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” You wake up in the morning to the finest views of all, breathed the freshest air in the world, and have a whole mountain to call your own.”  -Ray Kresek, Fire Lookouts of the Northwest


 

Like many people I first become aware of fire lookouts through the writings of Jack Kerouac. In Dharma Bums, he recounts the summer he spent on Desolation Peak in the North Cascades. He went there to escape from society (and its temptations) and to focus on his writing.

Edward Abbey, Norman Maclean, Gary Synder and other famous authors have also found the solitude of lookouts to be conducive to the writing process. In fact, one of my favorite books from the last few years, Fire Season by Philip Connors, tells the story of his time as a lookout in New Mexico, about as far as you can get from his previous job at the Wall Street Journal.

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There were once more than 8000 fire lookouts in this country, but now less than 2000 remain. Those that are no longer used for wild fire detection are decommissioned and often get vandalized over time.

The Forest Fire Lookout Association was started in 1990 with a goal to preserve these beautiful historic structures. They created a National Historic Lookout Register and organize volunteers to renovate distressed lookouts. To help finance upkeep, some lookouts are available for rental.

The idea of spending time away from civilization, surrounded by nature on a remote peak has always been incredibly appealing to me. Yoshimi and I have been renting lookouts since 2002 and have now stayed in about a dozen different structures in the Pacific Northwest.

The rental process used to involve lotteries and wait lists, all conducted via snail mail with local ranger stations. It was so confusing and inconvenient that few people went through the hassle, which was an advantage if you were willing to put up with the clunky system.

Now all lookouts can be rented through a single website that shows all available dates. The process has become so convenient that competition for rentals has increased substantially. To get a reservation now you must book it six months beforehand during the very first minute a lookout becomes available online. We’ve figured out how to play the game and now just make our plans way in advance.

Recently we spent four days at Gold Butte lookout in the Willamette National Forest. Here are some photos from the trip:

Home sweet home

Home Sweet Home

Mt. Jefferson to the east

Mt. Jefferson and other Cascade volcanoes along the eastern horizon

Nothing cosier than a wood burning stove

Nothing cosier than a wood burning stove

Gold Butte lookout was built in 1934 and like many others is 14′ x 14′ square with 360 degree views. There’s no electricity or running water, just a wood burning stove for heat and a little Coleman propane stove for cooking. Every morning I’d hike a mile down to the car to get enough water and firewood to get us through the day. I felt like a pioneer prepping the homestead to survive another day.

Sunrise view from bed

Sunrise view from bed

Specialty of the House

Specialty of the House

Another lazy day in paradise

Another lazy day in paradise

We’ve stayed at lookouts in good weather and bad and both have their appeal. The key is to bring along lots of food, drinks, books and games. That way you’ll be prepared for any possible mood or whim.

An otherworldly sunset

An otherworldly sunset

Who doesn't love a good knot tying game

Who doesn’t love a good knot tying game

A rainy hike back down to civilization

A rainy hike back down to civilization

While staying at a lookout, life is reduced to the simple pleasures of eating, drinking, reading, walking and sleeping. We didn’t see or hear anyone in our four days there and hardly thought of the outside world at all. I can think of no better way to spend a vacation.

logo_colorIn February of this year while visiting family in Florida I received notification that I had won the lottery.  No, no, not THAT lottery…the Cascade Crest lottery.  Every year hundreds of runners register for this beautiful 100 mile mountain race in Washington state.  To retain its pure wilderness integrity, the organizers limit the number of participants to 150 and hold a lottery to determine who gets in.  I was one of the “lucky” ones.

I spent the last six months training with this one goal in mind.  It was a long slow buildup with a few tune up races along the way.  It’s a struggle to find the right balance between too much and not enough training.  I’ve found that the biggest challenge for me isn’t getting the finish line, but rather, figuring out how to get to the starting line feeling healthy, rested and injury-free.

cascade_crest-760x400Two years ago I ran my first 100 mile race in Arizona.  It was an incredible experience running through the Sonoran desert for nearly 24 hours.  That race, however, was pretty straightforward–multiple 15 mile loops on smooth trail with minimal elevation change.  Cascade Crest, on the other hand, is one giant 100 mile loop through the mountains, much of it on technical single-track trail and with over 21,000 feet of elevation gain.  Aesthetically it’s an amazingly beautiful course, but also one of the toughest races in the country.

