Baseline Track Meet and Grindstone Trail

One way to establish a baseline for racing performance is to train little and prepare poorly for a particular event.  That is the way I approached Indoor Ultimate Runner, a meet that I wanted to compete in the moment I heard about it last year.  It’s not so much that I planned to prepare poorly, but curiosity about my own abilities as an older runner did create a desire to know how much I had lost and how far I had to go.

I waited several months to sign up, having been surprised to read that relatively few people had signed up as of mid-winter.  Since the meet was scheduled for the end of March, I had plenty of time to decide how much of a priority it would be for me, and for my training.  I decided to periodize training for next year (2014), with this winter being a base mileage phase, primarily.

Indoor Ultimate Runner is an age-graded event where runners must complete five track events, and are scored according to their age-graded percentage–highest total score wins. Originally, the events to be contested were the mile, 400 meters, 800 meters, 60 meters, and 3k.  That changed in an attempt to lure more track oriented runners to the event, dropping the 3k and adding a 200 meter race.  The track at JDL is a 200 meter Mondo surface, the same surface that was used at the London Olympics.

Race day preparation included a short night’s sleep and a 5 a.m. road trip.  More that six hours later, I had just passed Pilot Mountain State Park, in North Carolina, having decided that I did not have time to stop there first to stretch, relax, and enjoy the view at the top of the mountain.  As I was gauging what time I might reach JDL Fast Track, the road in front of me morphed into a line of parked cars.  Man, I wish I had stopped at Pilot Mountain! Bathroom facilities…a view of the traffic jam on the highway…I should have been so lucky. An hour and twenty minutes later I was leaving the detour on King and Rural Hall arterial roads, getting back on Highway 52 with a perfect view of fast-flowing traffic and the Garage that had apparently been put back onto a trailer.  The best I would be able to do was arrive at the track facility at about race time, myself scheduled for the first heat.

I don’t recommend warming up with the fastest mile you have run in a number of years.  I thank the race director, the volunteers, and a good mileage base for being allowed and able to scurry over to the start of the fourth heat and run a sub-six minute mile.  It is, however, a terrible way to prepare for the next heat, a 400 meter race…which is a great way to make yourself feel nauseous without drinking anything.  I thought I was out of the woods, but when a pedestrian sort of 200 meter race is the fastest and hardest you’ve run in twenty-one months, flashbacks to younger days of stupidity at keg parties will occur.  The next race was the 800, which was much easier than I expected, but slower, too.  My best race, not surprisingly, was the 60 meters, my first all-out sprint in twenty-one months.

I hope Indoor Ultimate Runner becomes an annual event.  I intend to be ready next year. The highlight of my trip, though, was heading back to Pilot Mountain State Park that evening, running Grindstone Trail to Big Pinnacle and back down.  I disturbed a few turkeys on the way up.  They seemed merely inconvenienced by me, but eventually took to flight, thundering their way quickly through the treetops on the steep slope, apparently landing just out of sight.  I’ve always loved stopping at that park and hiking or running its trails.  That thrill carried over to the next day, when I ran 4.5 miles on technical trails the next day.  Running on the track has always been fun to me, but running in the woods runs in my blood.

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Travel, Race, and Bust

I have not written lately, but thoughts of blog entries go through my mind sometimes when I am running.  I might have written about foot strike, especially on uneven terrain; running with others; indoor nationals (which I did not attend); my nagging Achilles tendon (which is doing well); heel spur syndrome (which is not an issue, lately); experiencing change of seasons as a runner.  Maybe those just don’t sound so interesting.  Recent races, however, interest me for now.

Travel weary but race hungry, I look back at a few recent exploits and think to myself, “Why do I do this?”

