Monday, November 10, 2014

Perceptions and Reflections of Running the Rock/Creek StumpJump 50K

Daybreak…3:59 am, Saturday, October 4, 2014. No sun this early. Not for another 3 and ½ hours. The day I have been training for, physically and mentally for the past seven months, has arrived, bright and early, as I sit up just before the alarm sounds, alert and ready to go after a restless, anticipatory night. A quick shower to complete the wake-up process and I begin donning my race kit for the Rock/Creek StumpJump 50K, my first 31.1 mile ultra-marathon. I go through my list one more time, making sure I have everything I need for the day, from my pack loaded up with my nutrition and hydration to my drop bag with any essentials I might need in the final third of the race, things like band-aids, extra nutrition, a dry pair of socks and a dry running shirt, a blister kit in case any blisters need to be popped. My husband and I make sure everything else is packed, ready to be loaded in the car, and that he has everything he needs to get through a long day of waiting. When we are sure we have everything we came with, we head out the hotel room door and down to check out.

The air is brisk, the night sky clear, in stark contrast to the previous warm and rainy day. We head up the curving, winding road to the top of Signal Mountain with thoughts of hot coffee, breakfast, and the day ahead. As I climb out of the car, the temperature drop from city to mountain is palpable. I am met with crisp mountain air and inky blackness except for the twinkling stars stretching into the night sky as far as my eye can see. The only other light is the soft glow being cast from the pavilion where breakfast and coffee are being served. We make our way to the pavilion, gravel crunching under our feet, and start the brewing process for two steaming hot cups of coffee. Two lone volunteers brave the cold to serve us breakfast. For that, we are exceedingly grateful. The older of the two points us in the direction of a storage room in the pavilion where we can eat our breakfast and enjoy our coffee out of the direct wind.

We join two men, already sipping on hot coffee, in the wonderfully warm room. Conversation ensues and we learn they are from Arkansas, here for the 50K (there is also an 11-mile StumpJump race for which others are here). Conversation focuses around running…what shoes would be best on this trail, the potential conditions of the trail since the previous day’s rain, other trail runs, and so on. They both appear to be seasoned ultra runners, lean and fit, ready for yet another day on the trails. They finish up and make their way back to their tent as we finish our coffee and fruit and head back to our car for the rest of our breakfast and toasty warmth from the car’s heater. Other campers have started waking up and climbing into their vehicles for what I can assume is some much needed warmth. The wind is picking up and is supposed to top out a sustained 15 mph with gusts up to 25 mph.

As we huddle in the car, fingers and hands in front of the heater vents, the sky begins to lighten in the east and stars begin to fade from view. Slowly, the night sky completely fades and early morning light washes across the mountains. It won’t be long and the sun will be shining down in full force, though its heat will be muted by the wind. The forecast says the high will reach 60 degrees well into late afternoon. Beautiful running weather, really, though it will be cold to start. Better planning on my part next year will be to include warm jackets when we pack, not just wind jackets. Our wind jackets perform well to protect against wind, but they do not offer any bit of warmth on a chilly day, especially when out of direct sunlight.

The 50K race is scheduled to begin at 8 am. We spend as much time as possible in the warmth of our car, but it is time and so, we meander down to the start/finish line around 7:30 am. I find the drop-off spot for my drop bag and add mine to the many bins of other drop bags, all of which will be hauled to the 19.5-mile aid station by volunteers. I warm up by walking around, gradually lifting my knees higher and higher as my muscles begin to loosen and warm up. Announcements begin and I hear the call for the 11-mile race start, beginning in less than five minutes. I make my way to the start/finish line and watch as runners take off up the road where they will soon disappear into the woods.

I line up near the back of the 50K pack so I am not tempted to run faster than the plan put in place going into this day. It will be a long day no matter what and I need to follow my race strategy. If all goes as expected, I should be coming into the 19.5-mile aid station somewhere around 1:00 pm, well within the cutoff time of 1:30 pm.

“If all goes as expected…”

Let’s just come back to this statement in a little bit.

8:00 AM sharp the gun sounds, loud and clear, in the cool, crisp mountain air. Shuffling of hundreds of pairs of feet fills the air as bodies begin to move forward towards the official start line. Until the field begins to spread out, the quiet shuffling is the overriding sound other than the cheers of spectators as we all approach and cross under the start banner.

I fall into a slow rhythm on the asphalt, content to gradually wake my body, warming my muscles until they are ready to begin pushing. I follow my plan, easing into a steady pace and following along the marked route into the trees and onto the trail, not necessarily groomed, but certainly easy to run on. I think to myself, “I got this.”

My thoughts revolve around my training and how grateful I am that I have trails to run that offer good technical practice. The terrain is relatively smooth and offers a wide enough path for me to choose my line as I run, meaning I don’t have to run over every obstacle. I’m relaxed, confident, self-assured. My body feels strong and ready to take on the day.

About 1½ miles in, a woman approaches from behind and introduces herself as Annie, the sweeper (I learn the sweeper is a runner who is not an actual participant of the race. The sweeper is a volunteer who runs behind the field, making sure everyone is accounted for and on the right path.) Annie is young and full of positive energy. We move along and talk some as we go.  I welcome the distraction, knowing I will have plenty of time further along in the race to escape inside my head.

Slowly, I chip away at the miles, 1…2…3…4…, holding a solid pace, well on track to meet my first goal of making the 19.5 mile cutoff time.

And then, the first monkey-wrench of a mile, mile 5.

Somewhere within the past mile, mile 5, the terrain has become steep, rocky, full of roots, and I get my first taste of gnarly single-track trail running. If you don’t know what single-track is, imagine a nice wide path with plenty of room to move, where two people can walk/run comfortably side-by-side. Now, narrow that to a quarter of the width or less, barely wide enough for wildlife to follow single file in search of food, with branches, bushes, and/or grasses growing across the trail in spots and you have single-track. You do not choose your line when you run. You follow the trail and run whatever obstacles are in your path.

Up to this point in the past year and a half+ I have been running, the narrowest terrain I have run is about single-track plus a half with no overgrowth. Psychologically, this is a big change for me. I work on accepting the challenge, though I can’t help but think at least a few times, “What in the world have I gotten myself into?”