9432337My plan was to take it slow, power hike the steep uphill sections and keep my competitive instincts in check.  It was the first time in any race where my goal was simply to finish.  I didn’t care about my time or place.  I just wanted to get in done before the 32 hour cutoff time.  And hopefully have a (relatively) good time in the process.

The race has three volunteers for every one runner and the 15 aid stations were staffed and stocked to the gills.  A tremendous amount of energy is needed for a race of this length, so I used these pit stops as an opportunity to consume calories like my life depended on it.  Some of the many things I ate along the way were: pizza, guacamole, bacon, ramen, quesadillas, turkey avocado wraps, PB&J’s, pretzels, Pringles, M&M’s, granola bars, hummus, watermelon, chicken noodle soup, and pierogies.  I might be the only runner in history to put on weight during a 100 mile race.

Ultramarathon Aid StationI hit the halfway mark at around 12 hours, at which point I got to experience one of the unique aspects of this race–a 2.3 mile abandoned railroad tunnel under Snoqualmie Pass.  This section is part of the John Wayne Pioneer Trail, which runs from Seattle to the Idaho border.  It was cool, damp and kind of creepy inside the tunnel.  I ran in the bubble of light created by my headlamp and could hear the echo of footsteps behind me.  It was nice to run on smooth flat terrain for a change, but still,  I was happy to finally see that light at the end of the tunnel.

irontMy buddy Jon met me at the next aid station and would run with me for the rest of the race.  Having a pacer is a traditional component of 100 mile races.  Not everyone chooses to have one, but it’s nice to have a friend along to share the experience and to help get you to the finish.  Jon is a veteran of nine 100 mile races, so I was thrilled when he offered to pace me.

Running through the night was psychologically the most difficult part of the race.  Jon and I spent hours swapping stories and then sometimes went miles without saying a single word.  Every once in a while we’d shut off our headlamps and gaze up at the cloud-like density of the stars overhead.  The miles really started to drag in the last few hours before sunrise and one section, nicknamed the Trail from Hell, took us more than 3 hours to go just 5 miles.

I caught a second wind with the rising sun (and a bottle of Starbucks Frappuccino someone gave me at an aid station).  That stuff is like jet fuel!  We started passing other runners, using the Beastie Boys’ “Body Movin” as our mantra.  The No Name Ridge aid station was staffed by several women dressed in Hooters uniforms, serving fresh-off-the-skillet chicken quesadillas.  It was like a dream, and now in hindsight, I wonder if I was, in fact, hallucinating.

hooters_tshirtsThe next 10 mile section of trail was referred to as the Cardiac Needles, an intimidating-sounding proposition 80 miles into a race.  This series of steep ascents and descents completely trashed my legs.  Many people used trekking poles to get through this section.  I was happy to find a walking stick to help take some of the pressure off my quads.

The highest point on the course is the Thorpe Mountain fire lookout.  Everyone was required take a paper ticket from the base of the lookout to prove that you actually tagged this high point.  I felt like Charlie from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, running down the trail clutching my golden ticket.

thorploOnce the Cardiac Needles were behind me, I knew I’d have no trouble finishing before the 32 hour cutoff.  As we dropped back down to civilization an afternoon thunderstorm rolled in.  It cooled things off and dampened down the trail dust.  The rain was cleansing and gave the nature surrounding us a newfound freshness.  I felt revitalized and started to fully savor the magnitude of this journey.  In a world filled with near-constant stimulation, there is a noticeable lack of time for contemplation.  I feel incredibly blessed to have had this opportunity to let my mind and body aimlessly wonder for more than 30 hours.

