Thursday, August 13, 2015

My Best

On the Monday following The Angeles Crest 100 last year, we were forced to decide if we wanted to throw our name back in the hat for the 2015 race. It is a strange dilemma to be faced with the decision of signing up for the same one hundred miles that you are barely outside of twenty-four hours of completing, especially as the tough and painful moments have yet to be fully eclipsed by the euphoria that chronic runners and their short term memory loss often develop over time.

Making my way to mile 38 in the 2014 race. 

However, despite the rawness of the memories from the days before, and the faint lines of salt and dirt that still clung to my broken body, I found myself inexplicably rolling (literally) out of bed and reaching for my credit card. Still groggy and feeling like a piece of my soul was lingering somewhere between Chantry and Idlehour, I couldn’t quite comprehend what force or motive was possibly steering me back toward the race page and the premise of doing it ALL. OVER. AGAIN.  And as I typed the final numbers of my credit card and tentatively pushed submit, I forced myself to close my eyes for a few more peaceful moments of slumber before fully acknowledging the decision and the work ahead.

Over the next few weeks I took time to reflect on my 2014 journey so as to try and better understand my motives for signing up once again.  I surmised that running AC in 2014 had been mostly about survival; the race had long intimidated me and I wanted to prove that I could finish. Indeed, my trepidation coupled with a bad foot (nasty PF) made survival and the finish line often seem like a tall order by itself.

Training was typically painful due to my persistent injury and the joy I used to associate with logging long miles was often replaced with frustration and a depleted sense of motivation as I prepared for the event. I did what I could to make the best of it and clung gingerly to a sense of gratitude for the ability to train at all, but, pain, even in small doses, is often all encompassing.  My training plan, which could be described as “just enough” to get me through the race, had left my level of self-satisfaction rather low.

Despite those factors, the race had actually gone remarkably smoothly and my finish had been fairly strong. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing as I accepted my buckle for my 2014 completion.

As I stared at 2015 from afar, I slowly began to realize what it was that was missing from my 2014 race experience and what had driven me to return; my BEST.

So it was that I posed a simple, but extremely frightening question for 2015’s race, “What could my best look like?”

It’s funny how a seemingly simple question can be so terribly and uncomfortably scary. It is a question that demands a kind of honesty that leaves zero room for excuses and evokes a fear of what exactly one's best might look like. But as my body began to heal and ample time for work and improvement stretched far ahead, I truly had no reason for not attempting to answer the question.

During the latter part of 2014 and early months of 2015, I committed mostly to marathon and road training.  I was helping to coach an amazing marathon team and the transition to road running was a nice and welcome deviation from all the trail work I had done prior to AC 2014. During this training period for the LA Marathon, I also discovered a new love for speed work and for pushing through previous boundaries that I had established for myself. As someone who had always self identified as a “slow kid,” I was surprised to find what smarter and more dedicated training could do to my imposed limitations and perception of my "best." (Go figure!)

Cruising during the LA Marathon. Photo Cred: Flo

While marathon running may not be viewed as great or ideal training for a mountainous trail one hundred miler, there were a lot of great lessons and fitness applications that transferred nicely into the start of my focused training for AC once the LA marathon was finally completed in March.

For one, I had seen what smart and focused training had done to help my performance in the marathon. If I could improve upon the quality and type of runs I implemented for AC this year, I imagined I could see the same type of growth on the trails. Secondly, the gains in speed I had acquired from marathon training were helping me move quicker on the trails and helping to increase my overall confidence.

Armed with these takeaways, a healthy body, and a renewed excitement to return to the dirt, I began to construct my training plans for AC. On the books was a dedication to the continuation of speed work, a desire to get out to the course significantly more than I had in 2014, and a resolve to work on some of my biggest weaknesses (technical downhill) while not ignoring my strengths (climbing).  I was also excited to know that a few of my friends were training for the race and looked forward to training with them whenever possible.

Immediately following LA, I started to log some local runs on the trails to reignite my climbing legs, but really kicked off the training with the Leona fifty miler in April. Will and I, who had started to train together regularly, decided to approach the race as a training run and found it to be a great way to jump back into the ultra distance.

Will and I at Leona Divide. He never smiles :) Photo Cred: Carlitos

Following Leona and throughout the rest of April and early May, I continued to log some great mileage with Will and others, feeling stronger and more confident with every closing week. I continued to see gains in strength and speed and was enjoying the process so much more than I had in the year prior. But as I started to relax comfortably onto what felt like an uninterrupted path toward my goals, LIFE kicked me decisively and squarely in the ass.

There is a phrase that I have seen people throw about regarding AC 100 when conveying the challenges of the course as it relates to the runners expectations which is, “AC Don’t Care.” Similarly, I quickly discovered, Life Don’t Care. Life has no concept of timing or convenience; it simply happens.

And Life happened in June. Big time.

In the weeks that followed and leading into the race, I was met with one of the most difficult personal challenges I have ever faced. I was emotionally shaken, justifiably scattered, and my priorities were quickly shifted. I questioned if I should continue down what suddenly seemed like a selfish path toward a comparatively unimportant life event.

Interestingly, though, as I faced this new personal challenge, I discovered that the mantras I was utilizing to get through each day, were largely lessons I had acquired from my years of distance running, and was only now clearly realizing in the face of big adversity. I resolved, then, that I would brave both my personal and chosen challenges, drawing strength from and committing to these lessons in a bigger way than I had ever done before.

I recognize that I am certainly not the first to be dealt a blow or two, nor am I here to complain about my problems. I know many others who faced significant personal obstacles while training for this race and in life in general. What I hope to do is to always try and find takeaways from my journey as I know there will be further challenges down the road. While trying to determine my "best" was one of my major motives for signing up for this race, the other was the ever present reason of trying to learn something new about myself in the process.  For if "adversity is the state in which man most easily becomes acquainted with himself," one hundred miles is a pretty damn good reflecting glass. Add to that a life shit storm, and I figured I was going to know myself pretty well by the end of this journey.

And maybe, if I committed strongly enough to these lessons, I could find and be my "best" in both my personal challenge and that on the dirt.

