Monday, October 21, 2013

Faster than Buck Wheat: A Duke City Marathon Race Report

This weekend was the 30th anniversary of the Duke City Marathon right here in Albuquerque New Mexico.  I’ve run Duke City once before and, I guess because it’s mostly on a bike path that I have literally logged thousands of miles on, I don’t find it particularly inspiring.  However, since it was the 30th anniversary, which is pretty cool and something to celebrate, the GeekGrl has never run the full marathon but has been dying to run if for maybe the past four years though something always happens to derail her plans.

This weekend was supposed to be a Drill weekend with the Army Guard but we were told there was no money and so no Drill.  As soon as I found out I wouldn’t be at Drill I asked the GeekGrl if she wanted to run and, well, her answer is pretty obvious by this point.
Considering I just did a 34 mile ultra last weekend and a 12 mile mountain run the weekend before I probably should have just taken it easy this weekend but I’ve really been on a roll with my training over the past four weeks for the first time this year and I have finally started to drop a bit of weight so instead I decided to throw in Duke City and train right through the Marine Corps Marathon, just go there and enjoy the race and not worry about time.  My plan moving forward is to back off in November, taper for the Honolulu Marathon and see what I can achieve there.  My only concern for that race is that it might be too warm to do really well but I guess that’s something I’ll discover on race day.

Anyway, given that I’m training straight through I decided to run this fairly easy as a long-supported training run but a marathon is still a marathon so it was still kind of tough to run easy.  I was averaging 8:30 minute miles out to the half-way point and feeling good but on the return I felt like I needed to back off and so dropped my pace down to 8:45 and eventually to 9s and the last couple miles were low 10s.  I ended up finishing in 3:55:02 and still feeling pretty good but ready to stop running.  Today, the day after the race, I took off running as planned but I was able to get right back to Olympic Weightlifting and knocked out several sets of squats and split squats.

The other thing I did the day after the race was look up the official race results.  As I was looking at my age group results I noticed a guy with the name “Buck Wheat.”  I ended up beating Buck Wheat by 12 minutes so now I know, I am faster than Buckwheat.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Roots Running: A Meditation on the Canyon de Chelly Ultramarathon

This was the first year of the first ultra to be run on the Navajo reservation in the sacred canyon, Canyon de Chelly.  Though it was technically a race and had prizes for the overall and age group speedsters this run was more about running for running's sake or as race Director and elite Navajo runner Shaun Martin put it, "This race is about running in the Navajo tradition, running as a prayer."  It was an awesome experience.

In case you haven’t noticed I am not Native American and while I do have an ethnic identity, it is, for the most part, something I rarely consider; it just isn’t a salient part of my life in any regular way.

In fact, when the GeekGrl and I first moved to New Mexico our youngest son, having grown up in rural white South Dakota, came home from school one day and asked “Where do our people come from” and the GeekGrl laughed and said “Our PEOPLE…the suburbs."
However, I do relate strongly to the culture of running and the people who call themselves runners.   The thing about running is that it’s such a foundational human activity it is able to span race, time and cultural context uniting apparently disparate people into one community.  This is actually what the ethic of the modern Olympics proposes, that sport spans all differences and unites humans in the fundamental pursuit of excellence.
Running has given me a great deal and the longer I have participated in it the more complex and varied my cultural identity as a runner has become.  I started out as a very mainstream, hyper gear-conscious triathlete who fully embraced every advantage of modern technology and always raced close to home with the sole goal of going fast, placing well and winning awards.  But over time I have drifted further and further to the idea of running as a kind of quest for understanding and connecting, understanding myself for sure but also understanding and connecting with people at a more fundamental level.

There are no pretenses in running and no masks for those who run long distances to hide behind.  I have run the gritty working class streets of Cincinnati, the upscale waterfronts of Chicago and San Francisco, the genteel horse country of Kentucky, the remote hollows of Alabama, the beautifully desolate hill country and canyon lands of Texas, the high mountains of New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Utah, the lonely deserts of Arizona and Nevada, the rugged terrain of California’s Sierra Nevadas, the damp forests of Oregon and Washington and so much more.  I have even run the hallowed grounds of the Boston Marathon and they have all revealed to me some aspect of myself and provided me with some deeper connection to my fellow human.