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Some races, like certain individuals, are preceded by formidable reputations.  I first heard of the White River 50 when I lived in Seattle in the early 90′s.  One of my roommate’s co-workers at REI was an early adapter of the endurance junkie lifestyle.  He spent every non-working hour climbing glaciated peaks, cycle touring the Pacific coast and running Forrest Gump-like distances.  When he told me that he was doing a 50 mile mountain race, I assumed it was one of those multi-day Eco Challenge events.  I couldn’t imagine anyone running that far in a single day.

These were the days when the marathon had yet to go mainstream–before Oprah inspired thousands of her followers to take up the challenge.  At the time I considered myself to be a serious runner because I used to jog around Green Lake a few times a week.  And like many others I thought 26.2 miles to be the ultimate running goal.  The thought of going nearly twice that far seemed absurd.

When this guy told me how fun it was to spend the whole day running through the mountains, I can remember thinking, “Yeah, I’d like to do that someday (not a real soon kind of someday, more like an eventually kind of someday).”  Well, twenty years later that someday has finally come.  A few weeks ago I ran the White River 50 and now it’s my turn to try and convince you how fun can be to run up and over mountains.

white_river_50My buddy Greg and I drove up there the day before and camped just outside of Mt. Rainier National Park.  The campground was beautiful, right on the White River and filled with old growth Douglas fir, including a 700 year old behemoth with a 9.5 foot diameter.

The 6am starting time corresponded perfectly with sunrise, so there was no need for a headlamp.  At the pre-race briefing the director described the course as having only two hills and then pointed to the pair of mountains towering over us on either side.  Race veterans smiled and chuckled to themselves, while us virgins adopted looks of greater concern.

The starting line with the first "hill" above us

The starting line with the first “hill” 3300 feet above us

My goal was to start out slow, get up and down that first hill and save as much energy as possible for the second half of the race.  There were more than 300 people who started the race this year, making it one the biggest 50 mile trail races in the country.  It was fun having so many people to run with and gave the race a real social feel to it.

Early on I met a guy from Portland who lives just a few minutes away from me.  We spent several miles talking about some of our favorite bars and restaurants, which helped to make the elevation gain seem a bit easier.  The climb up that first hill was long (about 8 miles) and steep in places.  Many times we were reduced to power hiking.

The top had some great views of Mt. Rainier and the White River valley below us.  Just before the second aid station we were greeted by Glenn Tachiyama, probably the most famous trail running photographer.  I don’t normally buy race photos, but I could resist one of Glenn’s classics.

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The long cruise back down into the valley was not as fun as you’d think.  The trail was super technical and a momentary lapse of concentration could easily result in some airtime.  A group of 5 of us charged down the trail together like a runaway train.  We got into a collective zone state, not talking at all and just concentrating on the feet of the runner in front of each of us.

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I was happy when the trail eventually leveled out just before the 4th aid station.  The first half of the race was now finished and I was feeling a bit more beat up than I should have at that point.  Psychologically it was tough to be back where we’d started and for a moment I thought how nice it would be to stop now, go back to camp and take an afternoon nap.  But no, there was still one more hill that needed to be climbed before any naps could be embarked upon.

The trail up to Sun Top Mountain was 8.5 miles and had nearly 3000 feet of elevation gain.  It was now almost noon and the climb was long, hot and exposed.  I started to get frustrated and feel sorry for myself.  These are the times when I begin to wonder why I don’t partake in more typical middle aged pursuits like golf or tennis.  Or maybe I should grow a goatee and a ponytail and buy a Harley.  With every step these ideas sounded better and better.

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The volunteers at the aid station on the summit of Sun Top Mountain were having a blast watching our battered bodies roll in.  I chowed down on two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches before announcing that these were the best sandwiches I’ve ever had.  That mix of sweet and salty, carb and protein was just what my body was craving.  I grabbed one more for the long descent down into the valley.

The last 13 miles were a bit of a death march.  Even though there were no more climbs, the downhills trashed my quads.  The goal now was to just hang on and keep it together through the finish.  I eventually lost track of the distance and asked a guy hiking the trail how much further till the finish.  He said, “half mile, three quarters of a mile at the most.”  I don’t normally place too much trust in other people’s estimates, but this guy’s answer was so definite.

