A Normal Saturday Run

It's the usual group, minus a couple of guys, one lost to a triathlon coach and another working a local golf tournament. We meet at the normal spot, on a corner near a playground, at 6:30, too early for most on this wet Saturday morning. It's a quiet walk to the meeting spot. No traffic or early morning dog walkers. I feel fresh, having slept in an extra half hour. I left the headlamp at home, wouldn't need it today as the sun tries unsuccessfully to burn through the thick layer of clouds and fog.

The rain always seems to start falling just as I step out the door. The thin wool shirt starts to absorb the mist that turns into a light rain, and the light shirt becomes heavier.

We start at an easy pace, all except for Chris who doesn't have an easy pace, short, fast, compact strides popping off the pavement as we chase him out of the sleeping suburban neighborhood into an area that quickly transitions off the grid, littered with old barns, rusted machinery, RVs surrounded by high fences and barking dogs.

We duck between two strands of barbed wire, pulled up enough to let an average sized runner through, a barb catches my shirt, creating a long, thin red scratch down my back.

I walk slowly, not running for fear of tripping and tangling my feet in the barb wire hidden in the long grass. The trampled grass becomes a narrow trail, wider and wider as we ascend to the power line trails, jeep trails. We call them jeep trails, but I'm not sure a jeep would make it through here today, I think as I slip through the heavy, red clay mud.

We leave the wide jeep trail in favor of a narrow single track. The banter comes to a halt, the dick jokes, the war stories, and the other things we say on the trail (and should probably be left there), comfortable enough after hundreds of shared trail miles to know where the line is, and to occasionally cross it, stops as the trail descends.

The trail is steep and muddy and I scan ahead, searching for the line that is not as wet, muddy, slippery, jumping from one side to the other and ducking under overgrown branches or holding my arms in front of me, protecting my eyes from the sharp barbs. We are spit out one by one, on the wide jeep road. The first few wait as the rest of the group appears, most smiling and breathing a little harder.

We cross the road to the preserve. I notice a sign on the bridge, the trails are closed, but the trails that we are headed to are always closed. But, early on a Saturday morning, in the rain, all the trails are open. We pass the bridge, closed do to the rising water level of the stream that can now safely be called a river and run alongside the river to a new crossing, a crossing where, on a regular day, can be crossed by jumping from rock to rock to the other bank and the trail that starts on the other side. The rocks are covered today by the swiftly moving water and we wade through, waist deep. Someone takes their shoes off in a fruitless effort to stay dry. I slip on a submerged rock and my shin hits hard, there will be a bruise. Once across, we run again, discussing the manhood scale and where crossing a waist-deep stream fits in (somewhere between mustaches and steak). In the past, some have turned back here, not wanting to get their shoes wet, but today, we all go through.

We are on closed land now, land that is overgrown, but a narrow trail still winds past foundations of old, deserted buildings that crumbled long ago, running over what used to be a road leading underneath a bridge that is no longer used and is marked with graffiti, one word...Shitface. I tell the others I was down here a few weeks ago, tagging the bridge with my street name, Shitface.

We run along the stream that is now a river, noticing the fog sticking stubbornly to the mountains. My shirt becomes too heavy and starts to rub in the wrong places, so I take it off and wrap it around my waist. Someone takes a group picture.

We emerge from the trail and closed off land and onto the guardhouse for The Bridges Golf Course, and surprisingly there is a guard there, so we cut back down towards the river. Already wet from the river and the rain, there is no discussion, we just wade into the knee-deep water, then waist-deep, then chest-deep for some and neck-deep for others. I slip on the rocks underneath, but there is no point now in keeping my feet on the bottom, I wade with my hands and arms towards the other bank and climb up on the slippery grass. I think I feel leeches, but they are only small leaves and I brush them off as I work my way through the thorny bushes that leave red marks on my legs, like the lines my 9th grade English teacher, Mrs. O'Donnell, used to crisscross over my bad grammar.

Back on a familiar route, steep concrete, so steep that I wonder aloud how they could have laid it without gravity pulling it down to the bottom of the hill, and we are back to the houses on the outskirts of the neighborhood, people who want to be left alone and who probably wouldn't like us running through their horse trails. We are way past the 10 or so miles that I had planned on, but I keep going, sucking down a gel. We head up and over the hill with the green water tower, and down the long, gradual decline on the other side. This is one of my favorite trails, just the right steepness for some fast running, opening the stride and feeling the pull of the bottom of the hill.

We wind through the neighborhood on the groomed trails, behind Albertsons, behind the school where I point out the new multilevel classroom being built over the grass field that now forces the kids into an ever-shrinking play area. They dance in place for P.E. now.

One last climb, then home to the kids, home to smiles and wet, stinky hugs, and eggs, and coffee, and sausage, and fresh orange juice. Time to take the kids out to soccer and the skate park. Time to start the day.