When I was interviewed about having done the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning I said “Doing the Slam was about reaching back into history and joining with those runners who came before me and with them, attempt to do something so audacious.”  Doing Canyon de Chelly was very much the same kind of reaching back, the same kind of seeking kinship with the past while tying that past to the present. However, Canyon de Chelly involved reaching WAAYYY back in history, back to a time lost in the mists of time when running wasn’t just a sport but human kind’s fastest mode of transportation and something that was not only practical but also spiritual.

Running as a way of connecting to the distant past and running as a form of spiritual quest is not something that’s entirely new to me.  Back when I was an undergraduate in college, actually before I became a runner, I did an independent study with a locally well-known poet, V.B. Price.  I called the independent study “In through the Outdoors.”  In some ways, apart from the title, it mirrored the concept of the famous Led Zeppelin Album, “In through the Out Door” in that I was trying to regain something lost.  Specifically, I had just completed six fairly disappointing years as a low ranking enlisted man in the Marine Corps and my goal was to try and reconnect with who I had been and who I wanted to be as opposed to who I felt I had become and who others demanded I be.

To that end I   Sometimes the outings were mellow and contemplative and sometimes they were relentlessly aggressive and exhausting.  However, each of the outings resulted in new insights that were chronicled in a series of poems I wrote and discussed with V.B.
spent a few hours a week hiking and jogging in the Sandia mountains east of Albuquerque.
When I did become a runner my natural curiosity lead me to reading about the ancient practice of persistence hunting whereby a group of tribesmen strategically run down prey until it is too exhausted to escape them any longer.  While humans are naturally blessed with the ability to run phenomenally long distances at moderate paces, our four legged brothers and sisters have speed but only over short distances.  While we were able to jog along and repeatedly startle the animal into bolting for a few hundred yards, the animal could only bolt so many times before it was done.  As long as we could keep sight of the same animal it would eventually become too exhausted to run away and we would move in for the kill.

Theoretically, at least in the pursuit of large animals, a group of hunters would divvy up with the smaller, speedier tribesmen actually running the animal to exhaustion and the larger, slower tribesmen following behind wielding clubs or stone axes to deliver the killing blow.  I have often been out on a run and imagined myself as one of those large, slow, stone ax wielding hunters.

Indeed, there have been many trail races where I found myself in a small line of men running down a single track trail though the canyons, mountains, deserts or forests and I suddenly find that in my mind’s eye I can see and experience my own distant past as a persistence hunter.  I am transformed from an urban dweller with an office job and a mortgage into a man with nothing more than his few clothes, his fellows, the beauty of nature and the running.  In these moments everything is right with the world, everything is as it should be and I am at peace.  I think running trails allows us to move through the world at a human pace rather than a technology driven pace,  it allows us to move through a natural environment rather than a built environment and that, I believe, is what results in the sense of peace and calm that arises from trail running.  For me the equanimity
won on the trails translates directly into resilience back in the modern world.
While the experience of traveling back in time as an ancient runner in a natural environment brings me great peace it does not have any particular story that is connected to me in any real way, it’s only a fantasy.  However, William Yazzie, race director Shaun Martin’s father-in-law and spiritual mentor does have a story that ties together running through time, creating continuity between my most ancient of ancestors and my own life today.
During the race briefing the night before we began our journey into Canyon de Chelly he recounted part of the Navajo creation myth for us runners.