I cranked up the pace now knowing that there were only about 5 more minutes of suffering to endure.  I passed a runner, then another and then a third and fourth.  The last “half mile” was more like two miles and wanted to kill that guy and his seriously flawed estimate.  But I also wanted to thank him for inadvertently causing me to push harder and finish strong.

Nine hours and thirty six minutes is a long time to run through the mountains (and unfortunately didn’t leave me with enough afternoon for an afternoon nap).  It was, however, a lot of fun and a completely different feel than the rolling hills of many of the ultras I’ve done in the last few years.  In two weeks, I’ll get the chance to see how much fun mountain running really can be when I take on twice the distance in the Cascade Crest 100.  Wish me luck…I’ll definitely need it.

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Mount-St.-Helens-eruption-1980

The focus of my fifth grade science class was natural disasters and like many kids I thought earthquakes, volcanoes, tornadoes and tsunamis were the coolest things EVER!  What was not cool, however, was living in boring western Pennsylvania where none of these crazy catastrophic events occurred.  All we had was the stupid Johnstown Flood and that was almost a hundred years ago.

But then right before the end of the school year, Mount St. Helens erupted.  It may have been on the other side of the country, but still, it was an American volcano–the biggest eruption this country has ever seen.  Then and there I promised myself that as soon as I was old enough to get a driver’s license, I would go and see this ash-spewing American icon.  And since I’d be in the neighborhood, maybe discover Bigfoot as well.

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It took a bit longer than expected, but eventually I did move to the Pacific Northwest and have since climbed, hiked and snowboarded the slopes of Mount St. Helens many times (though I never did find Bigfoot).

Despite its flattened top, St. Helens is still a beautiful mountain, like a Cascadian Kilimanjaro.  On a clear day it’s visible from many parts of Portland and it always makes me smile when it catches my eye.

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Recently my soul has been craving some form of adventure.  Too many 40 hour weeks in an office behind a computer will do that to you.  On a run-commute home from work last week, I got a glimpse of St. Helens and thought it might be fun to spend a day running around that bad boy.

A few days later I got up at 2am, had quick breakfast and was at the trailhead by 4:30.  The excursion started with a short run up to June Lake before connecting to the round-the-mountain Loowit Trail.  I touched the trail sign for good luck and paused for a few minutes to decide if I should go right or left.  Thinking that it might be best to get through dry and exposed sections before it got too hot, I opted to go counter clockwise.  Not realizing at that point that the whole day would be hot, dry and exposed.

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I got over the first ridge just as the sun was starting to rise.  It lit up a beautiful meadow that stretched down to treeline and roused a herd of elk warming up to a new day.  Above me a few mountain goats scrambled along crumbling cliffs.  It was like being in some type of fairy tale land.

The first section of trail goes through an area called the Plains of Abraham.  This flat moon-like landscape extends for miles along the eastern side of the mountain.  The trail then crosses over Windy Pass, which is in the blast zone, an area still being actively studied by volcanologists.  For hours I ran across this vast empty plain.  Without any trees or other identifying features you can’t help but feel small and insignificant.

The raging Toutle River brought me back to reality.  The trail descended more than a thousand feet and then deadended with a steep dropoff down to the river.  A tattered old climbing rope tied around a tree was the only indication that this was the right way to go.  I rappelled down to the river, filled up my hydration pack and ate my last energy bar.  I’d been running for 8 hours and still had more than 10 miles to go.

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The miles now seemed to drag on forever as the trail meandered through boulder-strewn lava fields.  Everytime I looked at my watch another hour or two had passed despite little forward progress being made.  I had gone the whole day without seeing a single person and then when I finally did, it was as if I had forgotten all the rules of society.  Like I had reverted to some primitive animalistic state.

Without thinking I blurted out the first thing that popped into my head, “Do you have any food?”  He was a bit taken back by my directness, but then asked me if I liked Fig Newtons.  I could have eaten a whole supermarket aisle of Fig Newtons at that point.  After scarfing down the cookies, I remembered my manners and learned that he was from Atlanta and was spending a few days hiking around the mountain.  He was happy to lighten his load and offered me some more snacks before heading on his way.

