Saturday, December 31, 2011

Smoky Mountain High

The title for today's blog post is a respectful nod to my all-time favorite musician, songwriter, and poet, John Denver. He would have been sixty-eight today.

Over the last few days I have once again been fortunate enough to visit the Smoky Mountains. Without any travel partners, I had planned out several long run options that would allow me to travel many of the highest ridges of the park, including the one bearing the AT. Unfortunately, the storm that dropped heavy rain and short-lived giant snowflakes on a large region of the Midwest and east coast also hit the national park. Ice and snow caused wrecks and, in turn, road closings. A talk with a volunteer in the backcountry permit office created a new set of plans.

Starting at the Big Creek ranger station near the TN/NC boarder, I reached the AT via the Chestnut Branch trail. This often used trail gained 1800 ft in 1.9 miles. Once on the AT, I ran out as far as time and, coincidently, the cold wind permitted before returning. The apex of the run was just beyond the Tricorner Knob shelter.

The 2-6 inches of snow covering a layer of ice was expected. The 40-50 mph winds in the gaps and on the spine of 6621-ft Mt. Guyot were normal. Subfreezing temperatures were par for December on top of the Smokies. I carried a 15-lb pack with enough gear to protect me from all of this. The pack even carried a puffy - a down parka - and extra socks. Though I didn't expect to use the puffy, it came in handy while I was changing into the dry socks while sitting in the snow and getting lashed by brutal winds.

One-third of the pack weight was water and the purifier. I carried less water than I would have if I were backpacking and less than I would have in warmer conditions.  Water from a trailside spring on Cosby Knob was used to refill a 1.5-L bladder, but only after I had inhaled a liter. Thanks to that spring and the puffy that insulated the water bladder from the cold, hydration was not an issue on this run.

Keeping my nutrition from freezing was a simple matter of keeping it inside my shirt. I have formulated a mixture of protein, carbohydrate, and salt which is concentrated in flasks. A bad experience resulted in some testing which taught me that this mixture solidifies to the point that most of it cannot be removed from the flask if it drops below 45F. The windy conditions on the spine of Mt. Guyot forced me to put on a jacket that was tied around my waist in order to prevent both the flasks - and me - from freezing.

That first run, which took 6:44 (6:32 without water collection/sock changes), covered 34 miles and involved 8400 ft of both ascent and descent. It was a blast. I was happy to find that my climbing legs were there after not completing any hill specific training since leaving CO in July. I was also happy to have a pair of Microspikes. They allowed me to descend much faster and safer than I would have thought possible. The many hikers I passed along the trail were amazed to see me hammering along. Again- it was a blast!

Running trails efficiently is not an easy task, especially when those trails are ruggedly vertical and littered with root/rock/ice obstacles. I have seen people run over such trails with such remarkable efficiency that their footfalls seem effortless while lacking impact or noise. My own stride is nowhere near this, but it is steadily improving with experience.

An elevation profile of the AT through GSMNP with my route in red.
It was near the Tricorner Knob that I encountered a bear. I paused and reached for my camera, but the bear snatched the camera. I ran. I ran right through the trail intersection and continued on for a short distance before I realized I had to return the way I came. I would just have to grab the camera back if the bear was still there. He was. As I approached he yelled "SMILE" and took this picture. He then handed me the camera as I ran by him. Thanks, Bear!

I told the guys from Nashville that I would claim a bear took this . . .
That run was difficult. It easily fell within the ten hardest physical/mental challenges I've ever attempted. This was largely due to the quantity of climbing and descending. The fact that my feet were soaked for almost four hours in sub-freezing temperatures added significant challenge. Those cold, wet feet caused me to continually increase my pace over the last ten miles. That strained pace made the effort feel more like the final miles of road marathon. At no time during the run did I feel in danger. Honestly, I was experiencing both the addictive adrenaline rush and the state of relaxation that outdoor endurance junkies like myself thrive on.

Upon reaching the RAV I immediately drank some organic chocolate milk and ate three of my homemade blueberry oatmeal scones. Then I drove to Asheville where I ate again. Not quite satiated and in a celebratory mood, I went to Jack of the Wood to enjoy the Bluegrass Jam. The previous evening I listened to the Ole Time Jam on the same stool while drinking the same Green Man Stout. Those talented musicians completed a fantastic day! I was lucky enough to sit next to Gabe both nights. He created a website devoted to Asheville area musicians called Simply Pickin.

On the second day I chose to climb Mt. Sterling (5820 ft) via Baxter Creek trail and continue along the Mt. Sterling Ridge trail. This marked the twentieth time that I have summited Mt. Sterling. I have long been drawn to Mt. Sterling because the old tower on the summit provides incredible views of Appalachian mountains. The summit campsite is also my favorite in the GSMNP. Bears like it, too!

Because the weather was warmer and because I expected my legs to give out before I reached that summit, I chose to go light. I carried only one handheld and two gels in a flask. Imagine my surprise when my ascent was less than two minutes over my best effort. This inspired me to run on over the summit and onto the ridge trail.

Mt. Sterling Ridge trail drops a little before climbing back to 5500 feet where it levels off for a few miles. I ran along the ridge enjoying the heavenly views until it ended at the Balsam Mountain trail junction. The descent of Mt. Sterling reminded me of the previous day's adventure - it hurt! That run was a little over 22 miles long and tallied just over 5000 feet of both elevation gain and loss.

After finishing that run I decided to attempt a short run without my orthotics. All previous attempts to ween myself off of those orthotics resulted in failure. Amazingly, I was able to run 3.8 miles on the AT, round trip from Davenport Gap to the junction with the Chestnut Branch trail (see profile above), without any issues. That 44-minute run was my longest run without orthotics dating back to 1986. And, because my quads were suffering, it was also my last run of the trip. I spent the rest of the day exploring and seeking historical knowledge of the region.

I should say that I was slowly exploring. My legs were stiff and sore. Imagine that. I had run 60 miles with more than 14,300 vertical feet of both ascending and descending within a 25-hour time period. (Who did I think I was - Dakota Jones??) It sure seems that experience would have prevented such a repeat of self-destruction. In reality, the effort, exposure, and views were exactly what I was hoping for.

It was while driving east on hard pack NC284 along the park boundary that I veered right at a fork in the road. Shortly thereafter I came to a locked gate where the road crossed back into the national park. I decided to walk along that closed section of road to further enjoy the clear and relatively warm day. That walk lasted about thirty minutes. Upon returning to the gate I encountered a strange scene.

A man stood between his big, late model pickup truck and the gate. He was screaming into a radio. The guy on the other end was screaming back. The man at the gate darted over to his open driver's door and then came toward me with a pistol in his hand. A BIG metallic pistol! I froze.

"They're always locking this gate," he said to me. "They know I'm tracking that bear."
"Where is it?"
"Right out there." He pointed the pistol toward the valley below the road. The same valley I had been admiring for the previous thirty minutes.
"Sow or boar?"
"Boar. A big boar. My dogs are on him right now and this gate is stopping me from getting to them."

This guy was moving frantically and still arguing with the guy on the radio while talking to me. He retrieved a shoulder holster from his truck and put it on. He put the gun, which he told me was a "boar-killin' 44," in the holster.

"You know I've got four ten thousand dollar dogs on that bear. I need to get through this gate!" he yelled at the man on the radio.

Forty thousand dollars worth of hunting dogs! Wow!

Sensing that I should not get involved in this incident, I wished him well before climbing into the RAV and driving away. What happened? I wish I knew. The hunter was demanding entry into the GSMNP to catch a bear that his expensive dogs were chasing. The person on the radio was not complying because hunting bears in national parks is a federal crime. The hunter was supposed to call his dogs off of the hunt when they crossed into the park. Maybe he was trying to do that. I don't know.

Before I left the Big Creek area I encountered three backpackers on the road.

"Are you the guy we saw running on the AT yesterday?"
"Yeah. We crossed paths on Cosby Knob."
"How far did you run?"
"Thirty-four miles."

They looked at each other and smiled.

"That's a week's worth of hiking. Why would you do that?"

Now I smiled.

"Because I got to see a week's worth of trail sights in less than seven hours."

I did not say that my back felt better than it ever did after long packing trips or that I had enjoyed great food and music before retreating to much better sleeping quarters than those they encountered in the mouse houses. I regret not admitting that, even though I have enjoyed every backpacking trip I've taken, I have come to love long runs in the mountains because that activity allows me to combine my love of running with my desire to experience the backcountry.