I wonder why I like to travel far away to race when there are races closer to home, albeit less interesting, that would be much easier and cheaper to do.  I wonder why I tend to plan for a longer vacation when, in fact, I know that I will not be able to afford a longer vacation that includes a race, visiting relatives, and seeing all kinds of interesting sites, thus settling for just the race and a bunch of time in a car.  I wonder why I expect a certain race performance when I’ve just spent hours–a whole day–driving to the race, with little or no time to recover from the drive.  I wonder why I want to spend all of my money to race.

I’m not sure I have any answers.  I do know that being stuck somewhere, or feeling stuck at home makes me unhappy.  Travelling to interesting places makes me feel better.  I know that every time I race, I feel ready to do the race over again very soon, or to race another race as soon as possible.  I like to travel to beautiful natural areas, and prefer that my races are in or near those areas.

I’ll probably write about my recent races in a few days.

 

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Runs of Consciousness

I sit here on the bank of a river, held by the crook of its arm, inside a bend, dreaming of all that its basin contains, wondering where it begins, hoping to see the fringes of its domain, hoping for wildness there. My cluttered mind seems to drain away thought by thought, as if every drop of thought within me came from the stream itself, only to return there after many years. As I relax into my newfound state, I am aware of myself slipping away, the way a random leaf rides the current, sliding past river rocks like it knows the way. Overhead, beyond the canopy a buzzard glides and tilts, riding other currents above the stream, part of the valley that defines everything. Across the water lies the cut-away bank, the exposed rocks, and trees hanging on by finger-like roots. A hawk appears from between some trees, launched through a magic door in the invisible beyond, replacing thoughts I had drained from my head. I watch the hawk alight on a dead branch, and realize that she has captured prey she will consume.

Sometime later, having nodded off, I stretch myself up off the ground. A Great Blue Heron startles from the water and flies upstream. I continue on my journey downstream, quietly, on riverbank boulders away from any trail. I hear a Kingfisher call out in front of me, then see him flit away. All the while, I hear plops into the water from turtles and others who scatter at my approach. I turn my attention from the water to the woods surrounding the stream, choosing a route toward a trail that I know is somewhere in the distance. I chance upon game trails, feeling guilty for using them, hoping the deer that made them won’t be upset by my scent for too long. Just then, I see a few of them bounding away, white tails flagging, getting yards between us before slowing to turn and watch me. I follow suit, resuming my run in the woods that began hours before, with deer around me, some of them spooked by my sudden spur of activity, others seemingly more curious than ever. The story has played out many times since I was a child, now as an adult, as often in my mind as in real life, differing only in the details or the remembrance, as if consciousness itself dwells in a river basin.

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Elba’s Deer: Mumford’s Light

I have a recent favorite YouTube trail running video. It’s not exactly a trail running video, but a music video. Of course, wouldn’t you know it…there is a deer in it. The song, the reason for the video, is Mumford and Sons’ “Lover of the Light”. I won’t pretend to offer an analysis of Idris Elba’s directorial and acting interpretation of the song lyrics, but I will say that I am moved by the video and continue to watch it. The Red Deer in the piece seems to be a sort of guide, like a protective deity, who watches over the only other character, a blind man struggling to deal with loss, who scrambles from his home cross-country to a beautiful grass-covered cliff overlooking the sea. The blind character runs as fast as he can toward certain suicide, but puts on the brakes at cliff’s edge and lets out a scream (silent in the video). The scream turns to a huge smile and embrace of the life that lays before him, the sound of the sea, the feel and smell of the air.

Whatever one’s interpretation of the video or of the song lyrics, I can identify with the man who feels the need to escape, to change his life, to run cross-country and through the woods again, to experience wild places–beautiful places, and to begin to truly enjoy life again. Running in the woods is an important part of my life, as it was when I was younger. If I can figure out a few other things in my life, then perhaps I’ll feel more of the joy conveyed in the video, deer or not.