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The Fig Newtons powered me through the rest of the run.  Once again I touched the Loowit Trail sign, this time in appreciation of a safe passage.  It had taken me more than 13 hours to complete the loop around the mountain.  My soul had been craving an adventure and it most definitely got one.

Would I do this St. Helens run again?  Probably not.  Would I recommend it?  Without a doubt.  To paraphrase an old Japanese expression regarding Mt. Fuji:  It is foolish not to climb Fuji-San, but only a fool climbs it more than once.

smith-curve

Few people outside of the climbing community realize that one the best rock climbing areas in the world can be found just a few hours from Portland at Smith Rock in central Oregon.  In the mid-80′s pioneers like Alan Watts began putting up bolted routes and Smith (as it’s known locally) became a mecca for climbers willing to push it to new levels.

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You don’t, however, need to a be a climber to enjoy this wonderful state park.  There are miles of hiking trails along the aptly named Crooked River with views of the snow-capped Cascade volcanoes lined up along the horizon.  For the rock climbing curious, I’d highly recommend a hike up Misery Ridge for a look up at the iconic Monkey Face tower.  The exhilarating view will either turn you into a climbing junkie or put you off of the sport forever.

'Monkey Face'

In 2013 Go Beyond Racing organized the inaugural 15 mile Smith Rock Ascent.  It was so successful that this year they added a 32 mile option.  Both races are part of the popular Northwest Mountain Trail Series.

My buddy Greg and I drove down the day before and camped at Pelton Park.  The campground is managed by PGE (Portland General Electric), which built a dam that created Lake Simtustus.  Our site was right across from a friendly family from Guam that was spending the whole month camping, partying and catching up with various members of their large extended family.

The day of the race turned out to be cool, cloudy and with a recent dose of rain to keep the high desert dust under control.  For the first time in a long time I didn’t feel nervous beforehand.  My plan was to use this race as part of the buildup towards my ultimate goal for the year, the Cascade Crest 100 in August.

I recognized a few faces at the starting line including Kami Semick, a North Face sponsored athlete who lives in nearby Bend.  One look at the muscles in her twisted cable-like legs and you immediately understand why she’s one of the top trail runners in the country.

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The race started out with a nice meander along the Crooked River before gaining 2000 feet up to Grey Butte.  From there it was a gradual descent down into the grasslands north of Smith.  At around mile twelve I got into a groove and was content in my solitude.  But then a blond ponytail cruised by me like I was standing still.  Well, actually I was standing still, peeing behind a bush alongside the trail.

My ego doesn’t like to be passed and it forced me to catch up with her.  She looked strong and had great form.  I snuck by her on a technical section and thought that would be the last I’d see of her.  But sure enough she caught up few miles later on a wide forest road and I figured we might as well have a chat.

The first thing she said was, ‘Wow, I thought this was going to be harder.”  That’s an idea that honestly has never popped into my head while running long distances.  She went on to say that this was her first race.  Not her first ultra race…her first running race…at any distance.

It turns out that she’s an elite level rower and after ten years of extensive training narrowly missed out on qualifying for the Olympics.  That made me feel a little better.  We had a nice conversation over the next few miles, talking about traveling, books (including The Boys in the Boat) and this crazy sport of running.  Eventually I got to a point where I couldn’t focus on the trail and the conversation at the same time, so I moved on ahead.

The last aid station at mile 27 was run by the fine folks at Animal Athletics, a Portland-based running club whose Thursday night social runs are always a good time.  We exchanged a few hi’s and goodbye’s and they told me that if I pushed it I could still break five hours.

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This next section had some great views of the Cascade volcanoes and as much as I wanted to stop and admire the view I knew I had to keep cranking it.  The last few miles turned out to be a quad-burning descent down a rocky forest road.  I was happy to pass a couple of guys, but still really wanted to finish in under five hours.

After huffing it up the final hill I turned the corner just as the first digit on the finish line clock turned from 4 to 5.  I crossed the line at 5:00:04 and the first thought that entered my head was, “Damn, I knew I shouldn’t have stopped to pee.”