Aid Station To Aid Station

I found myself reciting this mantra most during the course of June and July. It is a phrase that has obvious applications when applied to racing a long distance event as so much can happen, especially over the course of one hundred miles. While you might be feeling great at mile thirty, you might be engaged in a death march by mile fifty. You can’t predict what will happen twenty miles down the road, but you can be present in the moment, dealing with aches and pains as they occur and choosing the attitude with which you deal with them.

I often applied this mantra to my training, especially when personal hardships infringed on my time and made fitting everything in seem overwhelming. I tried to focus on what I could accomplish each day instead of what I felt I needed to do over the course of the week or month.

Likewise, this mantra proved beneficial during the race itself. It helped to keep me grounded and calm when things went wrong. When I had an uncharacteristically bad response to the heat at mile forty, I tried to focus on how I could best alleviate the present situation as opposed to panicking or gravitating toward negativity. At each aid station, I took inventory on my present condition and reassessed my goals and needs; I hiked when I needed to and ran when I could. The ability to break up the race into pieces kept it manageable and attainable, even when things weren’t going as planned.

Above all, this mantra helped me deal with the personal challenges that arose in the months before the race. The ability to stay in the moment was crucial in being my best self for those who needed me as well as in maintaining a touch of my sanity.

Preparation is Key but Flexibility is Paramount

Coach Wooden said it best when he noted that “failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” I believe this wholeheartedly, especially as it pertains to many physical challenges. If you don’t put in the necessary work, you are setting yourself up for an unwelcome outcome. But there is another piece of this, in my opinion, and that is flexibility. You can create the most detailed of plans and try to anticipate every possible outcome, but more likely than not, you are going to be thrown some curve balls. This goes for running one hundred miles, and this especially goes for life. 

Flexibility became a crucial component in training for AC this year. When shit hit the fan, I had to make due with my new reality and that meant fitting in runs when I could, whether that be at 4 am or 10 pm.

It also meant I didn't always get to train the way I had initially aspired to. I had hoped to have more time to make it to the course on the weekends, but sometimes, it just wasn't possible. And that was OK. I made the best of the runs I could fit in on the course and the best of the runs I had to do locally. Do I think my training suffered because of it? Not really, because I was still preparing the best that I could. I was putting in the work; it just wasn't always the way I had imagined it would be.

When the race arrived, I felt prepared, and as I was running over the first quarter of the course, I noted a remarkable change in the way I felt from the previous year. It was clear that the added preparation was affecting my ability to run in a positive way. An added bonus was a willingness to be a bit more flexible when parts of my day were less than ideal. When met with some unusual foot pain while heading into Chilao (mile 52), I willingly broke one of my personal rules about not sitting down, and stopped to examine the issue. Had I remained stubborn and inflexible, I wouldn't have discovered the pine needle wedged in my toe and would have undoubtedly suffered for much longer. Perhaps a small thing, but important, nonetheless.

Toes are serious business. Photo Cred: Jess Dorsey

Most importantly, though, I learned the value of flexibility when encountering personal challenges. While there are moments you can anticipate in life, there is no way you can foresee exactly how your future will unfold. You better adopt a flexible attitude and willingness to roll with the punches...or get punched directly in the face.

When the Path is Smooth, Remain Cautious. When the Path is Rocky, Remain Optimistic.

The beginning of my training for AC was uncharacteristically smooth and admittedly, I probably took this for granted. But when unforeseen challenges presented themselves and made training more difficult, I had to lean on optimism.

Even without personal challenges, training for one hundred miles has it's share of highs and lows. There are days that you feel like a super hero, effortlessly conquering training runs and setting new personal bests. And there are days, seemingly out of nowhere, when you can barely put one foot in front of the other. The latter type of day became increasingly more present for me as the miles and stress grew and the race inched closer. As a result, my confidence in achieving my goals became  tougher and tougher to maintain so I had to consciously champion optimism over doubt.

The peaks and valley's were heightened during the race itself . When I felt good in the first forty miles of the race, I enjoyed the ease with which miles were clicking by. In the back of my mind, though, I remained present to the fact that the good times could and would most likely give way to tougher times later on.

Sure enough, I started to experience some stomach issues due to the high temperatures at mile forty that ultimately persisted at different intensities for the remainder of the race. To avoid the pitfall of negative thinking and suffering even greater performance issues, I gently reminded myself that things could turn for the better at any moment.

The same became glaringly true on a personal level as I learned that the good and easy times should be cherished for the true gifts that they are. Understanding that these times can change at any moment provides an even greater sense of gratitude for their existence, and a better ability to cope when they disappear. When the tide does turn for the worse, consciously siding with optimism helps us to be our best in the moment and ride the wave back to better times. 

Don’t let fatigue make a coward out of you - Pre

In perfect life conditions, training for one hundred miles would be exhausting as I am not sure that there is anything natural about logging sixty or one hundred mile weeks. Add in a job, family, and other day to day happenings, and it can seem nearly impossible.

Add in big life stress, forget about it.

My dedication to logging big miles leading up to the race was already starting to wear me down, but when significant stress entered the equation, lacing up my shoes for a run often felt exasperating. The quality of my miles also seemed to take a significant hit as my body became more easily fatigued.

So did my confidence.

However, I quickly discovered there was major value in completing my miles aside from simply preparing for my race. The miles proved helpful in coping with the stress in my life and I began to celebrate the opportunity to have a hobby and a passion that could provide such relief. The miles weren't always pretty or ideal, but I felt a sense of strength in overcoming a desire to quit in the face of fatigue.

At the starting line of the race, and even after tapering my mileage for a few weeks, I could feel the emotional and physical toll that the months prior had taken on my body. It certainly didn't feel like the ideal way to start a one hundred mile journey and I worried about how the day might unfold. I considered taking it easier than I had originally planned, but I hadn't let fatigue make a wimp of me yet. So instead, I pushed ahead, faster even that I thought I would through the first section of the course.