What Mr. Yazzie had to say not only held cultural significance for him as a Navajo, it also held significance for us as runners and for me personally.  Mr. Yazzie told us, “At the beginning of time back in the old days monsters plagued the Navajo people.  These monsters roamed the earth causing trouble and misery for the people.  Changing Woman (a.k.a. mother earth) gave birth to twins. These twins wanted to rid the world of the monsters and by doing so make the people safe.  Through running long distances with the holy people, the twins became powerful war gods who defeated the monsters.  Today there are still evil monsters that are plaguing the people, monsters like alcoholism, drugs, and diabetes.  You runners are like the twins training and running long distances, defeating today’s evil monsters and by doing so you inspire the people; when they watch you running they have hope that maybe they can
also defeat the evil monsters of today."
When I thought about this I knew there was no more accurate way to describe my own journey of running, a journey of defeating the evil monsters in my life, monsters like obesity, self-doubt, anger, fear and hubris.  These were things that I had spent a lot of time hiding from, things that constantly plagued me and that caused me great pain.  Through running I have at least tamed them if not completely defeated them and I dare say that I have inspired at least a couple other people to pick up running shoes and defeat their own monsters.  And so, with that recounting of the Navajo creation myth and my reaffirmation that I was indeed going to run a spiritual race it was off to bed.
Race morning dawned clear and cold.  An intimate community of around 85 runners and a few volunteers gathered around a small bonfire and stood silently at the mouth of Canyon de Chelly, all facing east, all contemplating the journey ahead, all listening as William Yazzie welcomed the day’s new dawn in the traditional Navajo way, with prayer.  As Mr. Yazzie finished singing his prayers to the new day a Navajo spiritual leader introduced himself and let us know he was going to prey for our health, our safety and our journey in the Navajo way.

He held aloft a bundle of Eagle feathers in one hand and in the other scooped some cedar shavings from a leather pouch around his neck and tossed them onto the hot coals.  As the smoke began to rise he began to chant his prayer and then instructed us to cleanse ourselves in the smoke of the cedar.  He then laughed, tossed some more cedar on the coals and said, “Maybe we should make sure and do a good job of cleansing.”
Despite Shaun’s joking the night before at the race briefing about “Rez time” he had us all lined up and ready to go right at 7:00 as advertised.  He gave us our final instructions and told us “When I say go be sure to yell out in the Navajo way, yell out to introduce yourselves to the Canyon and to announce your selves to the gods” and with that he yelled, “On your mark, get set, go!” and in unison all us runners let out loud yips and yells and surged forward, running into the east, into the dawn of a new day in the traditional Navajo way. The rest, as they say, is history.
While I can’t adequately convey my experience of running Canyon de Chelly in words, I can, in the White Suburban Guy way, tell you that the course was mostly flat sandy roads, some sand was pretty deep but most was not and all was blessedly compacted by recent rains, there were a total of around 70 stream crossings, also courtesy of the recent rains, all about ankle to mid-shin deep and maybe five to 15 feet wide, I spent the majority of my day running alone and I finished in 6:44:23.
I made no attempt to run fast but I did embrace running as a form of prayer and in that largely solitary experience, found my brothers and sisters on the trail.  I also did my best to try and document my journey through many, many
pictures that I hope will convey some small sense of the stark grandeur of the Sacred Canyon.
That is my story about running in the Navajo tradition, running as a prayer, and now I’ll end with a traditional Navajo prayer that has been slightly modified for runners.

The Navajo Beauty Way Ceremony

In beauty may I run

All day long may I run

Through the returning seasons may I run

Beautifully I will possess again

Beautifully birds

Beautifully joyful birds

On the trail marked with pollen may I run

With grasshoppers about my feet may I run

With dew about my feet may I run

With beauty may I run

With beauty before me may I run

With beauty behind me may I run

With beauty above me may I run

With beauty all around me may I run

In old age, wandering on a trail of beauty, lively, may I run

In old age, wandering on a trail of beauty, living again, may I run

It is finished in beauty

It is finished in beauty

Ahe’hee Shaun Martin!

Ahe’hee William Yazzie!

Ahe’hee Din’e!

H’ago’onee’ my friends, until we meet again.

And of course, my favorite sight of the day, my beloved wife.  Ahe’hee my love.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Ups and Downs: A Tesuque Peak Trail Run Race Report

The Big Tesuque Trail Run is a race up in Santa Fe that I’ve been looking at doing for a few years now but for some reason I’ve never gotten around to it.  I wasn’t really planning on doing it this year but the GeekGrl and I had a free weekend, felt like we were rested enough from our travels and so thought a day trip and race would be fun.