Here are some of the pictures I took along the trails during this short, therapeutic trip. Enjoy! (Click to enlarge.) ST

The view looking north from Mt. Cammerer on the AT
Much of the AT is a narrow trench
Gravesite at Davenport Gap
Chestnut Branch Trail

AT over Mt. Cammerer
Tightly bound rhododendron means cold air!
Notice the CCC-made stone wall at right.
Fraser fir skeleton
Spring used for my water supply
Walk this way . . .
Nearing Mt. Guyot
Fraser fir graveyard on Mt. Guyot
The ferns and lichens stand out on the AT near Davenport Gap

Davenport Gap shelter - one of a kind mouse house
TN 32 becomes NC 284 at Davenport Gap
There's always light at the end of a tunnel.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Long Miles for Short Legs

This is the story of the first time my boys, Brandon and Tyler, traveled to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in the Fall of 1994. They explored those mountains in a manner only possible because of their uninhibited youthfulness. 

Campfire Frolicking
The four a.m. starting time served several purposes. It allowed us to miss rush hour traffic in Nashville. It meant that we would have a full day to set up camp and explore the campground. And it would allow the two little fellas in the back seat to sleep through most of the five-plus hour journey.

Though it was against my better judgement, the decision to stop for breakfast at McDs solved the "I'm hungry NOW" dilemma that startled me as I rounded the exit ramp from I-40. Brandon's "on" button had been pushed. From the rearview mirror I could see him rubbing his eyes with one hand and shaking Tyler with the other.

"Ty! Ty! Wake up, Ty! Tootykes, wake up!"
"Stop pinching me, Brandon."
"THIS is pinching."
"Where are the Smokies, daddy?"
"Not far from here. We'll go there after we eat pancakes."
"PANCAKES! YEAH . . . I gotta pee."

We washed stacks of pancakes down with milk and orange juice. I tried to get them to eat the so-called sausage, but the finicky Tyler squeezed his lips together in refusal. I shrugged.

"That's OK. That sausage is mostly scraps that the chef swept up from behind the oven. These people are here to make money. They don't throw anything away."

"Yeah, pancakes are the only things we should eat here at McDeath's."
"He said McDeath. Silly Daddy!" Brandon, as always, interpreted for Tyler.
"Silly Daddy," repeated Tyler.

Our campsite at Elkmont Campground was close enough to Little River that we could hear and feel the water splashing its way out of the mountains, but it was not at the stream's edge where I had to constantly play lifeguard. We set up the three person tent and laid out three piles of sleeping gear. Because the mid-October nighttime temperatures were expected to reach freezing and because Brandon was a migratory sleeper, I made certain that foam matting stretched wall to wall.

"Can we make a fire now?" Brandon, three and a half years old and nearly three feet tall, was pointing at the bundles of wood while standing in the fire pit.
"Crazy kid!" I snatched him up and turned him upside down to inspect his shoes and pant legs for damage.
"Hey, put me down!"
"Don't ever stand in there, buddy. There could be smoldering embers hidden in there."
"What's smoldering embers mean?"
"Super hot. Hot enough to melt your shoes and start you on fire."
"Start ME on fire?"
"Yes, so stay out of there."
"Don't go in there, Ty," Brandon said as he tugged at his little brother's hoodie.

Our first adventure was to take a hike up Little River Road. The road was asphalt for a third of a mile as it passed beyond the remnants of the old Elkmont village. Most of the houses were permanently empty and in advanced states of dilapidation. We looked into a few of them.

The boys climbed on a boulder lying beside one house. Tyler and I agreed with Brandon when he said that we needed a giant rock in our yard. A nine hundred pound boulder was moved into the back yard of our next house.

We walked beyond the village to where the road turned to gravel and began to closely follow the river. It seems that we were constantly stopping to climb on rocks or to throw stones into the stream. Tyler was doing his best to keep up with the Energizer Brandon. I served handfuls of cheerios, pieces of Powerbars, and sippy cups filled with orange juice.

We meandered back and forth from the river bank to the road until they separated a bit. Then we arrived at a point where the developed road ended at a gate. We sat down for a snack. Several cars were parked along the road here because this spot marked the Little River trailhead. I laid out a topo map and showed the boys where we were, where we had walked, and where our campsite was.

"We've gone a long way, guys."
"That's not far," Brandon said as he approximated the distance between his index finger and thumb.
"How do you feel, Ty?" The thought of carrying him on the return had crossed my mind more than once. We sat nearly two miles from the campsite.
"Good. Can we make s'mores?
"Smores? We'll make those after dark when the campfire is burning."
"Its hot!" Brandon said.
"Yep. Its hot," Tyler agreed. His eyes were opened wide while he nodded in a slow, exaggerated fashion.

The adventure continued until we reached the campsite in mid-afternoon. Everything was new on the way back because trail experiences depend on the direction of travel. Though Tyler never asked me to carry him, his obvious fatigue caused me to suggest that we lay down in the tent and listen to the river after lunch. Having filled their bellies with sandwiches, pretzels, and pop tarts, both boys were asleep within minutes. While they slept I thought about the morning and wrote in my journal.

That hike was full of enlightenment and reminiscence. All of the laughter and excitement indicated that Brandon and Tyler loved playing in the woods as much I did. Adulthood had caused me to forget about the boundlessness of youthful energy. Parenthood had allowed me to once again view the the natural world as only young children can. The world is a playground. I had also forgotten how relaxing and enjoyable skipping stones on water can be, especially when it is done by small children.

The three of us explored the campground that afternoon. We investigated boulders, faucets, empty campsites, and the restrooms.

"Where's the bathtub?" Brandon asked.
"Bathtub? There aren't any bathtubs here."
"Then where will be take a bath," asked Tyler.
"We won't."

And everyone smiled.

Campfire-grilled burgers and warm baked beans preceded the making of our s'mores. Then, because we were in bear country, I spent twenty minutes scrubbing the grease, sugar, and chocolate off of their faces and hands. And wishing there was a bathtub nearby.

The next morning we were awakened by several obnoxiously loud crows. Tyler was especially angry about this. He even got mad at me when I could not make them shut up. We followed another pancake breakfast with a drive to Cade's Cove on the west end of the park. Our hopes centered on seeing some of those famous Smoky Mountain bears while driving around the eleven mile auto loop.

We were in luck. Soon after touring the restored John Oliver Cabin we came upon a traffic jam. I was amazed by the number of people gawking and taking pictures near an enormous eastern Hemlock. A nervous sow paced back and forth at the base of the tree while constantly looking up and calling to her cubs. They were crying out from the smallest branches of the tree more than one hundred feet above the ground. I paused the car long enough to let the boys unbuckle and peer out of the window. As we drove away I could see the rooftop lights of an approaching park ranger.

We saw two more lone bears on that drive. We also stopped in the visitor's center at the back of the loop. I walked out of there with a history book and the boys each had brilliantly colored plastic salamanders like the ones found in the park's streams. Those salamanders turned out to be great hiking companions since they also liked to explore every stone, root, and fallen tree. We spent most of that second day in Cade's Cove. On our second pass of the loop, we hiked up to Abrams Falls where we threw stones into the pool beneath the massive falls. No skipping was allowed. The day was devoted to big, loud splashes. And big miles for short legs. The gently rolling round trip along Abrams Creek was about five miles.

This hike also gave us the hiking stick when we crossed paths with a man using one.

"I want one of those," Brandon said while pointing at the stick.
"Me, too," said Tyler.
"Well, then we should start looking for some sticks near the trail."

It took awhile, but all three of us discovered suitable staffs before returning to the trailhead. When we got there we found the stick used by the old man among a few others that were leaning against the signpost. I asked the boys to leave theirs, but quickly abandoned the ensuing argument. Our agreement was that we would leave the sticks at the campsite just before we left the mountains.

Our late afternoon return to Elkmont left us with just enough time to eat a quick meal of chili before the ranger talk. The ranger, Bob, had invited us to listen to him when he checked us in. Ranger Bob, a seasoned stage man, used a variety of voices when recounting the settlement and logging history of Elkmont. He kept everyone in the crowd, even Brandon, hanging on his words.

The next morning I read my new book, Last Train to Elkmont, prepared more pancake batter, and packed a backpack with hiking provisions while the boys slept in.  We then spent our third day on top of the Smokies.

"Where are we going?" asked Tyler as we left the campground.
"To the Appachin Trail," said Brandon.
"A-pal-a-chi-an Trail," I said.
"The AT"
"Yep. That's the one. Its a long way from here, so we'll drive to it."
"We get to hike the AT, Tytookes!"
"Well, part of it," I said.

I circled the big Newfound Gap parking lot two times before finding an open spot. Fall foliage was a bit past its prime at altitude, but crowds of people were still viewing the relaxingly brilliant colors along Newfound Gap Road.  Each of us put on a second jacket and a hat before stepping into the cold wind at the 5000 foot high gap. We took them off within seconds and I stuffed them in the backpack. It was going to be a beautiful day on the Smokies.