Other factors affected my day at times, but I didn't allow fatigue to be one of them. Heading into Chantry (mile 75), I was starting to feel tired aside from the persistent stomach issues I had been dealing with throughout the latter part of the day. At that point, and without thinking, I did one of the more ridiculous things I had done all day. While drinking some orange soda in attempt to get down some easy calories, I suddenly and without pause, dropped a 5 Hour Energy drink in the cup and threw it back like a Jagerbomb!

Fatigue. Be. Damned.

There were many times throughout June and July that I wanted to curl up in a ball and hibernate until the path was clear, but being a coward in those tough times was simply not an option. That I was present and involved when I was often too tired or afraid to be, is what I am most proud of during the past few months. 

Get by with a little help from your friends 

How do I feel by the end of the day?
(Are you sad because you're on your own?)
No I get by with a little help from my friends
Mm I get high with a little help from my friends
Mm gonna try with a little help from my friends 

- Beatles

I have often been stubbornly independent, but if I didn't truly understand the importance of support going into this race, I am hyper aware of it now.

Some may think of running as an independent sport, but it is very much a team effort. While I had to put in the work and log every mile in training and on race day, I did so with the support, guidance, and encouragement of some amazing people.

There were almost zero training runs that I completed for this race that didn't include one of my friends who was training for AC, another race, or who simply wanted to join along. They woke up at unusual hours on the weekends, traveled long distances, and helped coordinate logistics. They pushed, encouraged, and demanded the best from me in terms of showing up as both a runner and a human being. And, most importantly, they lent an unbiased ear when I needed to vent or work through some of the tough issues I was facing.

On race day, I was further humbled by their support when they showed up to crew, volunteer, cheer and run by my side. I did not arrive to the start line or cross the finish line without the help of many, nor would the journey have been half as rewarding without every single person involved.

And of course, no dream or goal is bigger than the sum of it's parts...and a big part of everything I do is my family. Nothing has been achieved without their support and nothing is more important than their health and happiness.

The best. Photo Cred: Jess Dorsey

Metakoff, a wise and loyal friend. Photo Cred: Sando King

An unreal friend and human being. Photo Cred: Jess Dorsey

Taking ourselves so seriously at 10k feet ;) Photo Cred: $B

My reason. My favorite human.

Be true to yourself. Be honest with yourself.

Perhaps most important, I have learned, is the need to be yourself at all times and in all situations. This may seem redundant, but when faced with heightened challenges, it can be difficult to maintain one's sense of self.

Even more difficult, can be the need to be honest with oneself when simply being "you" isn't cutting it.

When beginning to plan for this race, I thought a lot about how my training should look. I reviewed how I had done things in the past and where I was at present day. I also looked closely at the example of others and how they had or were training for this race.

Ultimately, I realized I had to do what made the most sense for me as I know my body and mind best and what I can and can't handle. I also knew I needed to do it in a way that made me most happy and excited about putting in the work. Finally, I had to make sure I was being true to my intent and purpose for doing the race in the first place, which was to achieve my personal best.

In putting my plan together, it was fairly easy to determine what I wanted; I wanted the ability to log good mileage without injury, increase performance, and find an overall balance in how I distributed my time between work, running and life. And of course, I also wanted to enjoy the process. The difficulty came in being honest about what I might also need to do in order to best follow through with those wants and arrive in one piece to the finish line.

Being honest about my shortcomings was and is still something I sometimes struggle with, but I did my best to address some of the issues that had hindered my training for previous races. As someone who loves to put in work and can easily over-train, I tried to keep this tendency top of mind.  I determined that I would remove major back to back runs on the weekends for the most part and add in more strength training as a way to try and circumvent injuries. In an effort to keep happiness paramount and also maintain some life balance, I recruited friends to join me for longer runs and decided I would run locally one day per weekend so as not to lose as much personal time.

In the world of Instagram, Facebook and Strava, it was at times difficult to stick to my chosen course of action and not doubt my personal path. Admittedly, I sometimes strayed from my intentions when I worried that "my way" might not be enough.

It became increasingly difficult when personal issues made sticking to any kind of plan nearly impossible. Sometimes, survival won out, but I tried to be authentic and stay true to my ultimate purpose as much as possible.

There is a delicate balance between personal wants and needs, other individuals perceptions of those wants and needs, and the ability to stay authentically you through it all. I don't think I have perfected it by any means, but I have witnessed on a personal level how catastrophic it can be when you lose sight of who you are and what you need to do to be the best you possible.

My Best

On August 2nd, I crossed my second Angeles Crest finish line an hour earlier than I had the year before. The day wasn't perfect, but I truly walked away confident that I had given my best on that particular day and every day leading into it. While I know my potential has not yet been realized, which I am excited to continue to explore, I have slept easy this past week and a half in knowing that I did absolutely everything I could to prepare for and complete the event. So much so, that I didn't feel the need to sign up for 2016. (2017 is a different story ;))

I am also grateful for this hobby which continues to teach me so much about becoming the "best" version of myself. The one hundred mile distance provides so many parallels with real life and has given me so many tools to deal with the peaks and valleys that inevitably exist between the rare and smooth sections.

There is yet to be a "finish line" for the present personal challenge in my life and I can not predict exactly what the future will bring. I do know that if I take it day by day with a chosen attitude of optimism, honesty, flexibility, and a little help from my friends, that I can give my "best" to the situation.

Of course, if I should get tired along the way and weaken in my resolve to fight, then I can always chug a 5 Hour Energy and throw myself back into the ring.

Finish lines. Photo cred: Channy Chan Chan

Thursday, January 8, 2015


I think every young elementary school kid had that assignment that asked, “what do you want to be when you grow up?”

Although only six or seven at the time, I clearly remember the seemingly simple assignment and the ease at which I provided my answer.

“A Poet,” I wrote simply.

Influenced by the antique poetry books of James Whitcomb Riley and other lyrical ghosts that my aunt Judy would often send to me, I wanted to evoke the same metre and rhyme that danced from my precious pages.

Looking back, I imagine my teacher must have had a good chuckle at my response. Most of the other kids my age likely answered more predictably and realistically with responses like “Dr,” “Teacher,” “Lawyer” or “Father/Mother.” There was no practicality in wanting to be a poet. But then, was there any practicality in asking a six year old kid what they wanted to be when they grew up?