I talk myself through the steep downhill sections and through the segments that have a steep drop off on the side of the trail. I talk myself into keeping relaxed, poised, and calm. I push on to the bottom of the gorge, past a camper asleep in a heavy sleeping bag in a hammock, looking something like a cocoon not yet hatched. I wonder at the sight, questioning how cold he/she must be with the sun still low enough in the morning sky that it has not yet crested the top of mountain to provide much warmth to this shadowed gorge. As I pass the campsite, I promptly pull to a stop as I am presented with three possible ways to continue. Annie is with me at this juncture and she is as unsure as I about which way to go. We decide to head to our right but realize within a short distance that we are headed back out of the gorge in the direction we came instead of crossing the gorge to the other side. Back at the three-way, I see a wooden bridge crossing the gorge, though I am unsure if I recall a bridge in the race-course description. We decide to cross the bridge, since we know we have to cross the gorge at some point, whether by bridge or by land.

I set off across the bridge, instinctively keeping my eyes and head up. The bridge moves under my feet, both up and down as well as side to side. I have no idea how far the bottom of the gorge is below me. I refuse to lower my eyes. I am okay with heights on solid ground. Not so much when the structure I am on moves and has plenty of wide-open spaces in the way of gaps between slats underfoot and even larger gaps on the sides. “Eyes up, Nixon. Keep moving!”

Upon crossing onto firm ground, I am met with nothing but terrain. No course flags, no real path visible, nothing to indicate I am going the right way. To further the confusion, the only visible indicators of human presence on this side of the bridge are two pieces of yellow caution tape tied to each side of the bridge that at one time appear to have been connected across the bridge. Did someone tear the tape today or has it been like this? Is it a marker that was meant to block the path or not? There was a similar marking on the other side of the bridge I had noticed when I started across. It, too, was originally draped across the entry way to the bridge but was torn, both ends fluttering in the breeze. Questions swirl in my head. Do I go back across the bridge and try taking the third option? Do I try and find something, anything in the immediate vicinity that will indicate I am on the correct path? Do I turn around and head further back down the trail looking for a path I may have missed before coming to the three-way junction?

I feel a certain panic begin to rise and wonder what I am going to do. I did not anticipate getting lost. Oh, sure, I knew it was a possibility, but I never entertained the idea with any real belief that I would! And, here I am, not five miles into the day and I am lost. What will I do?

First, a good swift kick in the butt is in order to knock out the panic and any ensuing helplessness. It will get me nowhere except to a very quick end to my day. The first question is, “What can I do right now?” I decide I can take in some hydration and nutrition so the “rest stop” is not an entire loss. As I eat, Annie is sending a text message to the race director in an attempt to find out if we are on the right track or not. She walks the bridge searching for cell service so the text message can go through when a woman appears at the other end of the bridge. She walks towards us across the bridge and introduces herself as Gatia (I hope I have spelled her name correctly!). Annie asks where she came from and Gatia tells us of her experience being lost for the past 15 minutes on the trail Annie and I had not taken. We discuss our situation and, based on Gatia’s and my vague memory of the mention of a bridge in the course description, decide we are most likely headed the right direction if we find the trail on this side of the bridge. I am really wishing I had packed the map and course description in my pack when I thought of it this morning but dismissed it with the thought that I had it pretty down pat. I make a mental note to bring something like that in the future, just in case. Something about being prepared…for anything.

We find what looks like the trail and push forward. Soon, we meet other people along the trail, some hikers moving in the opposite direction. I ask if they have seen other runners ahead of us and they assure me they have seen several. My confidence in being on the correct trail grows and I move on with greater zeal for the rest of the day, though I remind myself to be prepared for the possibility that I could run into other confusing areas on the trail ahead. “Think and plan realistically, not ideally, Nixon.” About a half mile beyond the bridge, I see the first flag identifying this trail as the right one, and other runners come into view.

Gatia had been searching for her friend Chris when she got lost and she finds him among the runners we have caught up with. It seems these runners were as unsure as we were about the direction we were running. It is a relief for all of us to know we are on the right track. After a resounding sigh of relief and several hellos, I fall back into my own pace, traveling with others and yet alone. I hear the voices of those around me, but I am off in my own world, chewing up the miles and spitting them out.

I’m feeling relaxed and just sort of going through the motions somewhere around mile 6 or 7. I have moved ahead of some of the other runners and I am no longer in the company of the sweeper, Annie. I realize how vast the land is around me and see the beauty and ruggedness of it. Several trees are just beginning to turn, leaves a subtle red or yellow hue, mostly still green, though.

Over the next 3 miles, I am alone, just nature and me. I see no one and no creatures. It is still chilly enough and windy enough, they must all be snuggled up in their dens or nests, keeping warm. A feeling of loneliness begins to creep in, something I am not used to. I LOVE running by myself, after all. I file this experience away as, “Hmm, interesting,” and keep moving. As I continue moving and thinking, I realize what I am feeling is a profound sense of isolation, something rare in our society with all the noise of technology surrounding us. This isolation is something beautiful and serene and soul-nurturing. I relish the time alone, no interruptions, no computers, no phones, nothing except my own thoughts and the sound of the wind, rustling the leaves of the trees for the most part, whistling and whining loudly through the treetops with the gusts.

Somewhere around mile 10, I see a runner coming towards me and then another. As they pass me, I realize they are the lead runners of the field, headed back towards the start/finish line. Two more pass me and I wonder to myself how I can be seeing them. It is then I realize I have not yet made it onto the loop portion of the trail. I have lost all sense of time and distance, though I know I am within the cutoff time yet and am holding my pace under the necessary 17:00 min/mile. Doubts creep in. Can I really do this? How can the leaders be headed back in already? They have 11 miles to go. I have…whoa…over 20 miles, yet. Solitude turns into dread. Dread pulls me down lower. I start pushing harder, trying to knock out more miles, faster. “Please, dear Lord, get me through this.”

Miles 11, 12, and 13 come and go with little more than a glance at my watch to see if I am still on pace. My lungs are burning, aching, and my heart rate is somewhat higher than where I anticipate it to be. I follow the trail down onto some rocks, rocks steep enough I have to sit down to maneuver over them to follow the trail to the left. I look forward and to my left and I realize there IS no trail to the left. Neither is there a trail in front of me. In fact, looking ahead all I see is a vast mountain on the other side of a valley and a drop off just beyond the rocks on which I sit. Unless I want to add hang-gliding to this journey today, I best turn around and find the actual trail. This is a good reminder to look ahead, instead of right in front of my feet.

