of distance. This morning my run group included someone training for her first marathon. Like most folks in her situation, she did a half first, and was now trying to wrap her head around getting from 13.1 miles to double that distance. It ain’t easy. I was there once.

The good news is once you’ve done it, the second is easier. The bad news is, you just might talk yourself into an ultra. Then you’re really screwed. Trust me. I’m there now.

At least I would be, but my local fall ultras were cancelled, and I still don’t trust airplanes yet. So I’ll have to content myself with shorter races until things improve. Maybe I can find a marathon around somewhere.