I had not thought much about that assignment or my answer until recently. Events that had transpired over the last year and another impending birthday had resurrected the question and caused it to roam aimlessly through my head like a novice game of Pac-Man.

In no mood to answer, I tried to muffle the increasing volume at which the questions of “what do you want to be when you grow up” and “are you who you wanted to be when you grew up” were sounding through my head. But if I had been successful at quieting the annoying chatter before, the questions began to blare with a deafening pitch following Christmas.

As a Christmas gift to my parents, my sister had converted our old home VHS tapes into DVDs. We excitedly rushed into the living room with the prospect of watching our younger selves at dance recitals, sporting matches, school events and other big and small life happenings.  And as the younger versions of our selves suddenly flashed across the screens, we squealed with delight. We laughed often throughout the viewing as we teased each other about bad haircuts, embarrassing outfits, and overall silly behavior.

Mostly, though, we marveled at the passing of time.

“It seems like yesterday.”

“I remember that day so vividly.”

“I can’t believe how long ago that was.”   

The most memorable video would become a scene from a past Christmas. At first glance, there was nothing out of the ordinary. My siblings and I appeared to be fairly young and there was the typical and excited chaos that accompanied every childhood Christmas. A shot of my brother as a newborn, the youngest of the four of us, revealed that he had been born just barely a month before the video was taken.

Eventually, the camera panned to and settled on my father. Amidst the chaos of wrapping paper and four squealing kids, he sat, laser-focused, while playing with our new Nintendo console. He looked like a kid himself as he frantically pushed the buttons on his controller.

“Always such a kid,” I laughed as we watched him desperately trying to beat Super Mario Brothers.

As I muttered those words, I suddenly wondered exactly how old my father was during this particular Christmas. I darted my focus to the small time seal on the bottom portion of the screen. After struggling and straining my eyes for a moment, the lettering slowly came into focus: December 25, 1988.

Quickly, I did my own math.  I was seven; an aspiring poet.

Next, my father.

Subtract the difference in years. How old was my dad again now? Subtract the difference from that number…

“THIRTY-FOUR!” I gasped.

“Huh?” my father looked at me quizzically.

“You were thirty-four in this video, the age I will be in just over a month!”

Even as I said it aloud, it didn’t seem right. Sure he looked young, but the man in the home movie was a FATHER; he had FOUR kids. He couldn’t be the same age as the “about to be 34 year-old, un-married, no-kids” me that was presently watching.

After blurting out my realization, my father and I glanced at each other silently. Typically someone who could read my father in a single look, I couldn’t translate what lie hidden behind his unfamiliar expression. I hardly know what I was feeling, for that matter.

But as I watched my seven-year-old-poet-aspiring self dance around my thirty-four year old father, I couldn’t help but wonder about the person I had become. I couldn’t help but ask myself if I was who I had imagined I would be.

Aside from wanting to be a “Poet,” I am not sure what else I would have imagined “thirty-four” to be if you had asked me during this very Christmas video.  I probably would have assumed it to look much like my father’s life.




 Given those simplistic terms and convenient definitions, I certainly was not living up to my thirty-four year-old potential as I was at best today, only one of those.  But of course, I have realized life is far more complicated than that and we are far more than simply “what we want to be when we grow up.”

What my father was at thirty-four was more than simply a lawyer, husband and father as well. He was a sports nut, a prankster, a friend, an athlete, a dreamer, and many other aspirations that probably lived quietly and with hopefulness in his soul.  And though he was an adult by all definitions and a father of four, he was still a kid at his core. Amidst the chaos of professionalism, marriage, children and all the responsibilities that those entail, he was still a young guy, probably asking himself if this is what he imagined thirty-four would look like.

Just two kids...

As I ponder further about “who” I am today and what my “thirty-four” holds, I can’t help but be grateful for this journey and content with where it has taken me. While my profession is not a “poet” per se, I don’t think my seven-year old self had it all wrong. Life in all its madness, love, suffering, joy, unpredictability, humor and mystery IS poetry, and I am the poet of my own story; a story that I am still penning. It isn’t always pretty and it is not always what I imagine and hope it will be, but it is mine.  And so, as I enter “thirty-four,” I borrow the thoughts of my old friend, James Whitcomb Riley, and with intention "and with dreams my own, I wander as it leads."

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Pebbles In Your Shoes

It’s not the mountain ahead to climb that wears you down, it’s the pebble in your shoe
Muhammad Ali

Last August, the day following the 2013 Angeles Crest 100 mile race, I put my name in the hat for the 2014 race. I was scared, but I had unfinished business with this behemoth.

It was in 2009 that I had first signed up for the Angeles Crest 100 mile endurance run. I was a relatively new “ultra runner” at the time, and admittedly a bit na├»ve for taking on such a large challenge. The course boasts upwards of 21k feet of both climbing and descent with the highest peak reaching approximately 9,300 feet at mile seventeen atop Baden Powell.  If the steep climbs and descents aren’t enough to intimidate, there is also the technical terrain and scorching temperatures that make this hundred miler a daunting prospect.  

Looks easy, right?

Armed with ignorance, a false confidence, and head-strong determination, I trained the best that I knew how and prepared to toe the line for the 2009 start. In retrospect, my training probably was not close to enough to deliver me to my first finish, but I would not find out as the Station Fire sadly caused the race to be cancelled.

Station Fire of 2009

In 2010, I was granted a free entry due to the cancellation, but had not trained to race.  I was a little worn out on the idea of running a hundred miler and had frankly become intimidated by the challenge. Just as the beautiful landscape of the forest had burned in the Station Fire of '09, so had my naivety that often hurls me blindly into "unrealistic" feats. Clearly, I had not respected the course the way I should have going into 2009 and I was no where close to ready in 2010, mentally or physically.

Still, never one to walk away from a free opportunity to run and perhaps grasping on to a piece of "what if...", a friend and I decided to start and treat the day like a fun "training run." The day proved to be just that and the faint "what ifs" that had followed us to the start line went dead silent as we decided to pull the plug at mile forty-two. As my wrist band was cut to signify the end of my day, I wondered if I would ever come back and finish my business in the Angeles Crest Forest. Running the first forty-two miles had caused the race to grow even more exponentially in my head until it had become a near impossible feat. Furthermore, and beyond just this particular race, the one hundred mile distance now seemed like too much to take on. 