The trail is obvious when I reach the detour spot and I make my way back onto the course. My second time getting lost. Not for as long and not with any panic, but still ending up off trail. I decide it is time to back off just a bit. It is time to stop pushing quite so hard. It is time to enjoy this journey, this picturesque landscape. I take in my surroundings, for the first time today really, and realize just how beautiful this place, the Tennessee River Gorge, is. Though I saw the beauty of the trees changing color earlier, I hadn’t really taken it all in. It was just there. The magnificent views off the mountains, massive rock formations, trees as far as the eye can see begin to seep into my awareness, into my soul. Awestruck is a good word to describe my response.

As I make my way through the 13-mile aid station towards the 17-mile aid station, I relish the beauty and solitude of this place. My lungs still burn, but my heart rate has returned within the percentage range I had planned for. My pace is a little slower and I know, with the time lost getting off the trail, that I am flirting with not making the cut-off time. No matter. I find peace in my decision to back off, regardless the outcome.

Somewhere around mile 15, the silence is broken and I see a group of people ahead, stopped on the trail. As I approach, I see a man down on the ground, in the middle of the trail with a bandana across his eyes, surrounded by several people. It appears as though he is resting and that those around him have placed the bandana over his eyes and forehead to cool him down, though it is cool enough, I’m not sure why he would need it. I ask a man standing in the trail if I can call someone or if there is anything I can do to help. He informs me that the necessary calls have been placed and there is nothing else to be done, that the man has expired. Two women are weeping. The gravity of the situation begins to take hold. My mouth goes dry and my stomach twists and turns a bit. I realize what I thought was resting is not. This man died out here, of what, I do not know. The sadness is palpable, radiating out from each one of us there.

After pausing and trying to provide any assistance that might be needed, I know there is nothing I can do now to help the situation, so I move forward down the trail, along with two other women and a couple. I feel awkward walking away, like I should stay until help arrives, but I go anyways with the reminder that there is, indeed, not a thing I can do to help the man or the other people around him. They, like me, have to deal with this in their own way. My way of dealing with it is to keep moving with purpose. My heart is heavy but I push aside the heaviness. I squash any and all emotion that could act as a trigger into a state of hopelessness or helplessness. Now is not the time. There will be time later, when I am done, to process what I have witnessed here.

I wish my husband had a cell phone or that we had purchased the two-way radios we had talked about so I could call and let him know I am okay, but that my arrival at the 19.5-mile aid station will be later than either of us anticipated. I’m sure the officials at the aid station know that a man is down on the trail, but I don’t know how detailed the information is they have received. I just hope that they know it is a male, so my husband doesn’t have to spend the next two hours or so worrying about if it is me who is dead on the trail. I push these thoughts aside, knowing I can’t make contact and knowing that to worry about what if’s will hinder my progress and slow me down even further, lengthening the time it takes to get back to my husband. I knuckle down, alternating between running and sometimes walking.

“You have 40 minutes to make the cut off,” a volunteer at the 17-mile aid station tells me as I come running in. “I know I won’t make it now, but I’m going to finish this of my own accord,” I respond. We exchange smiles as she fills my water flask and I thank her. I thank all the volunteers for being out there in that remote place with food and water for all of us. They wish me luck and I offer what I hope they know is utmost gratitude for the encouragement. I take off on this final leg of the journey, ready to complete the final 2 and ½ miles of my day on the trail.

Some of you reading this may wonder how I know my day will be done when I reach 19 and ½ miles. Surely I must be holding out some hope that I might make it and using that hope to drive hard towards the aid station. You can bet I am pushing myself, keeping a good pace going; however, I know I have yet to encounter the rock garden, about a half mile stretch of travel that most people end up walking because of the technicality of it. With my limited experience on heavily rocky terrain, in addition to the time lost on the trail, I know my pace will not be fast enough to make the cut off. I’m really okay with it. I’m becoming somewhat accustomed to having things thrown my way today that I wouldn’t have fathomed happening. Today is definitely testing my mental strength. Today is testing me to the very core of my being, to the depths of my soul, my entire spirit.

Jarred from my thoughts, I know I have just taken my first steps into the rock garden. Footsteps are shorter, more carefully placed, rock to individual rock, rock-to-rock formation. Running is not an option, not this year anyway. Some rocks are just big enough for one foot, while others could hold several people. I follow the flags scrupulously, so I know I am staying on the trail. A smile slowly spreads across my face and my spirit lifts immensely as I plant one foot in front of the other. A giggle bubbles up out of my chest, followed by another and still several more. I feel like a child doing something new and exciting, something both fun and challenging, something so much fun I just can’t contain the excitement and the laughter. Rocks move under my feet, some with just enough movement to notice it, others with enough movement to knock me off balance a bit. I look down between different rocks as I jump from one to another and sometimes see only an inky blackness. I wonder how far my leg would go down between some of the rocks if I were to stumble because all depth perception is lost in the blackness.

I don’t know what is coming next and it adds to the adventure. I think to myself how glad I am I have come this far and that I didn’t give up earlier when I wanted to or I would not be having the experience I am right now. Any last residual disappointment in not making the cut off dissolves into complete satisfaction with my accomplishments.

I giggle the entire length of the rock garden and celebrate all life is offering me in this moment. Once through the rock garden, I pick up the pace once more and head towards mile 19.5. A tent comes into view through the densely treed forest and I know I am close. I see people moving about and I know I have done what I set out to do, for my goal changed from “I WILL make the cut off no matter what,” to “I will, under whatever control I have in the situation, walk/run into the 19.5-mile aid station, regardless of how long it takes me.” I press the stop button on my watch at 5:51:38, just 21 minutes and 38 seconds behind the cut off time.

Mike, the race director, sees me coming out of the woods and asks how I’m doing. I tell him I’m good and that I’m done, knowing I have not made the cut off time. He tells me someone will get me back to the start/finish line and I motion towards my husband, who is walking towards me across the gravel parking lot, letting him know my husband is here and will take me back there. Charles reaches me, asks me how I’m doing, and I answer, “I’m okay.”