The rower got in a few minutes later and I congratulated her on running a great race and being the third place women’s finisher.  This girl has a serious future in ultra running.

Over burgers and beers I caught up with a few local runners, including the men’s winner, Jeff Browning.  Jeff is a 100 mile specialist (he’s won more than ten races at that distance).  What I find even more impressive in following his blog is how he manages to balance family, work and running.  That is a greater accomplishment than any 100 mile victory.

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A few years ago on a cross country road trip we completely lost track of time in southern Utah (trust me, it’s easy to do).  Over breakfast at a cafe in Moab I realized that we still had more than 1000 miles to drive and less than 24 hours to be back at work.  We paid the bill, hit the road and made it to back to Portland with a few hours to spare.

Afterwards it blew my mind that we could traverse so quickly across several rugged western states.  What took us less than a day would have taken early American pioneers many difficult months.  And while we had to put up with bad gas station coffee and greasy fast food, they had to endure horrendous weather, attacks from Native American tribes and the constant threat of starvation.   One of my favorite books of 2014, Astoria by Peter Stark, tells the story of just such a journey.

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In 1810 John Jacob Astor financed an expedition to establish the first commercial settlement on the west coast.  His plan was to funnel all the western fur trade down the Columbia River to where it meets the Pacific Ocean in present-day Astoria.  He would collect these furs, transport them across the Pacific and sell them at a huge markup in Hong Kong.

He would then purchase porcelain, tea and other Chinese luxury goods that he would send to London and sell for a substantial profit.  That money would be used to buy manufactured trade goods that he would ship across the Atlantic and sell at, you guessed it, another enormous markup.  The plan was ingenious and incredibly ambitious.  It was also an epic failure.  And failure, I’m sure you’ll agree, makes for a much more compelling read than success.

Peter Stark is a long-time correspondent for Outside Magazine and his book, Astoria, has the flow of a well-written and well-researched magazine piece.  Like many of my favorite non-fiction titles, it contains elements of several genre:  science, history, exploration, adventure and survival.  After finishing the book in a single weekend I was left with a desire to talk to Peter and hear more about this incredible story.

Recently he was in Portland on a book tour and we got together for a chat.  He was a super nice guy and had the look of someone who’s spent much of his life playing in the outdoors.  We had a lot in common and immediately hit it off.  He even invited me to stay at his home in Montana.  I’ll have to remember to put aside a little extra time at the end of my next road trip.

Here’s a link to my interview with Peter…enjoy!

 

texas state

It’s been another long wet winter here in the Pacific Northwest.  I took an extended break from running and was slow to begin training again.  There were some dark times when I seriously began to question the role running plays in my life.  But I have since seen the error in my ways and have once again embraced the long run as a path to a higher consciousness.  It’s good to be back.

Last week I was in San Antonio for a children’s book conference and thought it would be fun to kick off the season with a race in the Lone Star State.  There’s a series of ultra distance races there called Tejas Trails that are run by a guy named Joe Prusaitis.  Joe puts on well organized races, including several national championships and is known for his unique sense of humor (“If you get lost during the race, please be sure to tell me afterwards so I can charge you for the extra distance.”)

hellshills

Hell’s Hills is a multi-distance trail race in Smithville, Texas, about 40 miles south of Austin.  It was my first race in six months and I really didn’t know what to expect.  My goal was to put in a decent showing so I’d have the confidence to keep training and racing hard through the summer.

The 50k (31 miles) started at 6am, which meant that we’d be running the twisty trails for an hour before sunrise.  I don’t run well in the dark, so I decided to take it out at a slow pace and wait for the sun to rise.

During the first mile, there was a guy running right on my heels.  I asked him if he wanted to pass.  He said that he had forgotten his headlamp and asked if I wouldn’t mind if we ran together until it was light out.  No worries, I had certainly forgotten a fair bit a gear in races past.  He was a nice kid, an engineer from France named Victor.  This was his first ultra trail run, making the transition from being a road marathon runner.