I did not realize it at the time, but the distance had become a pebble in my shoe.

Following 2010, I took some time away from racing. I wasn't enjoying it the way I used to and I needed time to reflect. I also succumbed to a few injuries that required nursing; most significantly a stress fracture that sidelined me for close to a year. 

Slowly but surely, though, I found my way back to running, and, eventually, I regained my joy and confidence. Upon successfully completing a few fifty milers, I decided it was time to revisit the hundred mile distance. After a few snafus (see "Lost in the Sun" blog), my first hundred miler was to be Pine to Palm in September of 2013. 

Removing the first pebble

Armed now with a sense of realism, increased confidence and better training,  I crossed the finish line at P2P. And as I finished,  I noticed something; there was a feeling of lightness. It was as if a small, aggravating weight had been removed. Quickly, I realized that it had never been the hundred mile distance that was holding me back; it had been doubt. 

Doubt had been a pebble that I had placed in my own shoe.

With the hundred mile pebble removed, I decided it was time to go back to AC. This time would be different, I vowed. I was confident in the distance and maybe even ready to approach it with bigger time goals. I couldn't wait to dig in and start training.

But, as March of this year approached, and the time to start focused training for AC was on the horizon, I started to experience significant pain in my right foot in the diagnosis of plantar fasciitis. Suddenly, running wasn't fun anymore and even simple short runs were causing me to limp for the remainder of the day.

I tried to maintain optimism as I experimented with all the tried and true solves for PF, including rest. Nothing seemed to work, though, and my confidence in my ability to train and finish AC dwindled rapidly. Suddenly, March and April had passed, and while I was running some, the quality and duration of my runs were not up to the par with what I believed was needed to attempt this monster of a race.

I contemplated bowing out. I seriously contemplated bowing out. I couldn't see any other option. I was limping through short runs, so how could I expect to complete 100 mountain miles?

Or could I?

Nothing was broken. I wasn't broken. 

"F it, I am doing it!"

This was simply going to be another pebble in my shoe that I would consciously remove. It might not be a perfect path to getting to the start line, but I wasn't going to let this detour stop me . Of course, I would be careful, and there would be adjustments, but I had consulted with experts and there wasn't real danger in moving forward; it simply didn't feel good. And I could power through discomfort once I decided to stop letting it interfere with my confidence.

And, perhaps, there had been a part of me that had wanted a small excuse to not have to revisit my behemoth. Perhaps, I had been scared. The pain was legitimate, but it didn't need to be a game ender.

Moving forward, I decided there would be no more excuses or pebbles in my training. There was no guarantee I would finish the race, of course, but excuses would not hold me back from getting to the start line with the best preparation my body could handle.

Because running wasn't feeling great, I decided to do everything I could to make the training moving forward as fun as possible. I employed great friends to meet me on runs. I included bucket list items into my training like climbing Baldy and traversing the full sixty-eight miles of the Backbone trail. And, of course, I built in excursions to the Angeles Crest Forest for training runs on the course with other entrants and friends who wanted to join along. The pain still lingered, but I was putting in significant miles and some of that old confidence was slowly returning.

Climbing Baldy with awesome people; Photo Credit: Random Hiker

Celebrating America atop Baden Powell; Photo Credit: Rachel Bailin

As race week finally approached,  I still had some concerns, of course, but I was starting to recognize my pebbles and I quickly tried to pull them out. The "doubt" pebble, the "foot" pebble, the "heat concerns" pebble, the "have I trained enough?" pebble; I slowly removed them one by one. A hundred miles is a long way and surely there would be sediment, dirt and small pebbles that would make their way into my shoes, but I wanted to walk to the start line with confidence that I had removed the ones I had created myself.

And so I did at 5am on August 2nd. As the the horn sounded, and I shed my race nerves along with my morning jacket, I began my journey that had been in the making for close to five years. Whatever the day should hold, I was proud of the work I had done and for seeing my training through.

The early and latter part of the day progressed mostly smoothly. I felt steady and even managed to enjoy a lot of it. I enjoyed conversations with other runners, chats with supporters and my crew, seeing my father at aid stations, and breathtaking views. My foot was even cooperating and the high temperatures that usually accompany this race, were strangely absent. Aside from a close call with a rattle snake, the day was going remarkably well!

Look, I am smiling! (Mile 42);  Photo Credit: Tiffany Guerrera
I cruised into mile fifty-two to pick up my pacer, Steven, relatively unscathed. I knew there was plenty of course left, but I was ahead of cut-offs and was confident I could hike out sections as needed. I wasn't moving quickly, but we steadily approached mile sixty in time for an epic Sunset and some quick aid before dropping into the canyon.

Epic Sunset and still smiling(ish); Photo Credit: Chandra Farnham
As the night closed in, I could feel myself becoming more lethargic, but I continued to move forward in good spirits. Steven and I enjoyed funny banter and I marveled as I was able to still run through some of the early part of a rainy night.

I experienced some stomach nausea at sixty-eight, but was successfully able to quiet it through nutrition (re: Mountain Dew) and a short period of rest at the Newcomb's aid station. We continued on at what I jokingly referred to as my "truffle shuffle" pace and eventually made it into Chantry Flats. (Mile 75)

Chantry Flats emerges as a sea of lights and nervous excitement at the base of Mt. Wilson. It is a chaotic scene of crew members helping their runners, supporters anxiously awaiting their participants, and both downtrodden and high-spirited runners anticipating the final quarter of the race. It is an aid station that sees a lot of drops as the next twenty-five miles of the course are especially daunting. The final section features two significant climbs with the first being the climb up Mt Wilson and the second up to Sam Merrill. It also features significant technical downhill, especially in the final ten miles. Not an easy order for being seventy-five miles into a tough race.

Luckily, I was not destroyed in either the physical or mental sense. I was still in relatively high spirits and ready to tackle the final section with my next pacer, Brian. After filling up on more food and Mt. Dew, we started our trek up Wilson.