Choose Your Own Adventure -- The Why and How of Adventure Running, Part 1

I recently was asked to give a presentation for Trasie Phan's "Beyond Ultra" series for her ultra running workshops, Ultra University. My presentation was about adventure running and it was called "Choose Your Own Adventure." I spent a lot of time creating a cool, animated presentation. I'm not a very polished public speaker and the thought of getting up in front of a group of people frightened me, but I thought if I had a pretty presentation, it would take some of the focus off of my public speaking skills (or lack thereof). Unfortunately, when I loaded the presentation onto the computer, a cable wasn't working, so I did the talk without the presentation. All things considered, I think it went well, and I wanted to share what I said here on the blog. It was kind of long, so I'm going to separate the post into two parts. Part one will be the why of adventure running, and part two will deal with the how of adventure running.

The "Choose Your Own Adventure" Slide-Show

I don't feel like an expert on this topic, but I have been lucky to connect with people who are good at planning these types of runs, whether it be a run across Zion, the Grand Canyon, or a creative linking of local trails. I see myself as that one guy in every prison break movie who doesn't come up with the prison break plan, but maybe floats the idea, or is the first one to volunteer. This person is also usually the first person to die.

To make sure you are in the right place, I want to start by having you think of a downhill section of your favorite trail, and I want you to imagine running down that trail, maybe a little too fast, outside of your comfortable, safe speed, running at a speed that if you fall, you may roll a couple of times, and their might be blood, and I want you to imagine that you are coming to the bottom of that trail and there is a stream just wide enough that if you jump it you might be able to clear it, but you also may come up short and get a little wet. What do you do at this moment? How do you feel? Did you jump? Was there a slight smile on your face as you took that leap, and did your heart rate go up a little bit? If you jumped the stream, even if you were a little scared, but still took that leap, then you are in the right place. If you skidded to a halt and looked down the stream for an easier way to cross, or if you imagined yourself turning around and walking back up the hill, you might be a triathlete.

That feeling of being scared and excited at the same time, of feeling alive, that is the feeling that connects runners, especially trail runners. That feeling of childlike exuberance, and of knowing that this is what you were meant to do, and that this is what human beings have done for thousands of years, that is the feeling that keeps us coming back and that really gets to the heart of why I like to run, especially in remote areas, and across beautiful trails.

So, the question is why not just race? We have such a wide variety of ultra races that we can take advantage of. These races come with awesome t-shirts, big buckles, cheering supporters, food and drink every couple of miles, and well-marked courses (for the most part).

I love racing, especially trail racing. I love the struggle, and overcoming the pain to finish. I love meeting people on the course and sharing miles of conversation with complete strangers. That's all good, and I don't plan on quitting trail races anytime soon, but when I look back and think of my most memorable moments on the trail, moments that literally take my breath away (or maybe it was just the altitude), moments where you feel that lump in your chest and you look around in amazement, those moments have come on a trail with a small group of friends on a route that we planned ourselves. These are the times when you know that no matter how many pictures you take, or stories you tell or blog posts that you write, there will be no way to convey that feeling unless you are there, sharing in that moment. Those are the moments that stick with me, and that I'm sure will stay with me for the rest of my life.

But why run these routes? I get this a lot, why not slow down and enjoy them, you go too fast to take in the views. Ben Horne, a friend of mine who passed away last year and who still continues to inspire, wrote something that really resonated with me. When he was running across the Appalachian Trail, he ran into a guy who said the same thing, why not slow down and enjoy it? Ben's response was
When holy people pray in the church, don’t they close their eyes? And then they can pray better, talk to God more clearly, without distractions? Staring wide-eyed at a stained glass window, taking a hundred photos, doesn't get me any closer to understanding why the building was created in the first place. Pushing hard and moving fast, too fast for this man’s liking, helps me see God like closing my eyes to pray.

I remember running through Joshua Tree with Ben and watching him count each different variety of wildflower that we passed, and exclaiming how big and beautiful the trees were here in the center of the national park, as opposed to those on the outskirts that have been stunted by pollution. Ben was a fast runner, and he didn't miss anything.

When I visited the Grand Canyon a few months ago, I overheard ranger saying that the average tourist spends 15 minutes at the canyon, taking in the view, getting the postcard picture, visiting the gift shop, then going on their way. As I sat at the South Rim, waiting for friends who were running across the Canyon and back, I watched these tourists, most were more enthralled with the squirrels than with the vista behind them. This isn't an exaggeration. I watched one guy take pictures of squirrels for about half an hour, I even snapped some pictures of him, but then I became the guy taking pictures of the guy taking pictures of squirrels, so what does that say about me? I don't want to be too judgmental  but when you're standing on the edge of one of the most amazingly beautiful places in the world and you don't take the time or effort to even walk a few feet into the canyon, I think it's a waste of time (unless you are some kind of squirrel biologist or something).