We made our way through the crowd to the AT. I wasn't sure how far we would go, but I had stocked the backpack with enough trail mix, Powerbars, water, and orange juice to last us for at least half of the day. I snapped a photo of the boys standing near the perimeter wall. Then I asked a man to take a picture of us in front of the monument where FDR gave the speech to dedicate the Smokies as a national park in September of 1940. Then we began to hike the AT.
Why pose for pictures when we can be hiking?
I immediately began to worry about the boys, especially Tyler. Because he was about two weeks shy of his second birthday, I quickly surmised that his tiny legs were no match for the rugged AT.  The trail climbed and climbed and climbed for the first two miles as it stretched over the 6100-ft summit of Mt. Ambler. The term "obstacle course" can be substituted for "trail" during this section since the path follows a ridge line covered with boulders and root entanglements.

Brandon performed acrobatic movements that caused my heart to stop and then to race. Combining the fact that he was using an abundance of energy with the fact that Tyler had to be lifted onto or over some impediments, I was certain our trip would be short lived.

I stopped the boys several times to take in the views, to eat, to drink, and, of course, to rest, on the climb up Mt. Ambler. At one point we even sat in the grass and pretended to have a picnic. Brandon dubbed it a snacknic.

Before we left the snacknic sight I  bent over to look Ty in the eye while I asked them if they wanted to go back to the car or hike more of the AT. Both boys voted enthusiastically in favor of more hiking.

Shortly after that the trail began to drop and I could see a steep watershed to the left.  I knew this steep mountain face was below a rugged rocky knob known as Charlie's Bunion. I couldn't believe it, so I stopped to check the map again. We had traveled about 2.5 miles and the Bunion stood another 1.6 miles ahead and 700 feet below us. There was no way I could carry those two most of four miles, let alone up a mountain on that rugged trail.  I decided that we would turn around after another snacknic at the junction with the Boulevard Trail.

"I don't know about you two, but my stomach is starting to growl."
"You just ate a PBJ, silly," said Brandon.
"Yeah, silly Daddy."
"Listen to it. I think it is asking for pizza."

I stooped down and they drew near.
"I don't hear it."
"Me too."
"Oh, I think it wants pizza."

I bent over and "listened" to their bellies.
"All the bellies want pizza," I declared. "Let's go back to town and get a big one."
"And bread sticks?"
"And bread sticks."

Amazingly, I was never asked to carry anyone on the journey back to Newfound Gap. I did offer to carry Tyler, but he refused because he wanted to do everything Brandon did.  When fatigue overwhelmed him, Ty simply plopped his little butt down on a rock, root, log, or the trail and asked for his sippy cup. We ended up going through a whole quart of orange juice and nearly ninety-six ounces of water during our 5.8-mile 4-hour adventure. And Ty likely had more than his fair share on the cool and breezy day.

The Pizza Hut pizza disappeared and then the ice cream, fudge, and taffy were all gobbled up. I had always despised Gatlinburg, which I referred to as "Glitzburg," but it made quite an impression on the boys. After sunset we retrieved heavier coats and hats from the car so we could ride a ski lift. Throughout the ride I clenched my teeth and clutched their collars as they leaned over to look below us.

We slept well that last night. I awoke early on the fourth day to make the pancake batter. I also made a small fire because the temperature was below freezing. Tyler demanded pop tarts with his pancakes, so I dug two out of the food container and warmed them over the fire.

"I don't want grilled pop tarts," Tyler said.
"I am "toasting" them in this backwoods toaster."
"You're making them black."

I wiped the soot off with off a towel and not one complaint was uttered as both pop tarts disappeared in seconds. That left me responsible for most of the cinnamon buckwheat pancakes. I wasn't heard complaining either.

With breakfast finished we were talking about the day's adventures when we all froze, amazed into silence, because an enormous pileated woodpecker landed on a tree in the campsite. It had a black body, a white neck and breast, and a tall, brilliant red crest. And it seemed to defy gravity. Despite the fact that it stood at least ten inches tall, the bird clutched the side of a hemlock and pecked away. The three of us intermittently smiled at each other and stared at that bird for several minutes before it flew away.

"That chicken was standing on the tree," said Tyler.
"It was a rooster, and it was eating the bark," added Brandon.
"That was a pileated woodpecker."
"A woodpecker?" asked Tyler with a wrinkled nose.
"Yes, a woodpecker. And it was awesome." Everyone agreed on that point.

Only after we drove out of Elkmont did I remember the walking sticks. They were leaning on a tree in the campsite. The boys did not remember them until we saw some later that afternoon at the Apple Valley Farm store in Townsend. It took awhile for Brandon to realize that I was not going to retrieve them.

A short drive up Cove Mountain took us to the Laurel Falls trailhead. We enjoyed our walk despite the fact that the asphalt trail was crowded due to its easy access and sure footing. The boys took turns riding on my shoulders, and honking, as we zigzagged our way through the foot traffic during that four mile hike.

Our last hike was a leisurely one mile walk along the Middle Prong Little River. We took advantage of this last opportunity to skip and splash stones. Along the way we named all of the animals we had seen on the trip. That list included:  six bears, a flock of birds, lots of squirrels, a skunk, three rabbits, lots of deer, a snake, several chipmunks, some noisy crows, and that woodpecker.

The drive home was a quiet one. Both boys passed out a few minutes after we reached the interstate. I worried that they were in diabetic comas due to the sugar intake at Apple Valley Farms. They were likely sleeping the deep sleep of happy hikers.

Epilogue - The three of us returned to those mountains to hike, camp, and backpack many times over the years. On several occasions, while they were still quite young, both boys asked me "Can we hike in the Smokies today." They stopped asking that question after Brandon made sure they were both awake for an entire drive.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Training Update - The Reload

It has been more than a month since the IMM. Since then I have jumped into a couple of 5Ks without really being prepared for them. Because I love racing so much, they were both fun experiences, but I had an epiphany about halfway through the second one. I'm done. My legs and mind need to be rested.

 An intense marathon training program came on the heels of a summer filled with sweat fest long runs in Indiana, sporadic hard efforts on the bike, and two fifty mile mountain races. Relatively speaking, those 5K were tiny efforts, but they were long enough to let me know the flame had gone out.

So, I am now in a reloading period. Though the training lacks the structure required for achieving a goal, it is still purposeful. I am enjoying running for what it provides me. I value sunrise runs through forests. I really love running when it is cold. And I love to sometimes run fast simply because I the energy and excitement are there.

I am also making an effort to put cycling back into my regimen after hardly training for almost eighteen months. The rides are short, but they are happening and they are enjoyable. I am still trying to pinpoint why I love cycling so much.

The only real structure to my training for the month of December is that I have decided on new test courses for my training. These courses are important facets of the overall plan, because they allow me to monitor my progress, by tracking my heart rate with the Polar RCX5, as I work through race specific programs and, well, age. I decided to change the courses for 2012 in order for them to more accurately reflect my goals.

Goals . . . Yes, it is that time of the year, isn't it. I've started mapping out a plan for racing next year that will help me attain the only real goal I have - stay actively healthy!! The racing includes duathlons because they cause me to train at both running and cycling. I will also be running some half marathons next year since I seem to have picked up an addiction to them in recent years. And, as a focal point again next year, I will run in some ultra events. Which events will I enter? I don't yet know. I came up empty in the Western States lottery. In the coming month there are openings for other ultra race registrations. After those occur I will decide on an overall schedule that is sure to keep me well rounded.

The annual winter trip to the southern Appalachians is less than two weeks away. That trip is always a blast.

As for blogging, the reworked piece about the first time my sons accompanied me to the Smokies will be up this weekend. I had hoped to post it by now, but this week has been full of 13-16 hour work days due to wrapping up the semester.  ST

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Getting High in the Smokies

As I promised a couple of weeks ago, I am posting the first of several reworked travel essays that I transcribed years ago.  This one is a description of a solo trip I took to explore the Great Smoky Mountain National Park back in 1990. I was, at that time, feverish with such exploration. I visited the park several times each year with my sons, with friends, and alone. I had the single-minded goal of walking every one of the 800-plus miles of trails in the park. This trip took place during the autumn of 1990. It was a dandy! With hindsight, it was also a crystal ball experience.

Walking among dead Fraser Firs above the clouds

After a restless three hour sleep in my Celica at Cosby Campground, I lace my boots and strap on an old external frame backpack before finding my way through the predawn darkness to the Low Gap trailhead. I do not intend to stay in the back country during this outing. The backpack is for peace of mind. It contains food, water, a water filter, a rain suit, a first aid kit, and a light sleeping bag. Those items will get me through the night if things do not go as planned. I do not want a repeat of my last trip when a roll of my "trick" ankle caused me to hobble-hike for hours after dark.

Day one of this four day exploration of the eastern half of the Smokies involves a simple out and back route from Cosby Campground to some point on the Appalachian Trail. With an average altitude of more than five thousand feet, the AT through the eastern half of the Smokies is the highest sustained section of the 2180-mile National Scenic Trail. My plan is to walk about half of the available daylight hours and then turn around. That is the plan, anyway.