I was becoming more and more fatigued, but we powered up the mountain. As climbing is my strong suit, I fought to continue up at a decent stride, determined to reach the peak as painlessly and quickly as possible. My pace was no where close to my earlier climbs in the day, but we made it to the top with minimal pausing, and I was able to catch up to a few runners along the way.

But upon reaching the top and closing in on the final twenty,  I found my spirits starting to drop for the first time all day. Overcome with sleepiness and an overwhelming realization that there were still many tough miles ahead, I grew sluggish and struggled to respond to Brian's patient attempts at conversation. I was simply ready for the day to be OVER.

Silently, I tried to encourage myself with thoughts of the finish, but my attempt at a "truffle shuffle" into the aid station at mile eighty-three was heavier on the truffle than the shuffle. Still, I made it, and I managed to exchange some tired smiles and hugs with some of my friends who were manning the station. I stocked up on more Mountain Dew which had now become my go-to drink/calories/caffeine of choice, and headed out with a sense of dread again for the impending and final climb.

Aid at 83; Photo Credit: Anton Smith

The final climb commenced around 4am and I struggled to navigate and maintain balance through the narrow and rocky switchbacks. My heart accelerated with every quickening of pace and my responses to Brian had become mere one word whispers. Grumpily, I cursed some of the steeper ascents and rocks that cut my path while clumsily trying to juggle my hand held water bottles and headlamp that I was carrying for better lighting accuracy. Though shorter than the climb up Wilson, the winding mountain seemed to last forever. I contemplated stopping on a rock and sleeping for a short time, but my desire to be finished with the climb won over my desire to sleep.

Finally, as the first light of morning painted the sky, we closed in on the aid station at mile ninety. While the prospect of a beautiful sunrise, aid from friendly volunteers, and having only ten miles left to the finish line should have been met with relief and joy, I couldn't shake the negativity that had started to chill me through the night. Hoping that some calories and caffeine might change my disposition, I requested another cup of Mt. Dew while trying desperately to stand upright and appear together. Silently, I wondered if I could request an IV drip of my precious Mt Dew for the remaining miles.

With some coaxing from Brian, we marched out of the aid station and started our journey to the finish. The remaining miles would be mostly technical downhill, a reality that filled me with further dread. Technical downhill has not been my strength and I was reminded of the final section of Pine to Palm 100. I had done significant work on the climbs only to be passed by multiple runners on the final downhill section.

"Here we go again," I thought to myself.

But, what could I do? I wasn't a good downhill runner and I was tired. My calves felt destroyed from the final climb and I was barely staying awake.

"Do you want to try running?" Brian asked.

"I am NOT running another step!" I adamantly replied.

Convinced that I could only hike the remaining miles, I quietly consoled myself that I was OK with simply finishing.

About a mile into our descent, though, my rationalizations were interrupted by the sound of two women chatting. A few moments later, a runner and her pacer passed by in a steady shuffle, and slowly moved down the descent. As they disappeared from view, I at first felt acceptance. Acceptance quickly turned into admiration, though, as I quietly wished I could run too.

But, why couldn't I run? Was I hurt? Was I sick?

No, I wasn't.

Tired, yes. Sore, yes. Incapable?


Then it happened; I started to shuffle down the mountain. And as I shuffled down the mountain, admiration turned into determination and I started to jog down the mountain. And as I jogged down the mountain, determination turned into fight and I started to RUN down the mountain! Before I knew it, we were running down the mountain quicker and with more precision than I had ever run down the section on fresh legs.

I marveled at how quickly we were moving through the final single track and laughed with joy and surprise as we pushed our way to the finish. My joy was momentarily paused, though, as I came to a realization that I had failed to remove one last pebble.

Perhaps downhill running wasn't my greatest strength, but it didn't need to be a crutch. I was far more capable than I had given myself credit for and it was time to stop hiding behind weaknesses.

I crossed the finish line at 8:32 am after 27 hours and 32 minutes. Upon crossing underneath the historic finishing sign in Altadena, I was covered in the sweat and dirt that accompanies one hundred miles of hard mountain miles.

My shoes, however, were pebble free.

One hundred miles is a long journey; you might as well empty your shoes before you begin.

Cruising through the finish line

Can't believe it is done!
Dirty, but pebble free

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

"And never miss a party if you can help it"

Like an unexpected house guest, my birthday seemed to show up this January without warning or permission, for that matter.  

I simply was not prepared.

As a kid, I remember the painfully long anticipation and excitement that would accompany my birthdays. Religiously, I would check the calendar for what seemed like an eternity as I counted down the hours, minutes and seconds to my big day. The final countdown moments the night before would be acted out in a spastic dance that culminated in an explosion of pure joy, adrenaline and sugar-crash exhaustion when my birthday FINALLY arrived.

 It was awesome, and I never wanted the calendar to leave January 22nd.

But this year, my birthday felt more like an inconvenient line item on my check list; one that I was all too eager to cross off as completed. I was a far cry from my younger self and I wondered what had changed.

For one, I suppose, it was simply the weight of growing older. I am not sure of the exact moment, but at some point time had started to pass at an alarmingly quick pace. The holidays and birthdays of my youth that used to take their precious time arriving, were suddenly knocking me out with rapid fire intensity. Adulthood had become a strange and ironic tug of war between wanting time to both speed up and slow down. I was losing on both fronts.

I was also still reeling from the Holidays. Like a one night stand, the Holidays had slipped away almost as quickly as they had arrived, and I found myself wondering if they had actually happened. How could I begin to process a birthday when I was still searching for the "thanks for a good night" note from the Holidays so that I didn't feel quite so used?

Finally, I  reasoned that the lack of fervor toward my impending birthday could be attributed to my "busy" schedule. I had work stuff, run stuff, and all kinds of other self-imposed stuff  littered across my calendar. There simply wasn't room for another event or to-do item.

Given how incredibly "busy" I was, there was definitely zero time to coordinate our traditional family birthday get together. We had always made it a point as a family to meet for dinner to celebrate all birthdays, but this year seemed far too stressful and challenging to arrange. In my defense, I wasn't the only "busy" family member. My mom was working most weekends, my dad was in the midst of multiple trials and my sister Kylie was busy planning her wedding. I didn't want to put anyone out with another calendar item. And as January quickly turned into February, I figured this year would simply have to move on without the family get together. 