I feel the sudden urge to stretch my leg muscles and I bend over as I feel the salty heat of tears behind my eyelids. I stretch for a moment as I let the tears flow freely and allow the emotions of the day, shoved aside for the better part of 5 hours, to come rushing to the surface. I feel Charles’ hand gently touch my back and I make my way back to standing upright. I let the tears all out as we walk hand-in-hand back to the car and I begin processing the day with clear, dry eyes as we drive back to the start/finish line. We discuss the events and I find out that he did, in fact, not know if I was the person who died on the trail or not until about 7 minutes before I came into the final aid station.

We talk about the happenings of the day from my experience on the trail to his run that morning and his time spent waiting for me. We talk about what we would do different and what we would do the same. “Will you do the StumpJump again?” Charles asks me. I ponder for only a moment and respond, “I don’t know that I will. I’m grateful for the experience and I have no regrets, but I don’t know if I want to do anything like this again.”

As we meander around the start/finish line, braving the chilly wind in just our wind jackets, eating our post-race burgers and fruit, we run into one of the men from Arkansas who we spoke with that morning. We ask how he did and he tells us he finished in about 6 hours and 35 minutes. We congratulate him on a job well done.

Part of the morning conversation at the pavilion had been talk about whether or not he wanted to wear his Hoka One One shoes because of the rain on the previous day. Hoka shoes have very thick midsoles, providing plenty of cushioning for long runs. From what many runners have said, they feel great on your feet and they provide some extra protection from all the pounding the feet take over long distances. The disadvantage of wearing the Hokas when on a course that is wet, either because of rain or because the natural topography includes river/stream crossings, is that the midsoles tend to hold the water leading to carrying around extra weight while trying to run. Based on our conversation and the information I shared about the trail condition that I had gleaned from local trail runners the day before at race check-in, our new acquaintance decided he would wear his Hokas.

He informs us his choice of shoes was not the best for the terrain. When we ask why, he tells of his surprise at the technicality of the trail and how he wishes he would have worn shoes with a little less cushioning so he could have navigated the trail more effectively. He tells us the thickness was just too much for that rough of terrain. I feel a certain sense of relief as we talk, knowing now that I am not the only runner to assess the run as quite technical. For context sake, the course cutoff time is 9 hours. This year’s winner finished in about 4 and ½ hours. Our new friend’s finishing time of 6 hours and 35 minutes was a very good time on a technical course to which he was new, in shoes that he deemed problematic on that trail. I wonder how fast he would have run the course had he been in different shoes. At least I know I’m not crazy in my perception of the trail and it’s difficult nature. I’ve wondered since I’ve been home if I was, just to recall this conversation and remind myself I am not.

We say our good byes and Charles and I head back towards our car, cheering on the finishers as they run the last 10th of a mile or so to the finish line. We are both chilled to the bone, Charles more so than I because he ended up standing in the shade as the sun moved lower in the sky, blocked by thick stands of trees, as he waited for me at the 19.5-mile aid station. We climb in the car, enjoying the warmth it provides, and head down Signal Mountain towards Chattanooga, then towards home.

As we talk, I mention to Charles that I might like to do a 50k again, just not the StumpJump until I get more experience on technical terrain. Before we are halfway home, I blurt out, “Yes, actually, I think I do want to do the StumpJump again, but maybe not right away.” Can you see the progression here? Before we ever reach home, within two hours of a difficult, yet rewarding day, I proclaim, “I will, indeed, return to the StumpJump in 2015 and I will conquer it!”

Since the race, I have spent time considering all four statements about returning or not. I have decided I will reassess where I am in my training around March 2015 and make a decision then about whether or not to begin training for the 2015 StumpJump or wait until 2016. My focus now is on building my strength, increasing my speed, and gradually adding time to my long runs. I am also just spending time outside moving, enjoying nature and her beauty.


I’m glad I ran as much of the course as I did, the whole 19 and ½ miles I covered. I’m exceedingly grateful for the experience, for the lessons, for the opportunity to understand myself better, and for the growth inspired inside me by you and the entire process.

I am grateful for the joy and equally as grateful for the sorrow. You were tough, but I learned a little more about my own toughness and about my desire to develop an even higher level of toughness. Rest assured, someday I will be back, but it won’t be to conquer you…it will be to add to my journey and to my experiences. I’m glad I got to know you a little bit. Until we meet again, I look forward to the surprises you have in store and what more you might reveal to me when I come back. Thanks for the memories and the part you have played so far in my journey.

“If all goes as expected…” I mentioned I would come back to this, didn’t I?

Lessons #1 and #2: Never underestimate the trail and never expect things to go as “expected.” I am now very aware of the fact that no matter how much I study the elevation chart or the map of a trail, no matter how many videos I watch of said trail/trail race, no matter who or how many people I talk with, I have NO idea what I am in for if I have not run the trail myself. Let me repeat this, only with greater emphasis. I have NO idea WHAT I am in for when I HAVE NEVER run the trail myself. As such, never, ever underestimate that trail. I had never run single track until running the StumpJump 50k. A huge portion of the trail was single track. Do not underestimate that which you do not know.

Lesson #3. Plan on getting lost. Some of the junctions in the trail were not clearly marked. As well as I can follow a trail that traipses through the woods, I had difficulty at times following this trail. Some portions were so remote, nothing wider than a bicycle could have gone through, and certainly no motorized vehicles could travel these paths. Getting lost at mile 4.7 and somewhere beyond down to the rocky outcropping left me a bit disconcerted. I got through it, but, again, do not underestimate the trail. While I may not have been able to plan for what if’s, I would have been better prepared had I considered the fact that getting lost was a good possibility. Go in to it prepared for anything to happen!

Lesson #4. Take the course description and a print out of the course map along, especially if unfamiliar with the course. I thought to take both along with me as I was packing things up before leaving the hotel room. However, I immediately dismissed the thought, with the rationale that I had looked both over enough times and I was good to go. Wrong! It is impossible to keep all the little details in your head over that kind of distance. Are you seeing a theme here? Always be prepared in any way you can.

Lesson #5. Always thank the volunteers. The contribution provided by the volunteers is invaluable. They are out there, some in remote locations, providing food and water to runners all day long. A simple thank you with a kind smile…it may not be much, but it lets them know they are appreciated.