Low Gap trail climbs 2600 feet in 2.5 miles as it rises in parabolic fashion to meet the AT. It is at once rugged and peaceful. The trail meanders though the once clear cut Cosby valley before it climbs steeply to the ridge line at Low Gap. Along the way I pass sites where I have gone off trail in search of partial whiskey stills, rusted car remains, and old growth forests. These mountains are filled with odd mixtures of nature and man.

It takes me forty five minutes to reach Low Gap (4250 ft).  From there I begin to briskly hike and sometimes jog as I climb over Cosby Knob. I pause for a few minutes to check out the primitive three-walled stone structure. I am happy that I haven't planned a stay in any of these mouse houses on this trip.

The AT climbs over Cosby Knob (5100 ft) before dropping to Camel Gap (4700 ft). From there it climbs almost incessantly for five miles, reaching about 6300 feet as it skirts the summits of two of the highest Appalachian peaks, Old Black (6370 ft) and Mt. Guyot (6621 ft). Mt. Guyot was named after the man who first surveyed much of the Smoky Mountains region in 1859.

The views from this high section of the AT are stunning - or so I am told. I am, on this blustery day, walking through fast moving clouds. I can only see a few feet in any direction. It is eerie and it is wet. I am, in fact, drenched as if I am under a hose. Water drips from my hands, my nose, and the brim of my hat. The temperature is climbing through the thirties. Those "waterproof" boots have failed after only a few hours of being water painted by low lying flora. My poncho-turned-kite is probably still airborne above North Carolina. I might as well be in heaven.

After nearly three hours and eleven miles on the trail I find myself at the Tricorner Knob shelter. Time for breakfast. There are two hikers preparing to leave the shelter with extremely voluminous and, judging from the efforts required to shoulder them, heavy backpacks. I say "Good Morning" and they both nod. They seem way too serious. I wonder if the physical and mental burdens of bearing such heavy loads has put the two men in survival mode. At this point, I decide that my twenty pound backpack is not the beast I want to believe it is. I apologize to it as I cook some oatmeal, but I smile since the meal is reducing the load. I don't know it yet, but those two hikers will be the only humans I see in the backcountry for four days.

The next five miles of the AT roll up and down at an elevation of about 6000 feet while passing near the summits of Mt. Chapman (6417 ft) and Mt. Sequoyah (5945 ft). Mt. Sequoyah is named after the Cherokee who created the written form of the nation's language.

Though I see very few of them through the dense, fast-moving clouds, I can always smell the sweet red spruce trees along this high ridge. Occasionally, I also detect the aroma of Christmas, the Fraser fir tree. There aren't many Frasers left in these mountains, because the non-native balsam woolly adelgids are killing them. They are still growing from old seeds, but they are also dying before they can produce new seeds. Piles of fir corpses sometimes line the trail. These saplings are the last of their kind. I take off my right glove and let the ends of branches gently pass through my grasp as I walk in order to feel the difference between the soft spruce and edgy fir needles.

Having read about short, unmarked, and seldom used summit trails for both Chapman and Sequoyah, I venture off of the AT through the rigid and gnarly rhododendron at least a dozen times trying to reach the summits. There is a satisfaction that comes with reaching a highest spot, even if there is nothing to see except speeding clouds.

When I reach the Hughes Ridge trail junction after almost five hours of hiking I weigh my options. I am more than sixteen miles from the rest of my gear at Cosby Campground. I also have about five hours of daylight left. My feet are sore, so I sit down and take off my boots to rub my arches and examine the hot spots. For the first time in my life, I apply duct tape patches to my body. Then I enjoy some homemade trail mix before setting off again.

I am wagering that I can jog for another thirty minutes out and still make it back before sundown by mixing jogging with walking. At thirty minutes I realize how close I am to the summit of Laurel Top (5907 ft). The debate over summiting doesn't even break my stride. My reward? One more summit view of fast moving clouds.

The math is easy. I have used five hours and fifty minutes out of ten hours and five minutes of daylight, so my return trip must be ninety five minutes faster than my outbound leg. No problem. Its not like my feet and ankles are blistered or my inner thighs are raw or my quads are decimated. Fifteen miles of weekly running on mostly flat roads has prepared me for this - right?

The cumulative effect of the clouds encasing me and the intense pain in my legs produces a fog in my mind that allows the miles and time to pass quickly. Constantly aware of the impending sunset, I run most of the return trip. I catch my toe on an embedded stone as I reach the junction with the Snake Den Ridge trail at Inadu Knob. Luckily, I am able to stop my fall by grabbing the signpost.

Taking Snake Den Ridge trail back to Cosby reduces the return trip by a little over two miles. That gives me thirty five miles and 7400 vertical feet of ascending for the day. I beat sundown by fifty minutes. This is by far the greatest distance I have traveled on foot in a single day, easily surpassing the marathons I had run when I was 15 and 16. I am exhausted. My feet and hands are swollen. My quads and back hurt so badly that I am certain they are broken. I cook and eat two camp meals while soaking my legs in the icy water of Cosby Creek. I also plan the next day's hike.

I walk/run eighty nine more miles over the next three days, giving me a four day total of 124 miles with more than 24,000 feet of ascending and descending. Though my body is thoroughly broken down and nearly incapacitated when I leave the Smokies, my mind is completely recharged with a new kind of energy. This is an addictive experience. I am convinced that there are many more days like these in my future.

Little Pigeon River
Note: I am in the process of gathering, scanning, and uploading pictures from this time period. I will post some them as soon as possible. The next story I will retell involves sippy cups, cheerios, and, of course, the AT.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Still Loving It!

Shortly after finishing the Turkey Run 5K yesterday I posted a status update on Facebook about the event. Of course I mentioned the fact that I enjoyed seeing dozens of friends among the 1500 people participating in the area's second largest race. Without a doubt, the holiday of thanks creates a festive mood that makes those encounters with friends a little more meaningful. That is why this 5K will always be among my favorite events to participate in.

I also stated that yesterday's race made this the 32nd year of running sub-17 minute 5Ks. It wasn't bragging about running ability. I am attentive enough to know that a sub-17 5K is a mark that many runners never reach, but I am also wise enough to know that a large number (1000s?) of runners, from high schoolers to collegiates to masters, run faster every year. The world road record for 5K is 13 minutes! A 17-minute runner would have more than a K to run at 13 minutes!!  Even my 15:18 personal record, set decades ago, would leave me a half-mile behind the world record runner.

No, that post was not an attempt to brag about running ability. A mantra I've long used to describe myself is that "I am a has-been that never was." I loathe bragging from myself more than I do from others. A sub-17 5K is a difficult enough challenge for my limited abilities that I consider it a notable achievement and desirable goal, especially at my age.

That status update was meant to be a statement about the benefits of living a healthy lifestyle. It was an acknowledgement of a decades long love affair with running. The post was a reminder to anyone reading it that middle age does not guarantee low quality of life. It was meant to be a challenge and an inspiration to the people reading this blog to eat wisely and live active lives.

I encourage people daily to exercise moderately while eating a variety of healthy foods. It really isn't that difficult, but it requires a deviation from the typical American lifestyle. There are many places to look and and a variety of people to talk to when seeking information about healthy living. For the last two years I have been telling people about the Blue Zones, a book by Dan Buettner that reveals how several groups of people around the world live to be active and productive centenarians. Check it out! It would make a great Christmas gift!

No one has a guarantee for a long and healthy life, but many people construct lives that almost guarantee a hasty depreciation of life's quality after the onset of adulthood. In fact, it is well-documented that our current cultural habits are creating extremely unhealthy children. Quality of life does not hinge on an ability to run a sub-17 5k, but living an active and healthy lifestyle will enhance the ability to maintain the ability to do all of the things that we enjoy for most of our lives. I love to run and bike and hike and climb and garden and rake leaves and . . .

Do you have your own sub-17 type of measuring stick?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Looking Toward Winter

Its been a little over two weeks since I ran the IMM. In that time I have logged thirty three miles of solid running. That means that my running life has returned to normal.

In fact, it has been normal since I took an exploratory three mile run on the Thursday following the race. That, of course, is wanted and unwanted. I was relieved to have relatively strong and fully functioning legs a few days after a road marathon. Yet, the healthy legs only confirmed my belief that the sciatica had kept me from pushing the pace in the closing miles. That Polar heart rate computer does not lie! I was on cruise control when I should have been in a steadfast pursuit of pain.

Since that day I have continued with the T-TH-S training pattern that I have followed since 1990. Whether I was on a short 3 miler or a "long" 8 miler the miles have come as easily as expected them to when running relaxed, low HR runs. After months of logging double digit long runs, I had to smile as I typed that 8.

Sadly, however, there is little doubt that each of those long runs would be truly long and epic if a more expansive trail system were close by. Throw in some mountainous terrain and I would be a full-fledged ultra runner with a severe Ricky Bobby complex on the bike. Sigh.