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A person might think, as a result of reading all my blog posts, that my favorite animal is a deer. I love deer, but, for as long as I can remember, my favorite animal has been the wolf. Close second favorites include others in the wild dog family, African cats, cougar, lynx, bobcat, and birds–especially raptors, particularly falcons. Nevertheless, when I ran through the woods as a kid, I pretended I was either a deer or a wolf chasing a deer.

I got a chance to try bounding again in the woods on a grass path in front of two herds of approximately eight deer each–the most I‘ve seen since last year. As soon as I saw one deer, I began jumping between every few steps. The first group of deer stopped running away and turned broadside to watch. Some of them did a few hops!  Other deer jostled for position to look.  The second group of deer was more skittish, but eventually they, too, stopped fleeing and watched. All of the deer were less than thirty meters away as I bounded past. If only I could read their minds.

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Waldspringen

Running with deer scampering around me is more fun than most things that I do.  If I get lucky, I come to the right areas quietly enough that I don’t spook them, but they see me first, and from far enough away to observe me and wonder what the heck I’m doing running from nothing, or so they think, bounding around in the woods with merely a passing interest in them.  Occasionally, the deer aren’t afraid, but are caught close enough that they decide to stay where they are and show me a few of their own jumps, flitting their tails, and bobbing their heads around as if to figure out how my legs work–rather, why my legs don’t work as well as theirs.

The best way to get them to ‘participate’ is by bounding between every few steps, especially if the deer are in clearings or grassy areas.  The most memorable time this happened was last winter when the sun was just below the horizon.  There must have been a dozen or more deer, prancing and springing about, even jumping over one another!  One of them thundered past me twice, in a blur, then long jumped into the stream and disappeared on the other side.

I wish I could capture moments like those on camera, but even then it would only help remind me of the incident, but would not capture the vibrations of thundering hooves or the smell of deer in plumes of scent where they recently spent moments of time.  There are times when I am running that I pass through such plumes where a deer stood before I encroached, strongest if it’s a buck, very strong in November, when I am sure I could track the deer on calm afternoons by scent alone for a short distance, not that I’m inclined to do so.  The taste of that smell while running in cold weather with no breeze is noticeable first. No photograph or video could recreate the experience of running or hiking in the woods when features of the natural world are so incredibly salient, so life-affirming, so indescribable.

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As I Lay Dreaming

I have not written lately, but not for lack of things running through my mind. Indeed, writing about running, paddling, or nature seems unimportant most of the time. That’s not to say that those things are unimportant.

I decided to skip some races that were on my tentative list. Money spent on races can add up, but that wasn’t the main reason to miss them. The logistics of delaying work or trying to taper, likewise, was a factor, but not sufficient reason not to race. The fact that I am not all that ‘race ready’ in terms of fitness or pace training figured little. The main reason I did not want to race is that I wanted to be able to enjoy some trail runs without having to push myself the whole time that I might have the time to run while the sun is up.

Several weeks ago, I was hurrying home from a client’s house to run before sunset. Overhead, a huge spiral arm of clouds trailing the latest wave cyclone was making its way toward the east. It was a phenomenal set of clouds which held the promise of a spectacular sunset. I dashed into the house, changed into running gear, then debated whether to carry a camera as I ran. I had planned to squeeze in a good hill run session before dark, and since carrying the camera would be problematic, especially without locating the appropriate bag for strapping the camera to my body, I decided to run without a camera. Anyone who reads this blog can probably gather that I usually don’t run with a camera. Oh well, maybe some day I’ll take some pictures.

The cloud line had a silver lining. I’ve seen clouds with ‘silver’ linings before, but this one…words cannot describe. There was a distinct demarcation of cloud and clear sky, with huge bright light emerging from the clear side of the cloud line. The silver light wasn’t the sun, but a reflection of it, as if someone had placed a giant aluminum panel next to the clouds. The bright silver light was shaped like an eye, yet like sunrise over a huge body of water. As the clouds made their way east, they also crept south, not quite obscuring the sun, as if the sun were racing the clouds toward the western horizon. The lower the sun got, for a short time, the more colorful the clear half of the sky got, aquamarine near the silver lining; royal blue, then baby blue farther east; and peach fading to beige near the horizon. Overhead, the clouds were loosely connected like a jumbled stream of cotton candies in hues of lavender, ashes of rose, plum, and pewter. As the sun became broken up by trees on the horizon, the blue hues to the east became more subdued, darker, more gray. Meanwhile, a waxing moon had risen, backlighting the cottony clouds toward the east, which it touched with peach and slate colors.