Lesson #6. Help others. No matter where you are in the race, help others. That help can range from a simple, “You’re doing great,” to stopping to help someone who is hurt or in need of assistance. I attempted to help when I came upon the man who had died, but there was no help to provide at that point. I also received help in the form of a simple comment. One of the lead runners, who passed me on the way back towards the start/finish line as I was still headed out to the loop, smiled and said, “Great job. Keep it up.” He didn’t have to do that. He was competing to win. It meant a lot to hear it when I was so far back and had 20 miles to go yet. Always help others. You never know how you will be helped or what kind of help you might need at some point.

Lesson #7. I am stronger than I know. Mentally and physically. I kept going even when I really, really wanted to quit.

Lesson #8. I am weaker than I want to admit. I kept going, but I really, really wanted to quit. I don’t like admitting that I wanted to quit. I don’t like admitting that I almost did quit.

Lesson #9. Continuing on when everything said quit was one of THE most rewarding experiences for me. I enjoyed the rock garden immensely and getting lost on that rocky outcropping with a steep drop off directly in front of me was priceless and breathtakingly beautiful. I would not have had those experiences had I followed through with quitting.

Lesson #10. Continuing on when everything said quit taught me things I would never have learned otherwise. It taught me something about death, how to continue dealing with the work at hand and not losing it entirely. It taught me how to push through despite a welling up of emotion in my chest. It was a lesson in controlling my emotions. I know myself well enough to understand that allowing negative emotions to surface when I am attempting to complete something leads me to poor decision-making. Poor decision-making mixed in with running 30+ miles on unfamiliar terrain equals potentially disastrous. I learned well in this instance how to push the emotions aside, continue on, and then deal with the emotions at a more appropriate time.

Lesson #11. Continuing on when everything said quit gave me the opportunity to change my attitude and mindset from one of absolutely having to make it in within the cutoff time to enjoying the process and the journey. I went from feeling like the run was a chore to truly enjoying myself. Had I quit when I wanted to, I would have left and never wanted to go back. As it stands now, I don’t know when yet, but I do want to tackle this course again after more training and a stronger base.

Lesson #12. You can never be too prepared. This has been the underlying theme behind almost every other lesson I learned along the way and since I have been home. While I would drive myself crazy trying to identify and prepare for all the what ifs that could possibly happen, it is imperative to prepare for anything and everything to happen. Prepare mentally. Prepare attitudinally. Prepare psychologically. If you prepare yourself to choose to handle whatever life might throw at you, in general, you can handle whatever situation you are handed.

Lesson #13. It is good to have a way to communicate with those waiting for you along the way. This became obvious the further I progressed along the trail as I began falling off my anticipated pace. It became glaringly obvious when I found out Charles had no idea if I was alive or dead until just a very short time before I found my way into the aid station. We are still discussing our options to remedy this type of thing happening again.

Footnote: My perceptions of the StumpJump course have changed since I have had time to process it and compare it to other trails. It was a technical course; there is no doubt about that. However, I believe if I were to head back there and attempt it again, my perception would be very different. The single track was a surprise and I would like to spend more time training on single track, but it was not impassable nor was it impossible to run. Most of the other participants ran a lot of the course. I know I can too, but I allowed inexperience to determine my limitations. I want another opportunity to accept the challenge the StumpJump has to offer. I know it will be an experience unique unto itself. I look forward to it and I look forward to training for it.

Footnote 2: The man who died on the trail was Eric Jacks. From his wife, posted October 6th, 2014, to the Wild Trails Facebook page, “Many heartfelt thanks to those of you who came to the aid of Eric Jacks in yesterday's run. Our hearts are broken with our loss--it was so sudden and unexpected. Eric was a person who drank deeply from life's cup. He was an incredible father who shared his passions for flying, nature, and running with his boys. Although he was a seasoned marathoner, the Stump Jump was his first ultra trail run. He trained with gusto for weeks and, when I spoke to him Saturday morning, he was excited and felt ready for the challenge. I regret that he will never know the fine people in this community--you all would have loved him, as everyone did who experienced his warm smile, unbridled enthusiasm, and sweet, loving spirit. Our sincere thanks again for the outpouring of compassion and sympathy. It is appreciated more than you know.” My deepest condolences go out to the family and friends of Mr. Jacks.

Friday, February 7, 2014

A Bittersweet Experience Retiring My First Pair of Running Shoes

Last week, I had to retire my first pair of serious running shoes since starting this running journey in February 2013.  Before I was able to purchase that first pair of shoes in June 2013, I cycled between two older pairs of shoes.  I ran in my Merrell Trail Gloves, which were about 3 years old at the time, and I ran in a pair of Nike running shoes.  I found my feet felt the best when I ran in the Trail Gloves because of the zero drop platform.  When running in the Nike shoes, my heels and arches hurt.  I can only assume it was because of the 12mm+ drop in the Nike shoes.

For those of you unfamiliar with shoe drop, it means the difference from the heel to the ground and the forefoot to the ground.  In a zero drop shoe, the heel and forefoot are the same distance from the ground, just as if you were standing barefoot, whereas in a shoe that has a 12mm drop, the forefoot will be 12mm closer to the ground than the heel.  Traditional running shoes, casual shoes, etc., typically have 12mm or more of drop.  The greater the drop, the shorter and less “stretchy” the Achilles tendon that wraps around the heel from the back of the arch up to the calf becomes, depending on the amount of time spent in a higher drop shoe.  That is why, when someone transitions into a low or zero drop shoe, (s)he must take time to adjust to the level platform of the shoe or risk injury.  The Achilles tendon needs time to regain its stretch-ability.

I noticed when I opted to wear the Nike shoes because I wanted thicker cushioning on my feet, both my feet and body paid the price differently than when I opted for the zero drop Merrell shoes with little cushioning that had, for the most part, completely broken down due to age and having used them for walking shoes previously.  I felt pain in my feet when I wore the Nike shoes and I began to have stabbing pain in my knees when I would run.  When I would wear the Merrell shoes for a few days, the pain in my feet and knees would dissipate and I felt only some fatigue and soreness in my feet.  Though the fatigue and soreness was uncomfortable at times, it in no way compared to the pain I experienced when wearing the Nike shoes.  I stuck with the Trail Glove shoes until it became apparent I would not be able to increase mileage in them without seriously fatiguing my feet.  I decided it was time to support my desire to increase mileage and time spent on the road and trail by investing in a new pair of shoes.