A couple miles down the South Kaibab trail
I love to run, and running through these spaces, connecting something that I love to do with the beauty of the outdoors, it makes me happy. When I run across these trails on self-supported runs, I experience the outdoors in a way that makes me feel alive, and on a deeply evolutionary and psychological level, I am doing what I feel I was born to do.

A couple weeks ago, on my kids' third week of winter break, I could overhear them fighting in the house, yelling at each other over which TV show they should watch. I couldn't get any work done, so I loaded them, along with the dog, in the car, and we headed to a local trail, Elfin Forest Preserve, which is a couple miles from my house. The route starts with a steep climb for about a half a mile, and my kids were dragging their feet, but when we turned the corner and hit the downhill section of the hike, all my kids started running. It was some kind of complicit agreement that they had with each other. No one said anything, they just ran, and as I watched my son, his arms helicoptering wildly at his sides, I heard him scream, "I feel so alive."

That joy in running, that wild, happy feeling of being alive is what connects us. I've watched the video below probably twenty times in the last couple of weeks. I love the images, the words, and the message. When I watch this, it makes me think of lines, routes on a trail map, lines that connect us, start lines, finish lines, and the lines that limit us. A few years ago, I never thought I'd run longer than a 5K. That was my limit, but luckily my line was not not drawn with a permanent marker. My line is constantly moving, being adjusted, moved closer by fear, and pushed out by enthusiasm, or something as small as seeing a picture of a trail in the Sierras, or reading an article about a stranger's experience on the Wonderland trail.

My line is drawn in chalk, and I know that it's okay to erase it and move it around. I hope that you draw your limits in chalk and that by the time that we lace up our running shoes for the last time, our pieces of chalk will be slivers, and our erasers will be worn out from overuse, then we can sit quietly and talk about those breathless moments on the trail.

Thanks for reading. In part 2, I'll go into the how of adventure running, planning tools, recommended equipment, and some online resources.

A New Year

I just got back from a beautiful run. An ideal run. I went out by myself, hit a singletrack, connected to the back side of Double Peak, climbed up to the telescope where I spent some time picking out the local peaks. I wasn't planning on writing a re-cap of the year...always look forward, never dwell in the past. But as I stood up there, picking out San Gorgonio and San Jacinto, and reminiscing on the time I spent running out there, thoughts leading to Ben, and my heart filled with thanks. I decided to revisit some of this year's posts, mainly so I can remember and appreciate these special moments, and to try to not perpetually focus on what's coming up next.

These were my most memorable running moments of 2012:

Zion Traverse

Joshua Tree

SD 100

SEH Marathon

With my wife in Alta

8,000 M Challenge (Baldy, San Gorgonio, and San Jacinto)

San Bernardino 9-Peak Traverse

Cuyamaca 100K

Running with Sharlie at the Lake Hodges 5K

Zoom Loco Annual Field Trip -- Grand Canyon

5th Annual New Year's Day "No Puking on the Trail" Run/Hike

With any luck, this year will end the same way it began, sharing the trails with good friends and family.

As I look back at the past year, I realize that my most memorable moments on the trail didn't have anything to do with competing in races, but they were spent on the trails with friends, on adventures that we concocted on training runs, and this gives me direction for the coming year(s).

I enjoy running, it makes me happy, and when I enjoy running, I run well. So, that is my goal going forward, to continue to enjoy running. For me, this means consistent running for a base level of fitness that will allow me to jump into things that sound like fun, without having to worry about if I will have the stamina to complete the challenge. What that does not mean, for me, is tracking every mile, setting time and pace goals, logging every beat of my heart, and spending time at the gym working on my core. While this may work (and is actually fun) for some, it definitely does not work for me. I've been going naked wrist for most of my runs and I find it so much more enjoyable. This outlook also allows me much more flexibility and time to spend with my family, which is more important to me than my running.

I also need to realize that everyone finds enjoyment in different ways, as a good friend recently told me as I was making fun of triathletes, most of them are just out there trying to enjoy themselves, and if that means buying titanium bolts for their carbon water bottle cages, then so be it. Others take months off of running to pursue other activities like rock climbing or male modeling. If that works for them and helps them enjoy the time they spend running more, then that's great (but I still reserve the right to curse them under my breath because they're still in better shape than me after months off).

So, this year, like years past, I'm not setting any huge goals, but I do have some fun adventures planned, and I hope to be able to jump into others if the opportunity presents itself. These are my main races and trips that I have planned:

Cardiff Kook 10K
Joshua Tree Traverse
Miwok 100K
Zoom Loco Annual Field Trip -- Zion
San Elijo Hills Double Marathon
Lake Tahoe 50K
Kalalau Trail
John Muir Trail
The Bear 100

I have also been asked by my good friend, Paul Jesse, to be part of the Off Road Pursuits Endurance Team. Paul puts on some great local races and I'm excited to be part of this group and to be able to jump into his races when I can.

Thanks for reading. I hope you all have a great year, and enjoy your journey.

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