The whole time these changes occurred, I had stopped running. I was standing in a grassy clearing where nothing obscured my view for a quarter-mile or so to the southwest. I watched the sun seem to head toward the hill I had planned to tackle over a half mile away. I decided not to worry about the hill, and not to race the next week. But then, as the colors of that sunset darkened, I realized that I could see the sunset to its end if I were atop the hill, so I ran toward it, watching the rapidly changing sky as I ran. I hardly looked at the ground at all, almost the way I had done a few years ago on a golf course with my eyes closed for forty seconds at a time. On top of the hill, I could see the last bit of sun, but clouds covered most of the sky, and colors were less saturated. I stood there for a number of minutes, in awe of what I had just seen. I reflected on my desire to hike and run in natural settings, coming to no great conclusions, with no brilliant insights, but with a renewed sense of how important the natural world is to me. Racing, while intense, does not carry such a sense of the whole universe.

Despite having decided not to race a few December races, I did manage to slip away from work for a few hours to watch the USATF Women’s Club Cross Country Championship. The masters race had just finished when I got there. I talked to a few friendly acquaintances, and saw familiar faces, whether from other races or web stuff. I talked to a local runner (Kevin Castille) who has recently broken at least four American records for the 40-44 age group (not updated on USATF.org), surprised to find that, even though he trains on trails regularly, he doesn’t really like cross-country, so he did not race. I watched the start, middle, and finish of the women’s race. The local team did fairly well, one racer finishing in seventh place a matter of months after having twins. All the while, although I was itching to run, I was thinking about that sunset I saw when I decided not to race.

The following evening, the local news had a story about a pedestrian who had been hit by a fire truck the night before. They identified her as one of the runners at Club Cross (Lauren Woodall Roady), and I knew exactly who they were talking about. I remember her finishing the race; her quick strides and hard effort to do her best. I remember wondering what ‘GRC’ stands for (Georgetown Running Club). Again, I recalled that sunset from a week before the race.

Some of my runs lately have not been on trails, but on grass next to a road. However, I have a renewed urge to run in the woods, away from traffic, not for safety reasons, but for aesthetic ones. I think of Castille running where I ran and hiked starting in high school, before I was a runner. If I’m concerned with racing performance, one need no better proof that simple mileage and tough hills on trails are an essential part of training. I am less concerned about performance, though.  It’s a good thing, since I’m not performing all that well. I no longer can age-grade in the nineties, the way I could in short sprints when I was younger. I’m less good, the longer the race. I doubt I’ll be ready to train well for a pentathlon or kayakalon.

I want to be able to stop and watch wildlife, see the sunset or sunrise. I want to hike before I’m ready to run, or in the middle of a run. I want to let my thoughts wander. I know that I will still have the intense desire to race. I will enjoy racing. However, I wonder if I will train hard enough to race well. For now, though, I just want to find the means to bound through the woods, to paddle a stream, and to run on the beach. I don’t know what was the silver lining in those clouds, but I look to the horizon now more than ever.

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Intrinsic Motivation and Its Corruption

Does competing in races detract from the experience of running trails in the woods?  It’s not that I don’t have fun racing.  I really do enjoy racing, although I don’t know why. Additionally, I enjoy running paces to prepare for racing.  I like the fartlek runs, the interval workouts, LT runs and sprints–anything that makes me think of racing.  I enjoy the sensation of running fast.  I like the challenge of running faster, especially on trails. However, something inside me does not want to worry about the day’s workout and how well I ran it.