In June of 2013, I made that decision and began researching different shoes.  Because of my experience in the Trail Glove shoes, I knew I wanted to continue running in zero drop shoes or shoes with a very minimal drop and I wanted to continue in a shoe with light cushioning in the midsole for a more barefoot feel.  I decided to go with the Merrell Bare Access Arc 2 running shoes.

Here they are, well used.
They had more cushioning than other Merrell shoes, such as the Vapor Glove, but were still considered a minimalist shoe.  I bought my first pair and took them out for a trial run of around 5 miles.  They were light as a feather on my feet and it felt like I was running on air, especially after putting in the mileage I had over four months time in shoes that had no cushioning other than the tread left on the outsole.  I was in heaven.

Over the next 8 months, I put roughly 600 miles on that pair of shoes.  I had no issues with the shoes.  I did experience some foot/knee discomfort, though, as changes in my running style crept in as I would tire on longer runs.  Initially, in my running experience, the first 6 miles of my runs were great.  However, because of my tendency to allow my stride to break down as I fatigued on longer runs, I would begin to heel strike.  With no extra cushioning in the heel, my heels would become quite sore when I bypassed the 6-mile mark.  Over time, though, I have learned to run longer distances comfortably in the Merrell shoes by working on maintaining a good forefoot strike throughout the run, despite fatigue.  I now run distances of over 12 miles in the Merrell shoes comfortably and enjoyably and have done so for 5 or 6 months now.

With that information, let me get back to my story of retiring that first pair of Bare Access 2’s.  Last week, I set out to run a short 5 miles after work on a beautiful evening.  I laced up my shoes and set out down the road at an easy pace.  Less than a block into the run, I felt sharp stabbing pain in my heels, even though I was not heel striking.  I shortened my stride to see if that might help, but the pain continued and worked its way across the entire underside of both feet.  I thought to myself that my feet just had to be tired from being on them at work all day.  I pushed on but nothing I did seemed to ease the jarring.  I made it a mile out and decided to head back home.  When I walked in the house, I told my husband what had happened, so we took a closer look at the shoes.  Sure enough, we could see diagonal grooves all around the outside of the shoe where the midsole is located.  In manipulating the shoe, by bending it and pressing into the midsole with my fist, and by comparing it to a relatively new pair of my husband’s Merrell Bare Access 2 shoes, I realized all cushioning was gone from shoes.  This was a first for me.  When I ran previously, I didn’t run long enough to wear through the shoes.  Time had deteriorated the midsole, not use.  This time, though, use had caused the deterioration.

There was something bittersweet about the experience.  I was saddened to have to retire such a great pair of shoes, especially with almost no visible wear present on the outsole or the upper.  Other than a worn spot on each shoe where the back of my ankle made contact with the shoe, they looked to be in near perfect shape.

Just a little wear around the back of the ankle.
Sure, there was tread loss on the bottom of the shoes, but even that was minimal.

Not too bad, really, for the mileage on these outsoles.
It was a sweet moment, though, to reflect on the previous 8 months and to realize that I had utilized them fully, that I had received so much out of one pair of shoes.  I never expected to get anywhere close to 400 miles, let alone 600, out of one pair of running shoes.  To say I got every penny out of my investment is an understatement.  Not only did I get every, last cent out of them, I gained so many things on which it is impossible to place a monetary value.  And, that, is where the bittersweet combination comes back into play.  I learned so much about myself out there on those runs while wearing those shoes.  As I put more and more miles on them, I continued to develop my foot strike pattern to keep my heels and knees protected.  To have to set them aside after so many months of training, well, it was just a bittersweet moment, looking back over those months, realizing just how far I had come and the potentials of where I am headed, as I continue this journey.

Since retiring my shoes, I selected a pair of the new Merrell Bare Access 3 shoes in bright yellow with pink accents.

My new Merrell Bare Access 3 shoes!
I received them this week and have had the opportunity to take them out for a spin on a 6-mile run.  They are every bit as comfortable as the Bare Access 2’s and they fit just as well.  They are extremely light and feel great on my feet.  I look forward to putting many more miles on this newest version in the Bare Access line of shoes and I hope that I am able to report that they are every bit as comfortable and long lasting as my last pair.  I hope to be sharing my experience around the 600-mile mark or beyond!

Do any of you remember your first pair of running shoes?  What made them special for you?

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Focus, Focus, Focus. Where Do You Aim Your Focus?

Since I decided about three weeks ago to change up my training, my running has been going very well.  I am enjoying it and I have released the pressure I was feeling about not meeting certain objectives.  I still have said objectives, like mileage per week, mileage per month, pace, and time, but I am not letting those objectives control my outlook on running.  Last week I set a goal of 53 miles, but wasn’t able to meet that goal because of weather conditions one day and other needs arising another day.  I ended up short by about 15 miles.  I set the same goal for this week.  So far, I am right on track and plan on staying on track, but only time and life will tell if I am able to hit that goal.  If I do, fantastic!  If not, I refuse to stress about it and lose sleep over it.  As long as I am doing everything over which I have control to meet my goals, then I have no reason to not be satisfied with my effort.  If, however, I find myself making excuses that interfere with my forward progress, then that is an entirely different story.  Then it will be important to examine the motivation behind those excuses.  Until anything like that becomes apparent, I am quite satisfied with my progress and I will continue working towards my goals until I reach them.  At that point, I will implement more goals to hold myself accountable for forward progression.

I have, over the past week, started utilizing pace in my training, again.  Because I am more interested in time spent moving instead of distance moved, I have an average pace set up for different lengths of time.  The shorter the time moving, the faster I am keeping the pace so I am still pushing myself, though I am not rigidly holding to a set pace; more, an average pace.  My motivation at this point is to be outside, moving, as much as possible and to enjoy it while I am doing it.  If I’m not enjoying it, then there is no point.  It becomes a hindrance instead of a joy and that is not worth it to me.