The race has been ongoing since 1985 and so is one of the oldest continuously running races in New Mexico.  However, it is a fairly small race because it is basically a skyrunning event, lots of elevation gain coupled with high altitude.  The race gains just over 2100 feet in just under 6 miles with a starting elevation of about 10,000 feet and a peak elevation of just over 12,000 feet.  My Garmin gave a starting elevation of 9,990 and a peak elevation of 12,024 feet.

The race, despite being called a “trail run”, is run exclusively on a dirt service road that is used to access the radio towers on top of Tesuque Peak.  The road is kind of rocky in many places, not enough to be called technical but definitely enough to make you pay close attention to your footfalls.  The other aspect of the race, probably the best aspect of the race, is the amazing fall colors.  At the time of the race the high altitude Aspen groves are in their full fall glory and the entire mountain race is dappled in green and gold.

I wasn’t really expecting much from myself as far as racing goes because I have not been training much at altitude and I haven’t done much climbing at all this season.  Since I’ve been focused this year on recovering from last year and running flat marathons I’ve spent all my time either in the gently rolling foothills of the Sandia Mountains or down in the Bosque flat lands.  In any case, this was really just a supported training run and a chance to get out of town and run somewhere new.

Race morning was cold up on the mountain.  I think the morning temperature at race start was 35 degrees but I still opted to wear shorts and a short sleeved shirt with gloves and arm warmers.  I knew I’d warm up pretty quickly once the race started.

When the gun went off I started running but my pace was too quick.  I rapidly became winded and had to slow down as runners more acclimated to the altitude surged past me.  I was able to regroup pretty quickly, get my head in the game and approach the race as I should; power hike the steep stuff, run anything that was flatish and jog anything that was only a mild incline.  Using this ultra strategy I quickly regained control over my breathing and was able to run the race on my terms rather than being reduced to slogging up the mountain.  However, this meant having to watch several people disappear ahead of me but I kept telling myself that I would most likely catch them on my way down.

Several people who were running just up ahead of me or near me were running continuously, no walk breaks just a slow steady jog.  Even though I was keeping up with them I was still impressed by their efforts.  I knew that if I tried to run this thing continuously I would have blown up within a mile or two and been forced to walk.  I’ve done enough racing to know that I have to run my own race using my own strategy and part of that strategy is to never put myself in a position where I have to walk.  I will always start hiking or walking before my body tells me I must and that keeps me stronger longer.  Using my strategy at Tesuque I slowly churned out the miles playing leap-frog with several runners for the first couple miles and then gradually leaving them behind while catching new runners as I neared the peak.  The views from the top were amazing.  With the crystal clear New Mexico sky you could see for miles in all directions but I didn’t linger because I wanted to see how many people I could catch and pass before the finish line.

The descent off the peak was invigorating at first and then it became increasingly sketchy as my legs tired and the rocky road continued on and on in a relentless descent.  On the way down I averaged about 7:23 minute miles, passed several people and was passed by no one.  Even though the road was not technical the rocks, dappled shade and weariness caused by staying so focused on your footing really took its toll.  About half-way down the mountain a guy maybe 10 yards ahead of me tripped on a rock and went down hard.  I imagine it was pretty painful because there was nowhere soft to land just a packed dirt road imbedded with rocks.

I continued my descent and tried not to think too much about the guy who went down because I knew that would start making me paranoid and overly cautious.  Onward I hammered trying to stay focused and trying to stay upright.  I finally reached the finish line in 2:03:59, not a great time but it put me in the top third of the pack overall and I felt really good about my effort.  As I waited for the GeekGrl I helped myself to the best breakfast burrito I’ve ever had at a race finish and in New Mexico that’s actually saying a lot.

The Big Tesuque Trail Run is a very cool race, tough but well worth repeating.  If you’ve never run it and are in the area I would definitely say this is a must do race, a real New Mexican classic.