February 3rd, however,  told me otherwise. 

First a call.

"We have a problem," my mom's voice warned from the other line.

"What?" I said as I tried to conceal my worry.

"Well," she began, "we tried to change the calendar to February and Jess wouldn't allow us."

Before I continue, you must understand that the turning of the calendar is a big deal in my parents household. There is typically a grand announcement as the calendar flips from one month to the next while Jess stands by in gleeful anticipation of all the events that will be transpiring in the coming month. 

You should also know that Jess is my awesome sister with Down Syndrome and that she LOVES birthdays, especially her own.

And so it was, that as my mom tried to move the calendar to February, Jess indignantly protested and demanded, "What happened to Kelley?!" 

As I hung up the phone, I chuckled at the vision of Jess stubbornly preventing the transition to February.

Shortly after hanging up the phone, I received a text from my sister.

Again, I chuckled, and realized we now had no choice but to rectify the situation. And so it was, in a unified effort to make sure that Jess could find peace and the world was able to move safely into February, that my family decided to make plans for dinner. 

On February 8th, 17 days after my actual birthday, I made my way to the valley to finally celebrate. Dinner was the typical mix of laughter, teasing, and stories, and as I sat there enjoying the company of the people who matter most to me in this world, I wondered what had kept me so "busy" that I had almost missed this moment of celebration. I wondered why I had needed a firm reminder from my sister that opportunities to see the people you love should never be overlooked. While I had laughed at her actions before, I was now overwhelmingly moved by her refusal to let another day or month pass until my birthday had been properly celebrated. 

How had I almost missed out on partying with these two goofs?
During dinner, my dad aptly brought up a documentary he had recently watched entitled , "Life according to Sam." The documentary follows a young man by the name of Sam Berns who was born with a rare disease call Progeria. In the documentary he outlines his philosophy for leading a happy life. His final guideline, which had stood out to my father and which seemed all too fitting for this gathering, was simply to "never miss a party if you can help it." 

I think Jess would agree.

When we returned home from dinner, we gathered around the counter, dimmed the lights, and Jess counted down to a round of "Happy Birthday" as she has for every birthday that I can remember.  And as I made a wish and blew out the candles, I saw the relief exhale from her body. 

We could now move on to February.

Blowing out the candles. My dad is still getting the hang of his new iPhone :)

What had started out as a way to appease my sister, had turned into a lesson. As usual and in her own way, Jess was gently reminding me about what is truly important when she refused to let January pass. Calendars shouldn't simply be viewed as giant to-do lists; they should be centered around people, experiences, and celebrations. Of course there will be the mundane tasks and tough moments that find their way on our agenda, but they shouldn't prevent us from focusing on what matters. 

I hope that I can try to look at each day and month with a fraction of the youthful excitement that I once did. I hope I don't let the passing of time or a busy schedule always prevent me from enjoying the moment. Finally, I hope I can stand in front of the calendar and celebrate the coming of a day or month with some of the same joy my sister does, knowing that there are always people and events to be celebrated.

I hope I try to "never miss a party." 

At least, "not if I can help it."

(Sam Berns also has a Tedx Talk where he talks about his philosophy for a happy life. I highly recommend the 12 minutes. He has since passed, but his influence has certainly left a mark on me)

Monday, September 23, 2013

Lost in the Sun

Success is never final, failure is never fatal. It's courage that counts – John Wooden

My father keeps an article on his desk at work about a championship baseball game from his senior year of high school. In the article, it mentions my father as having missed the final catch due to losing the ball in the sun, and thus, losing the game. It has always saddened me that he has kept this article in view for forty some years. Perhaps, he believes it to be a motivator. Whatever the reason, it is crazy for him to believe that this solitary moment of perceived failure matters or in any way defines him.

My dad has had so many successes in his life beyond a failed catch in a baseball game.  He worked his ass off from humble beginnings to put himself through law school. He made the frightening decision to go out on his own and build a law firm when no one believed he could.  He’s worked long days and weekends every day since to make that risk work and support his family. I wish my dad would give himself more credit for these successes. But mostly, I wish he would recognize that the moments that have really made him who he is today are the moments that have fallen before and after his perceived failures and successes.

Instead of that article, I wish my father would keep a list on his desk outlining his moments of dedication and courage leading up to and after his peaks and valleys. The list should include the moment he and my mother found out that their second child had Down Syndrome and would undoubtedly face multiple obstacles in her life. More specifically, it should include the moment after when he courageously told my mom it would be “OK” and fought together with her every day after to make sure it was.

Recently, I have also fallen into the trap of defining myself by my successes and failures. Specifically, I have been running from my perceived failures on an exhaustive mission to turn them into successes. The year has brought its share of tough circumstances and I have been fueling my journey with fear. Unfortunately, fear is not a sustainable fuel, and I have stalled along the road on more than one occasion. 

No doubt, my journey to finish 100 miles this year has also at times been driven by a fear of failure. A DNF and multiple DNS’s due to injuries tended to blind my purpose and weighed on my mind like a metaphorical article chronicling my own “lost in the sun” moments. My reason for finishing became just that, to finish.  A buckle at the finish line would mean success and failure simply wasn’t an option.

I prepared tirelessly for the upcoming challenge of reaching my coveted 100 mile finish line. I logged heavy mileage weeks, sometimes running three times a day with weekly mileage reaching upwards of 120 miles.  I exhausted myself with more challenging runs than I had ever attempted before which were often accompanied by brutal heat and never ending climbs. When I was injured and unable to run, I logged mind numbing hours at the gym doing what my body would allow so that I would not lose my fitness.  I spent time visualizing the race and what the success of a finish line would look like. But despite all my preparation, I had doubts about my ability to finish. I had failed in my attempt before, so I could conceivably fail again. I talked myself in circles, teetering between forced confidence and fear.

I was a mess.