As of now, I have only one race planned in the foreseeable future. That would be a return to Lynchburg, TN for the Oak Barrel Half Marathon on April 7th. The 2010 trip was a lot of fun, despite the fact that I was suffering with the year's first round of sciatica at the time. I feel like I owe it to myself to challenge Whiskey Hill when I am 100%. Of course, provided that I convince Jeremy to return with me, I'll need to be at the top of my game to keep up with him. Maybe I can convince him to slip a little of that JD into his pre-race bottle.

The sciatica is not completely gone. Although the piriformis has finally relaxed, the tightness in the hamstring is constantly noticeable. For those of you who haven't experienced this issue, think of the coughing that goes on for days after the sinus infection has subsided. I'm on the mend.

Without racing trips planned I am eying the Appalachians once again for the "traditional" winter outing. That trip has ranged from warm and sunny day hikes, rides, and runs in and around the Great Smoky Mtn NP to long backpacking trips to camping with my boys. I would love to get in some winter camping, but the boys have not been interested in recent years. That might have something to do with the "no gaming" rule.

Honestly, I won't know what I am doing until a few days before it happens because I always let the weather contribute to my final decision. High on my list of desires are a couple of long runs over loops that many backpackers use for 3-4 day trips.  It will be interesting to see what Mother Nature has in store for me.

As far as this blog goes, well, it is the external view of my active lifestyle, right? It is, I believe, a natural progression of my long time habit of writing about my adventures. That writing began in the early 1990s when I jotted thoughts into tiny notebooks as I walked on trails, sat on boulders in rivers, or stretched out on grassy balds, or hunkered down in tents. The notes later progressed into essays that I typed into computers. Some of those essays were lost, but many of them are tucked away in one form or another.

I intend to start posting some of those essays in the near future. I've had some awesome, scary, hilarious, painful, and lucky experiences over the years. It will be fun for me and, I hope, for my friends and family to rehash those old adventures. You should find them interesting and entertaining.

Also, the Polar Ambassador Package will be awaiting me when I get home. I am excited about this! More on that in the near future!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Birthday Reflections

While creating this blog I wrote down a set of rules for myself. One of those rules does not allow me to discuss my personal life. So, this post is worded carefully, but honestly.

I don't know about you, but I tend to review, weigh, measure, and refocus my life with the passing of each birthday. I've been at this for a long time. This, of course, implies that I am growing old.

Those who know me well understand that though I have collected four dozen years, I have steadfastly refused to age in the normal sense. There is, admittedly, a relatively high level of vanity required to maintain a youthful mind and body upon reaching "middle age," but I believe that there are also requirements of acknowledged, hard-earned self-preservation and relentless pursuit of a inner peace.

For a youthful body, I have chosen a pathway laced with healthy eating, moderate exercise, and a constantly engaged mind. Two decades of nutritional research have taught me to eat a variety of foods in moderation while avoiding only a few, so I have little stress when it comes to food decisions. My exercise habits are, of course, the focus of this blog. I train less than most people to limit wear and tear, while employing science and keen self-knowledge to gauge my efforts and satisfy my competitive tendencies.

I read and write constantly to stimulate my mind. I read textbooks, biographies, history books, research papers, nutrition books, blogs, news, and student works. I even assign a monthly assignment for all of my students that requires them to summarize a scientific article so that they can practice concise writing while allowing me to be "well read." I write exams (!), blog posts, short stories, essays, and I have have even completed a novel. It is worth noting that the story telling has crept into the classroom in many forms, including physics exams that are short stories about a pirate named Ohm.

And that brings me to my last thought on aging. I love to laugh. I create reasons to laugh. I laugh at jokes, at success, at failure, at pranks, at youthful naivety, and, most often, at myself. That last one is important. I am a perfectionist and a very intense person (or so I've been told . . .) which used to be a drag on me and everyone around me. Then I "grew up" enough to feel comfortable with my shortcomings. It is easy to develop a sense of one's limits when you are reminded of them every day through brutally honest interactions with teenagers. I've learned a lot from my students!

I learn from wise old men, too. Just last night I was hanging out with Gene, who is 99 years old. He is an incredibly inspiring person who will surprise you with his wit, cause you to self-reflect with his keen memory, bring you to tears with laughter, and humble you with his extensive knowledge. Then he will do a little jig and blow your mind! Last night he did all of that and then brought me to tears as he gently kissed his ailing wife, Bea, three times before leaving her assisted care room. I've only got fifty one years to seek his level of life work!

To close I would like to say that I actively seek inspiration to live a purposeful life, to be a contributing member of society. Born into poverty and with average mental and physical abilities, I have always battled to be anything but mediocre. I find my inspiration in family, friends, students, competitors, the news, and in nature. The way I see it, I've got a lot to live for, a lot to be thankful for, a lot of love to give, and good reasons to seek my potential in all aspects of my life.

And, in part, I created this blog to inspire its readers to do explore their themselves, their communities, and the natural world around them. ST

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Monumental Marathon Race Report

Followers of this blog know that I lined up for the IMM with hopes of finishing in about 2:50. At registration I typed 2:49:59 as my predicted finish time. After dinner the evening before the race I told my road trip mates, Jeremy and Nick, to go to lunch when the clock hit 2:50, stay and throw things at me, or berate me after lunch.

Well, it was close, but I reached the finish line in 2:49:33.  This is a result that I am really excited about because it came in the midst of my longest battle with sciatic pinch in years. Furthermore, the time was a lifetime PR achieved just days before my 48th birthday.

Jeremy, Nick, and I were lucky enough to stay in a hotel just a couple of blocks from the start line. The room was great, but the soft bed only worsened the pain in my back and right leg that had developed during the drive north. I don't believe that I ever fell asleep. It was a little after six in the morning when I began to stretch and rub my leg, back, and piriformis.

We jogged into the a stiff, near freezing wind to reach that start line in the predawn darkness. In a scene that was completely against my "last minute" nature, I found myself hopping and shivering and swearing a ridiculous twenty minutes before the start of the race. This was a result of finding myself behind at least one thousand people last year when I could not shimmy my way through the crowd fast enough.

Jeremy and Nick, competing in the half marathon, quickly disappeared in the mobile mob soon after the start. It took only a couple of turns and less than a mile for me to find myself running smoothly in my own space. I fell into a large group that reached the first three mile markers in 6:18, 12:30, and 18:34.  It was during that 6:04 third mile that I felt my hamstring twinge for the first time. Though the pace came easily and though I wanted to stay with that group, I yielded to the pull of the hamstring.

The next eighteen miles were a rare roller coaster ride for me. The course was exceptionally flat, but my pace was not. One or two miles 6:0x miles were followed by one or two at 6:2x. I stayed within my fitness, even during the faster miles, but the pace was controlled by the bitchy hamstring. When it was fine I was fast, but when it whined I slowed.

Somewhere around the nine mile mark that I realized what was going on. Whenever the course dictated that I run on the right side of a crowned road the hamstring would strain and tighten. I slowed because I didn't want to injure it. My dealings with the issue in the past have taught me that I can run through the sciatica without worsening the back condition, but only if I didn't damage the resulting tight hamstring. So, I ran as fast as the muscle would allow me.

I sweated little while running in gloves, a cap, an Ultimate Fit race kit over an Under Armour t-shirt, and Scott T2's. Still, I snagged cups of water at 12 aid stations. I also consumed one GU Espresso Love a minute before the start and four others I had stored in my gloves at thirty minute intervals. The cool temperatures definitely aided a fast time for this heavy sweater.

The headwind in the closing miles was not as kind. Combine that wind with the fact that the hamstring remained tight throughout the last five miles and you have a recipe for slower running. I reached 21 miles in 2:13:40, but slowed to a training pace of almost 6:50 for the remaining five miles. Maintaining that 6:25 average pace would have brought me home in about 2:47.

My legs never reached that lethargic, heavy feeling that accompanies a bonk. Stiffness in my lower back and hamstring slowed me by shortening my stride length. In fact, I felt relatively fine. I actually smiled when I compared my condition to what I had experienced in CO during the summer 50-mile mountain races. A discouraging moment occurred, though, in the 20th mile when Superman was passed by Spiderman.

Throughout the closing miles I weaved back and forth between hundreds of walkers finishing the half marathon and six hobbling or stopped marathoners. Three of those marathoners had passed me during the fourteenth mile - which I covered in 6:08.

Jeremy and Nick were waiting four blocks from the rectangular finish where they could take a shortcut to the finish. I gave them a thumbs up after glancing at my watch. Nick had set a PR in the half marathon while Jeremy, though he had beaten Nick, had come up less than a minute shy of his mark set last month at the Evansville half. I would be lying if I tried to deny the fact that Nick and I created many opportunities to remind Jeremy of his "lackluster, embarrassing, and hairless performance" for the remainder of the day. "Walk behind us  . . . sit over there . . ." And there may have been references to the color and fortitude of testicles . . .