It’s refreshing to have the pleasure back and it is enlivening to not be holding myself to such rigid standards in my running.  Goals and objectives are great and they help keep people on track when going for something specific, but when I allowed my goals and objectives to take over the big picture, that picture became muddy.  It was filled with drudgery.  It held a centralized focus aimed solely at the end destination.  Now, the picture is bright and crisp, yet soft in focus as I explore and experience the journey.  I am in the process of researching and writing a post which analyzes how we use our physical sight and our mental vision, how each one has a soft and a hard focus (and how the soft and hard focus work together), how the focus of both can become oriented more towards the hard than the soft, and how the physical and mental vision work in tandem.  It goes into much more detail than I cover here and will be posted soon.  In the meantime, here are some questions for discussion.

Where is your focus in your training and in life?  Do you sometimes become so focused on one area that you lose sight of other areas?  What do you do to soften your focus and bring it back to the journey?  Do you ever struggle with softening your focus?

Thursday, January 2, 2014

My Experience, So Far, Since Shifting My Focus to the Journey

Two runs, so far, this week.  Both based solely on total time.  Both runs, I was pleasantly surprised at the distance and the pace.  Both runs felt great.  It was good to just get out there and run for the love of running, to enjoy my surroundings without any pressure to hit any other target than the amount of time I was out there.  Even that was no pressure because I set a range, rather than a specific time, and finished up when I was ready to finish.  Monday, I went for just under an hour.  Wednesday, I went for just over an hour and a half.  Today, well, we’ll see.  It’s supposed to be a miserably cold, windy, and rainy day out there.  It’s a good thing I have my Marmot rain jacket and plenty of layers in which to dress.

My thought is to go for anywhere from two to three hours to start rebuilding my endurance.  Pace is not a factor, right now.  Time spent running and walking is.  This is my focus.  This, and enjoying the movement, the feel of the road and the trail under my feet, the sweat running from the effort involved, the wind reddening my cheeks and nose, the air filling my lungs, then releasing back into the atmosphere.  I live for this, for these times.  I love this.  I am excited about today’s run.  I hope you are looking forward to what your day holds for you, as well.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Living My Journey, Not My Goals

Today, I turn 40 years old.  It is quite a sobering thought, really.  At the same time, though, I feel alive and wonderful.  When I look back over the years I have spent on this earth, I am sobered by how quick time has flown by.  I know that time won’t be slowing down any time soon, either.  However, I don’t feel any older than I did yesterday.  I feel healthy and vibrant.  In fact, I feel better than I did through my teens and 20s because of the lifestyle changes I have made over this past decade.  Becoming more active, eating a diet of whole foods, and growing my self has been life-changing and so beneficial.

As a New Year’s Eve baby, I have the unique opportunity to reflect over the past year’s experiences as I transition into a new year.  However, I choose not to make New Year’s resolutions because I know me and I know that when combining a list of resolutions (the bigger, the better, in my mind, though I know better than that) with my humanness, chances are I will most likely break those resolutions.  So, I work at making small changes the whole year through, changes that I can implement and make a part of my life.  Don’t get me wrong…those small changes can sometimes get derailed in a big way, if I don’t take the time necessary to fully implement them.

Take, for instance, my training for a 50k next year.  I started my training the beginning of December.  I was ready for it and felt a huge sense of drive and motivation to get out there and “do this!”  Then, life got in the way.  I’m sure you are all familiar with life and it’s ability to get in the way of accomplishing things we set out to do.  Life, in my case, was a sore hip flexor that didn’t want to cooperate with my training.  Life was also a virus that settled into my lungs over two weeks ago, that is still trying to keep a grasp on my lungs, though I think I have finally kicked the majority of the nastiness out.  All of you runners know how difficult it can be to push yourself to run when anything is going on in your lungs.  After all, if you can’t breathe, it makes it really difficult to do any sort of running.

So, I spent the first two weeks of December tending to my hip flexor, doing more walking than running.  And, I spent the last two weeks just doing anything I could to get outside and keep moving, so as not to lose all of the conditioning and gains I have made over the last 11 months, since I started running in February 2013.  The third week, in particular, was the hardest to swallow, because I didn’t make it out, even for a walk, that week.  Most of my time was spent in bed and then, when I made it back to work after two days missed, I focused my energy on getting through work, since work is spent on my feet the entire time I am there.

Life got in the way.  It got in the way, to the extent, that I missed every goal I had in place for the month of December.  Not hitting those goals has been hard medicine to swallow.  I have questioned my ability, my motivation, my desire, my willingness, or lack thereof in all four areas, many times over the last month.  It has been a hard month.  It has also been an enlightening month.  I realized that life’s circumstances do not dictate my ability, motivation, desire, and willingness, unless I let those circumstances dictate those things to me.  I have the choice to perceive life as getting in the way or as what it is…life!

I have made the choice to view my circumstances as positive ones.  I put in quite a bit of mileage the first two weeks of December despite my tender hip flexor, and while it may not have been all running, it included walking and I didn’t have to completely stop doing either.  I was able to continue running and walking while my hip flexor mended.  Though I wasn’t able to put in near the mileage I wanted over the last two weeks, I am no worse off than I was before and I feel ready to get back out there and get back to what I love…running.  Also, that time off allowed complete mending of my hip flexor and it is stronger than ever now.

Yesterday, I went to the track and I ran for an hour.  I turned off everything that had to do with distance and pace on my watch and I ran solely based on total time and heart rate.  It was one of the best things I could have done, thanks to my husband recommending I do it.  It cleared my head of all the nonsensical junk and I ran for the love of running instead of running to train.  It was mind-clearing and much needed, both physically and mentally.  My plan is to do the same thing today.  I will go for total time instead of distance and pace.  Eventually, I will train, again, using pace and distance, but for now, I am keeping it simple, bringing my focus back to the pleasure I get from running and away from an end goal almost a year away.

I am excited about what the future holds, but more importantly, I am excited about now, about living in the moment and enjoying the journey.  I hope you all are, too.  Best wishes for the coming year, but better-than-best wishes as you live your journey.  May you live life fully and may it be filled with joy.  Happy New Year!