Sometimes I finish a race and realize that I hardly saw my surroundings.  When I’m in the woods racing I feel like hiking back over the route I just ran in order to see what I missed. My experience with a few races recently has got me thinking about the issue.  Would I have more fun if I simply ran trails in the woods, bounding across virgin stretches of leaves, hiking whenever I feel like it, looking around and seeing more?  Do my recent race experiences provide any clues?

In early November, I ran a four mile trail race at the Salato Wildlife Education Center.  I had never visited the nature center and had never seen the trails.  I was late arriving there, so I warmed up a mere two hundred meters or so.  As I waited at the starting line, I knew that I was over-dressed for the race, even though the day was chilly, windy, and rain had just started to fall.  Because of the short warm-up, I would shed layers in the early going as I got warmed up.  The chip-timed race starts on one side of the entrance road, runners crossing immediately and running some rough, grassy areas on a winding route to the woods.  I hardly remember the lay of the land because I was concentrating on not stepping on the occasional large stone that appeared to have been transported to the fields by some mischievous race volunteer.  Cross country races should have such hazards. Otherwise they should be called strolls in the park.

Ahead of the front pack entering the woods a herd of deer alerted race volunteers to ready themselves.  These woods are perfect.  I did not see any invasive shrubs.  I wondered if there would be any honeysuckle bushes cluttering the under-story.  If there are any, I was too busy concentrating on running to see them.  The trails are true single track, and very technical in many places.  I was surprised how many steep hills the course has, continuously rolling up and down, difficult to run fast either up or down.  These are fun trails–challenging and beautiful.  I remember thinking that I couldn’t believe I had not been to the Wildlife Center to run or hike these trails.  And yet I could not look around very much because I was racing!  Maybe that herd of deer was watching us race–I wouldn’t have known.  As a challenge, this trail race is awesome.  As for sightseeing, better to come back and hike the trails.

My next race was a ten miler on flat roads and trails (asphalt, gravel, boardwalk, sand, mud, roots, woods, double and triple-wide single track trails).  Instead of a forty-five minute drive to my previous race, I drove more than ten hours to try to earn a coveted pint glass and a gift certificate to Dick’s.  I had just cashed in my gift certificate to Sportsman’s Warehouse from the Salato race, so I was willing to smash my buttocks into the car’s torture seat for some more variable ratio reinforcement.  On the plus side, I would be within another short torture span to red wolf territory, and to the ocean, so the brutally salient features of the car seat did not scar me for life.  The whole time, I was reminded how stiff I felt while racing, and how tired my legs got almost immediately.  Then I remembered having been chased by another runner, reaching the beach area on the banks of the Tar River and not even seeing the view from the race course because I was so focused on holding my lead in the soft sand.  I held my lead and ended up finishing a minute or so ahead of that masters runner, but I hardly saw the woods for the trail.  It was fun racing, but I left the state park feeling cheated out of visiting for a while.

Today I think of how thankful I am for the ability to run as I do, as mediocre as that is.  I raced this morning, a timed one miler not just for kids.  There was no trail, just hard asphalt and a big hill.  My legs were stiff, a little sore, but everything went fairly well.  A twenty something guy won the race in a time that I believe I’ll be able to run in a few weeks.  But why should I care?  I hardly took the time to look around at rolling, bluegrass-covered hills on a gorgeous day.

Sometimes I wonder why I need to compete to have incentive to get outside and enjoy the day or evening, to exercise and stay fit.  What consolation for my aging body is an engraved medal or stamped mug?  How many shirts do I need, and what should I have spent my money on, instead?  I guess when racing doesn’t give you everything you want, you question your sanity for doing it.  Something about a race feeds the ego, fuels the desire to try hard, or provides some external justification for doing what we already love.  The trick is to find a balance between those sorts of motivation and the search for tranquility.

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