We hit the first aid station at mile 6, just as the sun was starting to peek through the pine trees.  Victor took off, no longer in need of me and my handlamp.  I went with him and we ran a few miles together with me doing the tailgating this time.  Eventually we caught up to another speedster and the three of us started to really push it.  I soon realized, however, they were taking it way too fast for me and I let them go.

When they took off I remember thinking, “Go on boys.  You have your fun.  But just you remember that this old buck’s got some hair on his antlers and I just might have to teach you youngins a thing or two before this day is done.”  For some weird reason this thought had a Texas accent.  My thoughts don’t usually have accents, do yours?

blue bonnets

The most beautiful section of that first 15.5 mile loop was a field exploding with Texas bluebonnet wildflowers.  It was like running through a dream.  Everyone slowed down and had big smiles plastered across their faces.  If I wasn’t running this race I would have rolled around in the meadow like a big old labrador retriever.

After the first loop I dropped off my headlamp and grabbed a few energy gels to get me through round two.  The sun was now fully up, but luckily the temperature still remained pretty comfortable.  I got unto a zone and tried to run at a consistent pace.  The miles fly by at the beginning of a race, but the closer you get to the finish, the more…they seem…to drag.  The field of bluebonnets once again picked up my spirits.  Come on man, only 5 more miles to go.

Soon thereafter I saw Victor and the speedster still running together.  I wasn’t feeling that great, but  figured if I had caught up to them they must be feeling even worse.  I bid my time, trying to keep my heart rate in check, waiting for the perfect moment.  I snuck up on them at the base of a little hill and zoomed by without any of the normal, “how’s it going?” “looking good” or “almost there” pleasantries.  I wanted to appear strong (even though I was far from it) and put as much distance between them and me as possible.

Cheetah Antelope

I was now running scared and fear, I’ve found, is a very effective motivator.  The antelope has a greater incentive to escape than the cheetah does to capture.  Survival will always trump hunger when push comes to shove.  With a mile to go the trail left the pine forest and opened up onto a wide dirt road.  If I was still in sight of the speedsters I knew they would hunt me down.  Finally with about a half mile to go I took a quick glance over my shoulder.  The cheetahs were no where to be found.  I would survive another day.

Even though the ultra scene in Texas is not quite at the same level as it is here in Oregon, I was still happy to finish in 8th place overall.  Victor finished two minutes behind me and said that he enjoyed the friendly competition during the race.  We hung out together afterwards, sharing snacks and stories about running and traveling.  I’m convinced that he won’t be going back to road racing.  Another happy trail running convert.

 

 

Pathway in the autumn forest

At it’s root my love of running is just an extension of a deeper desire to move, to walk, hike, climb, travel and race.  This need to move is something I feel I inherited from my mother.  She’s not a runner or a big international traveler, but she does love a good road trip.

When I was growing up she would think nothing of packing up us kids in the car and driving across several states to visit Niagara Falls or Lake Erie, an Atlantic coast beach or the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  In winter she would sometimes take us to a Holiday Inn a couple hours away just so we could swim in it’s heated indoor pool.  She taught me that freedom is movement, limited only by a lack of imagination.

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Earlier this year I thought it would be fun to combine her favorite form of movement with mine:  a road trip to a long distance running race.  The Tussey Mountainback Ultramarathon is held in State College, PA about three hours of beautiful autumn driving from my hometown near Pittsburgh.  And this year it was the site of the USATF 50 Mile National Championship.

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Three weeks before the race I hit a low point.  I was stressed out from my new position at work and not fully recovered from a busy summer of racing.  My body felt like it was right on the verge of getting sick or injured or both, so I dialed back the mileage and ramped up the amount of sleep I got each night.  The interesting thing was that as the body recovered, my confidence eroded from the lack of intense training.  Funny how that works, huh?  On the flight to Pittsburgh I felt strong of body, yet weak of mind.