A long chat with good friend, Laura, in the hotel lobby gave us a chance to size up four Kenyan runners who had dominated the day. Those tiny racing machines lacked even an ounce of excess matter to slow them down. And they were humble and polite.

We picked up my pint glass trophy and gift certificate for an AG win before enjoying a leisurely lunch at the Ram Brewery. The drive home through the remaining fall colors while engaged in laughter inducing conversation served as a fitting end to the road trip. Even Jeremy's brother, living in northern IN, got in on the action by texting about the two-out-of-three PRs. I would travel with those two anytime! I could not find more wholesome people to experience life with.

After reviewing the data from my Polar RCX5, I know that my average heart rate of 162 was significantly lower than normal. In fact, it was lower than my average HR during the first half (four hours) of my Silver Rush 50 effort during July. So, despite the fact that I declared I would stop running road marathons if I ever broke 2:50, I now know that a sub-2:45 is within the grasp of my sub-30 miles per week training. And that seems like a suitable challenge. Besides that, a 2:49 is still well out of line with the rest of my PRs from shorter race distances (McMillan predicts 2:29), so I would like to see how much more I can lower the time using my low mileage training formula.

For now, though, I rest - and think of ways to convince Jeremy and Nick to run the Leadville Marathon and the full IMM with me next year.


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Work Done and Polar

This morning, just before and after sunrise, I completed my last pre-marathon workout. The long runs are also behind me now. I would not go as far as to say that I am in a taper, because a 28-mile-per-week program does not need - cannot afford - to be reduced. I am officially resting though. The work is done.

As I indicated in previous posts, the training I am referring to did not go according to the plan. Such is life. I am not surprised by the divergence nearly as much as I am amazed by the fact that I actually made it to this point. Never before have I encountered so many obstacles while in a race build up. The job, with the extra duties like the freebie class, meetings, coaching, and writing letters of recommendation, presented new detours each week. My back coerced my right piriformis and hamstring into hobbling me for an annoyingly consistent and prolonged time period. That, in turn, caused a series of related aches and pains in my hips and knees. And my vision seemed to deteriorate. I am not sure how that last one worked against the plan but I am convinced it was part of the full-body conspiracy. Damned aging, anyway . . .

So, I've got ten days to back off in a manner that will give my body time to reach an equilibrium that will favor a solid marathon performance. My reliable and undeniable ability to make questionable decisions led me to go ahead and enter the full marathon. Actually, I have three more days to "downgrade" my entry to the half, but I do not intend to do so. Instead, I will pour my energies into doing all of the little things that might add up to a positive performance in Indy: stretching, heating, standing(!), massaging, and, of course, easing up on the throttle a bit.

Review of my log indicates that I have averaged 28.3 mpw for nine weeks. This is an interesting number - to me. The plan called for me to follow my ultra program for long runs, but the back rejected that notion. That would have resulted in an astounding 33 mpw average! Runs longer than 13 miles during the build-up can be counted on one hand, with the longest being a tad under 20 miles.

I must reveal that the 28.3 mpw gives me a jolt of confidence, though, because the most I have ever averaged while training for a marathon is 26 mpw. The result? A 2:52 effort at the Huntsville, Alabama Rocket City Marathon in Dec. 2009. (I have a knack for running 2:51-53 at the RCM.)

A more thorough analysis reveals that I also ran 53 miles at a sub-6:15 pace during that nine week period. That, folks, is solid and significant for a 28 mpw program! The piriformis/ham/disc gang only cost me one day of pace work.

What can I run after this build-up? That is any one's guess, really. There is simply no margin for error with such a low mileage plan. A fast half marathon is certainly within my grasp, but I feel this primal urge to suffer. If all goes well, I will run low-2:50 or just under 6:30 per mile. I would like to go faster, but the dice have been tossed.  I am not complaining. In fact, I am elated about being healthy enough to run a marathon.

It is the pain that accompanies road marathons off of low mileage that I must avoid thinking about for ten days.  Then, on November 5th, I will do as I always do in marathons. I will run my pace until the wheels come off. At that point I will keep moving in a Quasimodo fashion until I reach the finish line. Luckily, Jeremy has agreed to drag me to the cheeseless pizza and beer. Hehehe . . .

On another more sane note, I have recently become an Official Polar Ambassador. I will continue to tout the benefits of using Polar HRMs. Anyone who has seen me race or train over the last two decades has seen that familiar black strap around my torso. And those who have listened to me speak about my training philosophies have heard me talk of intensities, paces, and economies in terms of heart rate. Many people have then gone out and purchased their own heart rate computers. I will continue to provide information about training and racing with HRMs. The primary difference, I guess, is that the people of Polar are now aware of my long-standing ambassadorship.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

YMCA Half Marathon Report

Jeremy and I at seven miles
Because this event took place four weeks before my planned goal race weekend, I decided long ago to run the area's largest event (aside from the Race for the Cure) at a moderate pace in order to use it as training for the future. In fact, this is the fourth year in a row for me to run our local race in this manner. It is not that I consider the Y-Half to be less important. I am simply trying to run a variety of races and distances in locations other than my home town.

With the temperature in the low-50's, still air, and clear skies, it was a near perfect morning for a half marathon.  I lined up that morning with about two-thousand other people on a hill overlooking the Ohio River knowing that hamstring tightness resulting from the piriformis pinch might cause me to stop. The hamstring had been tight when I ran the day before, but I had worked it loose before I went to bed.

The original plan called for me to run the half at about 6:05 pace, but I decided to run it with friends, including Jeremy, and we settled on a 6:20 pace. After we climbed over the only big hill on the course and reached mile three at 6:06 pace the plan began to change. We were very consistent, reaching each mile thereafter in just over six minutes. despite a couple of course layout discrepancies that I was aware of because I measured the new course.

As the mile markers passed we each agreed that we were comfortable. Each passing mile also took us closer to the front of the field as we held our pace while others slowed, some a significant 15-20 seconds per mile.

We reached twelve miles in just under 73 minutes. I knew then that we would finish in lest than 80 minutes. It was while we were running on the Greenway next to the museum midway through mile thirteen that we picked up the pace a little. That 5:57 last mile gave me a 1:19:39 finishing time. Jeremy, sly enough to be a couple of rows behind me at the start, was a second faster in the end. His even-paced run allowed him to smash his PR.

My post-event analysis gave me a boost in confidence. The steady effort allowed my heart rate to remain below my tempo zone for about seven miles. The final average HR of 165 (85%) was less than what I have averaged for entire marathons and less than what I averaged for the first two hours of the Silver Rush 50 back in July. I am excited about the fact that this HR occurred while I averaged 6:05 per mile because it indicates that my running economy quite high.

Now I must rid myself of this sciatic pinch so that I can fully enjoy this fitness in Indy next month and in the mountains soon after that.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Muncie Powerman Race Report

This is what happens when that carefully made training plan is anything but reality. I entered this race at the last minute for several reasons, but the one I'll discuss in this post is that I needed to get in some pace work.

A couple of months ago I outlined a training plan that would prepare me for the Indy Monumental Half/Full Marathon weekend of November 5th. Unfortunately, I have dealt with another bout of sciatic pinch for the last month. This is my second prolonged sciatic problem this year, so I am fully weary of the pain and tightness that comes with it. Just last spring the sciatic pinch added significant time to two half marathons. I have dealt with back problems since an accident in 1998, but I rarely experience more than one serious bout in a year. Interestingly enough, the pain almost always comes after I sit too much. Sitting is BAD!

Last Monday morning before the sun came up I completed a hilly 19-mile run at 7 minute pace. This run, the longest since the Silver Rush 50 in July, was fun and it came far too easily. When I finished it, however, I knew that I would run my pace work on Thursday or Friday. Old runners learn to project the soreness of a good run onto a week - or at least several days. 

On Tuesday I sat at a computer too long and the sciatic pinch tapped the nerve beyond my sore arse (piriformis), through my tightened hamstring, and all the way down to my quivering foot.  What followed was the normal protocol of stretching and strengthening maneuvers I use to reduce the pinch and pain.

Wednesday's run went well, with only a slight tightness in the hamstring. More importantly, the restricted muscle did not tighten up after the run. This meant that I did not strain it while running. By Wednesday evening I decided to go ahead and take a couple of days off of running while concentrating on healing the back. Sometime before bed I came across the Muncie Powerman website and decided that I would use it to get my pace work in for the week. The 15K of running would suffice, but only if I could limit my effort on the bike enough to run the last 5K at the right pace.

When I lined up for the race just before 10 am last Saturday, I felt zero pain in my back and my hamstring seemed to as flexible as normal.  This is important to note, because I had already decided that I would not race, despite 9 hours of driving to and from the race, if I felt any pain or tightness before the race.