What do you do when life gets in your way?  How do you overcome perceived setbacks?  What do you do to stay in the moment of your journey and enjoy it?  I look forward to reading your comments and hearing about your journeys.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Otherworldly Experiences in the Great Outdoors

Have you ever been outdoors and felt as though you entered another world because of a change in the sunlight or your surroundings?  I was out for a trail run the other day and I experienced this very thing.  I was on the second loop of a three loop run on a local trail and, as I came around a corner of the trail, it was as if I stepped out of this world and into a completely different dimension.  It is almost indescribable with words, but I will do my best.

As I rounded that particular corner of the trail, the colors of the leaves on the trees became vibrantly bright, the trail a deep earthy brown.  The fallen leaves covering the trail in patches were deep, luxurious hues of red, brown, yellow, and gold.  A light haze had seemingly descended over the woods, though I realized within a split second that it was not a haze.  The clouds were filtering the sunlight in such a way that there was almost an eerie glow to the woods.  It was as if I were to have reached out with my hand, I could have closed my hand around the light and the air and actually grasped it.  Everything was magnified from the appearance of the forest to the sounds of the squirrels scurrying through the leaves and the birds twittering and chirping overhead.  The forest gave off a strong, earthy scent.  It was as if I had stepped through an invisible wall into the land of Narnia.  I did not recognize that part of the trail at all, even though I have run it a number of times; it was that changed by the light.  It was beautiful and mindboggling all rolled into one.  And, it didn’t last nearly long enough.  I was so enthralled, I nearly missed my next turn on the trail.  Once I followed the turn, the moment slipped through my fingers and I was back in this world.

I hoped that when I came around on the third lap that I might experience the same thing, but this was to be a one-time, one-of-a-kind experience.  It was a resplendent, stunning experience, one I will not soon forget.

What have been some of your “otherworldly” experiences in the great outdoors, whether when hiking, running, walking, or lounging?

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Treasuring My First Experience of Runner's High

Welcome to the runner’s high.  Welcome to the exhilaration of running.  Welcome to the feeling of running with wings on my feet.  Welcome to easy breathing, effortless running.  Welcome, welcome, welcome.

Three weeks or so ago, I joined the ranks of runners who have experienced runner’s high.  It was my long distance, easy-paced run of the week, the run in which I keep my heart rate around an average of 70% for the duration of the run.  My distance was 14.5 miles; my longest run up to that date.  When I reached the seven-mile mark, my heart rate adjusted down to about 50% and my breathing became incredibly easy.  My legs and body felt light as a feather and my stride length was good.  Even on the hills, my breathing remained open and easy and my heart rate continued hovering around the 50% mark.

My pace went from sub-14:00 and sub-13:00 min/miles to sub-11:00 min/miles.  My typical long-distance run times hover around a 12:30 min/mile average, sometimes a little slower, sometimes a little faster depending upon the outside temperatures, my level of nutrition and hydration that day and how much rest I was able to get the night before.  Of course, other factors can be involved, as well, but they are too numerous to list.  Suffice it to say, this was not an average day for me.  As I ran, I began to wonder if/when I was going to bonk and how long I could possibly keep up a pace of sub-11:00 min/mile.  Thankfully, I remembered I was supposed to be enjoying the experience instead of questioning it, so I let those thoughts go and put all of myself into the moment, allowing the exhilaration to overcome my entire being.

I know some of the drivers I passed while in miles 8 and 9 must have thought I was completely crazy because I was grinning like a banshee the entire time.  It felt so good, I even laughed out loud a few times!  I could hardly contain my excitement.  As I settled into that sub-11:00 pace, my stride felt perfect, my footfalls excellent.  Nothing hurt.  Nothing felt tired or worn.  My body felt alive.  My mental state was heightened.  My spirit soared.  Emotionally, I was so happy and excited, I could have cried.  I don’t know that someone who doesn’t run or who runs only recreationally would or could understand that emotional state in terms of running.  I couldn’t have before I experienced it myself.  Those of you who run religiously and who have experienced the runner’s high can possibly identify with my experience.  I would love to read about some of your experiences in the comment section of this post!

I completed my run feeling as though I could have continued running.  I don’t know how far or how fast, but I was still in the runner’s high when I finished.  Because I was already almost a mile and a half over my previous longest run, I thought it best to finish my run as I had planned so I could run the next day and the day after that.  I was able to do just that, continuing my training as planned since then.  Sadly, I have yet to experience runner’s high again.  I know I will as I continue running and increasing my distances, but I’m sure you can imagine my disappointment when I went out for my next long-distance run of 15.8 miles and didn’t experience anything close to it.  In fact, I went through the exact opposite.  By mile 10, everything hurt from my feet to my shoulders.  At mile 12, were it not for my 17-year-old son joining me for the final 5.5 miles, I would have quit.  I even called home to see if my husband had returned from his run, yet, so he could come pick me up.  Fortunately, he wasn’t home and I had to persevere.  By mile 13, I was walking.  My left foot ached.  My legs felt like lead.  My lungs hurt.  Somewhere between 13 and 13.25 miles, something switched inside me and I started running again.  It still hurt.  My legs still felt beyond heavy.  My lungs still burned.  But, I ran.  I ran the rest of the way home.  My son stayed with me the entire time and I am so grateful he did.  He helped keep me motivated and moving.  I also kept reminding myself that it was about putting one foot in front of the other.  One foot in front of the other until you reach the finish.  And, reach the finish, I did.  I was exhausted.  I ached.  My entire being was fatigued.  However, my spirit soared much as it did the previous week when everything felt wonderful.  I learned a valuable lesson that day.  I learned I can.  With determination and a strong will, I can.

I also learned that runner’s high cannot be willed or wished into play.  It will happen when it does.  And, I learned, again, that the difficult runs help me appreciate the good runs.  Even though, when in the midst of a hard run, it can feel like an eternity, when it is over, I recover and I appreciate the difficulty of it because I did it, in spite of how hard it felt.  I conquered it and became stronger for it.  Isn’t that what so much of running is about?  Learning more about who we are, how strong we really are, how much potential is really inside of us, and the growth that comes in that.

I won’t lie to you…I can’t wait to experience runner’s high again.  There is nothing quite like it.  I will also tell you I don’t necessarily look forward to the next time I have a difficult run.  But, both experiences are part of the process and I appreciate the value of both.

Do you have areas in your life in which you appreciate both the difficult and the easy aspects?  How do you balance the two?  Do you ever struggle with appreciating the difficult aspects, especially when in the midst of a difficult situation?