Race week quickly arrived. I walked around with a pit of worry in the middle of my stomach, unable to focus on anything but my fears about finishing. Not helping were the weather reports that were predicting highs of 97 for the weekend. I manically refreshed the weather page over and over again as if that might change the circumstances and bring better forecasts.

In another bid to exercise some control over the circumstances of my race, I began to uncharacteristically study the elevation profile and map details as if I was cramming for some kind of final. Typically someone who prefers to “meet the challenges as they come,” I became consumed with worry as I reviewed every nasty climb, descent and in- between over and over again.

Then a phone call...

My mother called during my mid-week-meltdown to fill me in on a conference she had attended regarding my beautiful sister with Down Syndrome that I mentioned above. There had been recent research that found that the gene for Alzheimer’s was located on the 23rd chromosome where Down Syndrome occurs, and that it was not a question of if, but when my sister would start to show the symptoms. Adding to the troubling news was that fact that Alzheimer’s in persons with Down Syndrome typically occurred much earlier than in the average person; sometimes as early as 30.

My sister is 30.

I felt anger. Anger at the fact that someone who had already dealt with so much was being presented with yet another obstacle! And anger with mom for being so calm and forthright as she delivered such tough news. Didn’t she understand how upsetting this was to ME?! Couldn’t she have waited another week to tell ME when the madness of this race had finished?!

I called my father to vent.  He listened empathetically, and then responded with the kind of head checking response that I so desperately needed.

“It stinks,” he said, “but we can’t change the reality of our circumstances. What we can do, is provide your sister with the best life possible and deal with the challenges as they come.” “And,” he added, “we are lucky to have your mom, who is courageous enough to meet these challenges head on, instead of avoiding them out of fear.”

He was right. We can’t always change our circumstances, but we can always choose to meet our challenges with courage. My mom had always been courageous in fighting for my sister; never cowering from an obstacle and never complaining about the circumstances. My dad had always been courageous in working through every challenge with my mom and keeping paramount the goal of making my sister happy in the moment. And, of course, my sister had always been the picture of courage; meeting every road block with grace and the kind of joy that comes in knowing that life is about more than wins and losses.

It was time for me to start being courageous.

Armed with a new attitude, I tried to let go of my fears of failure and walked to the start line of my 100 mile journey. Of course, there were still the typical nerves you experience when meeting your goliath, but I felt a renewed sense of hopeful confidence in my ability to navigate the challenging terrain ahead by staying true to myself and channeling the courage exhibited by my sister, mother and father.

The horn sounded and the race I had been preparing for since early January, finally commenced. The first ten miles with five thousand feet of climbing were expectedly tough, but with fresh legs and the decision to start slowly, they were manageable. The next eighteen miles of downhill helped me coast into the first major aid station at twenty eight relatively unscathed.

The race until this point had been fairly smooth, but I found myself feeling somewhat irritable and I wasn’t sure why.  Maybe I wasn’t fueling enough, but, more likely, I had not completely abandoned some of my worries about failure. While I didn’t realize it at the time, doubt was starting to circle my mind like the wasp that had quietly hunted me in the first 10 miles, waiting for a vulnerable moment to implant its painful stinger.

The next ten miles were much tougher than I imagined. A heavy dose of climbing paired with a heavy dose of heat slowly beat me down until I was both physically and emotionally nauseous. About five miles into the climb and as I ran out of water, I was stung with a major case of doubt. As I battled the urge to throw up, I questioned whether I could finish the race. It was still so early, and I was already feeling terrible so how could I possibly continue? I entertained the idea of pulling the plug at mile thirty nine and abandoning this crazy dream of running a hundred miles through a blazing hot forest. I comforted myself by reasoning that I would simply drag myself the remaining miles to thirty nine and be done with this madness. With four miles to go to my quitting location, I did what I could to calm my stomach issues. I took a ginger pill and was able to finally replenish my water. Slowly the desire to throw up the last thirty seven miles of cliff blocks and waffle stingers subsided, and as I cruised into mile thirty nine, hope reemerged.

I was feeling better as I met my crew at thirty nine, and after ingesting three bottles of coconut water, I started to feel better than better; I started to feel GOOD. I was shocked at my own turnaround, and cautiously departed the aid station, fearful that this feeling could turn again at any moment. But mile after mile, I continued to feel stronger, and slowly I began to realize what I should have never doubted. 

I was capable of finishing this race.  

It was ironic that as the light of day melted into darkness, I found renewed clarity, my purpose no longer “lost in the sun.” I had survived an unforeseen rough patch, and while I knew that there could be more ahead, I was not going to allow my head to go back to that dark place of doubt. Moving forward, I would face all challenges with the confidence that comes with courage and, if I did that, I would be OK; finish line or not. And, maybe, I had been stronger and more courageous than I had given myself credit for all along. After all, I had not quit in my attempts to realize this dream after any of my setbacks. I had always dusted myself off and tried again with a renewed intensity.  I had simply lost sight of the “why” at times and worried too much about the repeat possibility of failure.

But failure is only fatal if you let it be.

The rest of the race was free from the heavy chains of worry and doubt as I enjoyed every step of the remaining 60 miles. I shared amazing conversations with friends and strangers, enjoyed stars I had never seen before in the smog of Los Angeles, climbed unafraid in the dark of night completely ALONE for several hours, pushed myself up a steep climb at mile 85 with astonishing energy, and watched the sunrise from seven thousand feet.

At 10:00 a.m., I crossed the finish line.

Like life, 100 miles is a long journey. There are circumstances you can’t control: the grade of the hill, the unexpected injury, or the angle and intensity of the sun.  All you can do is prepare to the best of your ability and meet the challenges head on as they happen along the way. You may succeed or you may fail in reaching the finish line, but the important thing to remember is that neither one is “final” or “fatal,” it’s “courage that counts.”

And, maybe, the real finish line isn’t the one with the medal after all. Maybe the real finish line is the place where you break down, break through, and discover that you are much stronger than you ever realized.

Later that afternoon, I received my buckle and gave it to my father.  I didn’t need it. I had found what I needed along the way, and he had helped me get there.

I let go of my "lost in the sun" moments. I hope my father does too.

I hope he takes down that article.

Maybe he will replace it with the buckle…