So, along with several hundred other athletes entered in the six different multisport events going on that morning, I launched myself onto the course under ominous skies and in unseasonably frigid air. At race time it was 39 degrees and the wind was blowing 20-30 mph.

I wore my Purdue Tri Suit, but finished the winter ensemble with gloves, a long sleeve tech shirt, tights, and training shoes. After briefly considering the removal of the tights, a glance up at the black skies convinced me to leave them on.

In perfect harmony with the spirit of Powerman Duathlons, the cold weather was accompanied by a tough course.  Tough because it was hilly and because several miles of the 12.9-mile looping road surface bore many scars. A myriad of potholes and arterial cracks had been thoughtfully covered with patches and lines of tar. Bumpy for a car's tires, but brutal for the narrow tires of a bike. Beastly for a bad back!

I kept to the plan throughout the out-and-back 10K. This rolling course used the same roads around the Prairie Creek Reservoir that would also be used by both the cycling and 5K legs. I hit most of the miles at just under six minute pace, but slowed while keeping the same effort (HR) on the two most hilly miles that were, conveniently, going into the wind on the return leg.

T1 went off without a hitch and I soon found myself passing many of the weaving triathletes who had reached the bike course first after the shortened swim. I'd say that 3-5 minutes in that cold water would have been more than enough.  These people probably couldn't feel their hands or feet!

I was entered in the International or Olympic (yeah, right) distance of 10K - 41K - 5K, so I had to circumnavigate the 12.9-mile bike course twice. For one and a half of those loops I glanced back on the turns to gauge the gap back to the guy I believed to be just behind me. This was supposed to be a running workout, so I did not want to kill my legs on the bike.  Three times I picked up the pace to slowly open up a gap.

Eight miles into loop two on the bike I managed to aim Faith directly at one of the biggest potholes on the roadway. Score! Pain shot down my pack and my right foot felt like a hand would after a solid "funny bone" strike. Later, while reviewing my Garmin data, it occurred to me that someone might guess that I simply pulled over and stood next to Faith at that point. My HR dropped 30-40 bpm during the last four miles despite those big hills going into that gnarly wind. Interestingly enough, it was during those last few cycling miles that the clouds dispersed to temper the somber aura. 

Without planning to do so, I sat down in T2 and began to take off the tights.  They hung on the timing chip wrapped around my left ankle. Because it was right in front of me, I saw more than 40 seconds tick off before I finally stood up and put my running shoes back on. And "that guy," Courtney Galyan, ran by me with his bike just before I stood up.  Dang! 

Luckily, the back pain had not progressed into the hamstring, so I started the 5K cautiously optimistic. It was at the turn-around of the 5K that I timed my lead at 22 seconds. Too close! I possess the kick of a turtle with a bum knee, so I decided to get moving right away. 

After plowing up and down those hills into that wind all way to the line, I finished 1:40 ahead of Galyan. It wasn't a fast race for me or for the field, but it was a race. And I happened to be the fastest one lined up to go that distance on that day.

I will remember the experience fondly due to the fact that I was able to talk to old friends and make new friends. There are a lot of competitors out there who are supportive, kind, and respectful. Because of my gabby nature, I tend to make friends with people everywhere I go.  Despite the cold wind, I was able to have conversations with several people, including Bruce, Mark, Anna, Greg, and Brian. Everyone seemed pleased with their efforts. Not one of us mentioned the questionable mental state of people who race in such awful conditions.

Muncie Multisport put on a great morning. The many volunteers were cheery and helpful. A freshly mowed transition area was well organized and manned for safety. The course volunteers provided instructive gestures that helped guide us in the windy conditions. Improvements could be made regarding the rough road surface and the group of adult volunteers who filled the air with cigarette smoke at the 10K turn-around/aid station.

The sciatic pinch caused me to stop four times during the trip home. If you have had the problem, you know what I mean.  The piriformis locked up and evenually pulled painfully on the hamstring each time I had to press on a pedal. Forty miles of construction on I-70 did not help my situation.

I am once again focusing on the rehab tactics that have always worked for me. Perhaps I'll have surgery some day if the problem persists. Perhaps. I am, for now, avoiding the blade because I can still enjoy doing the things I love doing most of the time.

Running and riding are keeping me healthy and mobile enough to exercise my Ricky Bobby complex and, more importantly, to seek adventures in all of those mountains out there.  ST

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Winning and Losing

I will start off by saying that I had more than two dozen replies via texts, emails, and phone calls regarding my last post on pacing. To clarify the intentions of that post I will simply say that I believe that each of us should set our own paces at whatever activity we are pursuing based on our own abilities and goals without being influenced by other people who do not chase similar goals or who do not have similar abilities. Finding that pace is the difficult part. It took years to develop the method for determining my pace and the paces of many athletes I have been fortunate enough to work with.

If a person simply wishes to be healthy and does not care to line up for races, that is fine with me. I just ask that person to respect that others have the ability and have chosen to go faster.

Finding the correct pacing and establishing a training plan around that pacing should result in personal best performances, or PRs. The more talented front-runner (FR) athletes will use their maximized abilities to compete for wins while the diverse group of middle of pack (MOP) and happy to finish (HTF) athletes will accomplish their goals.

No matter where an athlete's name appears on the final results of a race, no matter how fast or slow a workout is completed, no matter how health or weather has contributed to the day, an athlete must evaluate a set of realistic goals based on the training pace leading up to that day and decide if the day is a win or a loss.

Some athletes set too slow or too fast a pace in training. The slow trainer may set too low a goal or simply not achieve the expected goal. The fast trainer will eventually fail to recover and will succumb to fatigue, injury, or illness. It is not easy finding the right training goal, but several working methods are out there to be tried over and over again until that proper pacing is found.

That said, I will flatly state that I expect to win every day I train or race. My trophies are the fitness, health, and happiness I gain from these victories!

Each win and each loss must be evaluated from several viewpoints. Did the prior training go well? Did the recovery go well? Did I eat right? Did I set the right goal in the first place? Did I shave my legs? (Just kidding!) Was I having fun!!

Of course, some people want to race for trophies. They will wear those trophies like they are the latest fashion craze. They will hoist them for all to see. They might even create their own trophies in the form of tattoos. That is fine with me even though I have a decades long habit of rarely accepting awards that need to be displayed and dusted. I get enough satisfaction from achieving my 5K goal time or simply finishing a half marathon. I will admit, though, that the finishers' buckles awarded at many ultras should be prized! If you call that last statement inconsistent, then you probably haven't attempted an ultra.

Furthermore, I find the habit of handing out too many trophies a major flaw in our "everyone is a winner" society. When a high school cross country meet hands out 40-50 ribbons in a race made up of less than 100 competitors, the dilution factor reaches the level of embarrassment. (Ten medals, please!) I consider that to be the equivalent of handing out awards for everybody who happened to breath during the event. Or maybe it would be like awarding those who didn't fall down in an ultra - wait that one might be a goal worth seeking for some individuals.

Having recently regained daily control of my legs after a summer of significantly greater than normal training, I have settled into training paces that will allow me to run a fall race at the half marathon distance. I have yet to enter one but I am looking forward to setting a goal and achieving it.

Find your pace or find someone who can help you find it. Then you can accurately identify your wins and losses.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

One Pace Does Not Suit All

We are sitting at the large dining table in the Leadville hostel on the eve of the Silver Rush 50 Mtn Bike Race. Salad, pasta, and heavily buttered french bread are on the menu, on our plates, and quickly filling our guts. The group includes riders, runners, hikers, and hosts.

Based on her comments, I guess that the elderly lady seated next to me is a hiker who is likely on break from the Colorado Trail, which passes close to Leadville as it meanders 485 miles through the Rockies between Denver and Durango.

"So, are you hiking the whole Colorado Trail?"
"Yes, the two of us." She nods to a man on the other side of the table.
"How long have you been on the trail?"
"We're fifteen days out of Denver." The man nods in agreement.
"Are you having a good hike?"
"Yeah, because we're taking our time, not rushing through it."

There is a brief chewing pause. She takes in another fork full of spaghetti while I take in the tone of the words she seems to spit out while casting a disapproving look around the table.

"Have you hiked the AT?
"And the PCT."
"Awesome. I hope to hike the AT someday."
"Don't wait too long, because the day you're waiting for just might come after you die."
"That's great advice, but I teach and I only have the ten weeks of summer free. I've thought about attempting to do it in seventy days."
"Why on Earth would you do that? Just section hike it or, better yet, break it in half - one half each summer."
"That thought has crossed my mind, but it seems to disagree with the spirit of adventure and self-discovery that I would expect from an AT thru-hike."
"Whatever you do, don't rush it. There just isn't any logic in that."
"What if a faster pace is acceptable, comfortable, and more logical for me due to my fitness and time constraints?"
"Fast people get injured."
"So do slow people."
"Fast people can't enjoy the trail as much."
"Maybe going fast is what some people enjoy."
"It's just not right."
"So, you disapprove of what Jen Pharr Davis is doing right now?"
"She's attempting a speed record on the AT."
"Oh, her. NO! I don't even think she is hiking. She has a crew of people carrying everything for her and making her campsite each night."
"Well, what she is doing cannot be called backpacking, but she certainly is hiking. And she seems to be in really high spirits."
"Don't be fooled. She is suffering"

For those of you who don't know it, Pharr lowered her women's record (56 days) and the record set by a man (47d 13h) when she completed the 2181-mile AT in 46d 11h earlier this month. That is 47 miles per day for almost 46.5 days!

My dinner mate at the Pbville hostel may not approve of this, but I am in awe of the accomplishment. The most impressive aspect of Pharr's AT hike is how consistent she remained from start to finish despite inclement weather and variable but constantly challenging terrain. Well, she even had the energy to put in a "kick" by covering 60-miles on day 46.

Under some scrutiny, her performance can be compared to that of a miler who posts three 56-second splits before finishing in 55. Or, from another perspective, it could be compared to a miler who sets a PR by turning in three 91-second quarters before roaring home in 86 seconds. Both of these efforts result in life best performances, which puts them on par with Pharr's AT hike. The big difference is that two of those three efforts also happen to be world records.

My dinner mate, after a reflective pause, informs me that the AT wasn't created for racing. She is correct.

"True, but most people struggle every day on the AT. Finishing it is "winning."
"But they aren't racing."
"They are racing themselves. They are finding the limits of their own abilities and pushing back the boundaries."

The words of my hostel dinner mate remind me of the voices I hear each year while riding in a local bike tour. I always ride this event at a comfortable pace that allows me to talk to my friends. Still, these angry female voices scream at us to "SLOW DOWN - THIS IS NOT A RACE!" I laugh as I look at my HRM and, seeing that I am at 55-60%, believe that the heckler is actually the one going too close to the edge. She will likely be suffering much more than I at the end of the day.

There is a pause in my conversation with the hiker before I say, "Fast or slow, old or young, strong or weak, people tend to finish difficult challenges at the pace they are capable of."

I believe that. I also believe that those who attempt to go at a pace beyond what they are capable of will be among those most unlikely to finish. Furthermore, I believe that this concept of pacing transcends all facets of performance and, more importantly, the training that prepares us for the ultimate goal. That is the basis for the training method I employ. My programs rely on specificity of pace. That is why I am often heard saying pacework and seldom use the term speedwork.

Find your pace and settle into it.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

YMCA Sprint Duathlon Report - NO EXCUSES!!

It was still dark outside while I drove to Scales Lake in Boonville. The drive reminded me of the drives to the trailheads of the 14ers I had climbed in June and July. I also recalled the predawn drives to the start lines of the Leadville Silver Rush 50 (7/17) and the San Juan Solstice 50 (6/18). And those memories prompted me to ask myself if I had gone totally bonkers.

All of the descending while running those two mountain ultras left my quads weakened. Though the true condition of my quads was not noticeable in my daily routine, I discovered it after my first hard effort. That came ten days after the SR50 when I ran a fairly relaxed and even-paced 4K cross country run on the grass at USI in miserably hot conditions. The next morning I stepped out of bed and winced as pain raced from my hips to my knees. Several icings followed.

That push/pain scenario played out three more times over the next ten days as I tested my legs. I really wanted to compete in the YMCA's first duathlon, but I also wanted to avoid injury. Being a sprint Du of a mere 2K run/15 mile bike/5K run, the event required me to make a huge shift in my training from the slow ultra running pace to a faster pace with higher leg turnover while also attempting to build some cycling strength.

A little more than a week before the Y-Du I put in a test run on the course. On a hot and muggy morning I managed to cover the course in just under 65 minutes while riding the bike leg in 37:00 and running the 5K in 19:50. That trial run gave me confidence because I stayed well within myself, especially on the bike where a tailwind on the return kept me from pushing hard on the pedals in the last three miles. I was  forced to ice my sore quads 2-3 times every day for the next week. In the meantime, my right hamstring began to tighten up due to sciatic pinch. 

I wrote the Y-Du off.

With race day approaching and the school year in full swing, I resigned myself to watching the race. Yet, I still tested the legs one more time with a hilly four mile effort on the bike. Hmmmmm.

So, I questioned my sanity as I drove to the Y-Du. I hesitated at the gate. It wasn't too late to go home. My eyes ached because insomnia had kept me up for four straight nights. My tight right hamstring burned each time I pressed the gas pedal of the RAV. And those quads were likely to let me down if I pushed too hard on the pedals. I parked the RAV and sat there in the dark thinking about all of these issues. And, well, I got really mad at myself for focusing on the negative and for creating excuses. 

I convinced myself to park the bike in transition and then do everything I could to get my body and mind ready for a hard effort. I had already checked the entry list and reviewed splits from local runs and the cycling time trial series, so I knew that there was one guy, Greg, who would likely push me hard enough to find out what I was capable of.

The runs were on moderately hilly roads that contained a few short but steep ascents. I found myself trailing a group of three runners at the end of the 2K. Interestingly enough, the leader of the sprint triathlon also entered the transition with us. This excited me, because I'd always competed with the triathletes who race concurrently on the same course as the duathletes. I exited the transition and mounted Kristy on the heels of Greg and the triathlon leader.

A mile and a half later we had shuffled through our positions and the triathlon leader opened a gap on Greg and I. At mile four my legs felt too relaxed, so I decided to test Greg with a surge. A gap opened up between us on the winding and mildly rolling road, so I pressed harder and the gap increased. The move also caused the gap between me and the triathlon leader to stop growing.

Just before the turn-around at 7.5 miles, I hit what I thought was a small rock. It tinged off of the chain rings. I hate it when that happens!

The homeward bound tailwind of the previous ride was replaced race day with a headwind. By mile twelve my quads were starting to ache a little. It felt like I was pedaling through sand. Then I noticed it. Thump, thump, thump, thump . . . the back tire was low, not flat, but low enough that I could feel the valve stem contact the road. Maybe that wasn't a rock. A quick look under my armpit told me that Greg was still lingering about thirty seconds back. I pressed harder on the pedals. The triathlete began to come back to me and the gap back to Greg opened a little. NO EXCUSES!!

The applauding crowd told me that Greg was entering one end of the transition as I exited the other. I shook my head and laughed as I ran up the first steep little hill on the 5K course. Silly quads! Run!! After about a kilometer, an old buddy, Chris, rode up next to me on a mountain bike and told me that he could see Greg back behind me. Run, legs, run!

Coming out of a short patch of woods I was surprised to see the triathlon leader on the winding road ahead of me. And I was catching him - fast. Cool. But was Greg thinking the same thing while he caught up to me? I would find out after the first turn-around, which was just ahead at the top of a steep hundred meter climb. I laughed as I reminded myself how easy this would be compared to my recent mountain ascents. Shut up, quads! You're not supposed to be tight hamstring, just do what you're told!

When the triathlete circled the cone a mere ten seconds before me, I was delighted to see that he was my old friend, Barry. We have raced against each other many times over the last sixteen years and have always been fairly evenly matched. Because there is less than a three year age difference between us, we have often raced in the same wave starts.

I rounded the cone to see that Greg was not all that far behind me. In retrospect, I believe that he was further back than he appeared to be, because he was still climbing the hill. Nonetheless, I accelerated and soon pulled up next to Barry. 

We crossed back into the park and I tried to convince Barry to finish with me. I eased up a for awhile, but Barry was having none of it.  He waved me on knowing that someone was chasing me. I soon rounded the last cone and was happy to see that I had put a big gap on Greg. All I had to do was stay on my feet as I ran through the grass along the dam and the race was mine. Yeah, right! Recalling the many fresh scars from the SR50 fall caused me to focus on every footfall.

Though the time was a few minutes slower than what I believed I was capable of after my trial run and though the effort was well short of the effort I had put into my previous two du's (2010 Natls and 2009 Worlds), it was enough to satiate my competitive drive. I had, after all, ignored aching thighs, a tight hamstring, and a flat tire while racing along at an average of 92% of my maximum heart rate.

What a memorable day! The weather was moderate. In fact, it was great for mid-August, with clear skies and temps in the 70s. And I enjoyed conversations with a lot of friends, including Jeremy, Drew, Linda, Barry, Greg, Laura, Jim, Nathan, Randy, Clay, Wayne. and several others. Most of these people raced and had pretty darn good days! I am thankful to have such nice friends. It is awesome to share these experiences with like-minded people. I am also most thankful to be healthy enough to enjoy such events. (You know, such events as those when I don't crash!)

I also talked with YMCA race directors John and Barb, who put on several great races for the tri-state each year. Thanks!

I can hardly wait to wake up and ice in the morning . . .