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After a day in my hometown visiting with the extended family, my Mom and I drove out to State College.  At the pre-race pasta dinner, we were treated to some training advice from last year’s winner, Zach Bitter.  He told us that he once put in a 600 mile training month.  That’s 20 miles a day!  Race director, Mike Casper, introduced us to 93 year old running legend, George Etzweiler.  He was running the race as part of a relay.  His team, “The Old Men of the Mountains” had an average age of 65 and included his 10 year old great grand daughter.  What an inspiration.

The morning of the race I wasn’t sure who was more nervous, me or my Mom.  The weather was cool, crisp and windy.  The day before we drove the first few miles of the course.  It was all uphill, not too steep, but a long, slow, steady incline.  We turned around at mile three.  I didn’t want to see anymore.  This year there were 180 runners in the ultramarathon and 108 relays teams that consisted of 2 to 8 runners.  The course was mostly gravel roads with lots of hills.  Either you’re going up or down with not a whole lot of in between.

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At the starting line I recognized some faces I’d seen in running magazines and websites:  Matt Flaherty, David Riddle, Connie Gardner, Cassie Scallon and Scott Dunlap, who has one of the most popular ultra running sites, A Trail Runner’s Blog.  Scott always runs with a camera, so his photos have a unique “in-the-moment” perspective.  There are not many sports where you can line up with and compete against some of your heroes.  Well, maybe not compete against, but at least I can line up next to them.

The race itself was bit of a blur for me.  i know it’s hard to believe that a 50 mile race could be a blur, but that’s really how it felt.  I spent the day totally in a zone, thinking only about fueling, hydrating and trying not to push it too hard.  The temperature was in the high 40′s, a perfect “not too hot, not too cold” balance.

I think that long three week taper in training really helped to get me to the starting line healthy and injury-free.  The whole day I keep thinking how lucky I am to be in this beautiful place and doing this thing that I love.  And to have my Mom waiting for me at the finish line.  Life is good.

Through to be honest I wasn’t feeling all that good at mile 45 during the last long ascent.  But once I got over that final hump it was a fun fast finish.  Psychologically there’s nothing better than ending  with a smooth downhill cruise.  With five miles to go I tried to calculate my pace and probable finishing time, but my carb-depleted brain wasn’t firing on all cylinders.  My goal was to run sub 7:30, but with a couple miles to go I decided to push for 7:20.

My brain tricked me into believing that there was someone right on my tail getting ready to pass me.  I pushed even harder, not wanting to lose a place so late in the race.  It wasn’t until the last 100 yards that I finally allowed myself a glace over my shoulder.  Of course no one was there.  I crossed the finish line with a big smile on my face.

My Mom was also smiling.  I felt like I had been gone a long long time.  The clock said 7 hours and 17 minutes, but it seemed like I’d been away for more than a week.  Back at the car, my Mom gave me her leftover breakfast.  The bacon and hashbrowns tasted like heaven.

Afterwards we checked with the timekeeper and realized that I finished in 14th place overall and 5th in the over 40 Master’s division.  And since this was the National Championship I’d be getting a $100 check from the USATF.  Though I was disappointed to learn that it wouldn’t be one of those giant checks you see on TV.  I’ve always wanted to try and deposit one of those bad boys into an ATM.

After the race there was pizza, beer and pulled pork sandwiches.  Runners swapped stories as the sun dipped over the hills and a local bluegrass band jammed the day away.  It was the perfect end to a perfect race.  On the drive back to Pittsburgh my Mom and I decided that as long as I could still run and she could still drive, we’d make this an annual traditional.  I’m already looking forward to next year.

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endless summer

Summer started early for me this year with a flight to South Africa in the beginning of March.  I was able to squeeze the last two months of good weather out of the southern hemisphere and then return home just in time for summer to kick in here.  All in all it’s been over six months of near perfect running weather.

One of my goals for 2013 was to race less. Last year I felt that I overraced and underperformed as a result  However, I knew that trying to race less would be a challenge.  For me races are a social as well as a competitive outlet.  Long distance running can be a pretty solitary activity, so I always look forward to the opportunity get together with other like-minded (and slightly off-kilter) individuals to compete, catch up, compare notes, swap stories and share a few beers.

For the first half of the year, I was able to stick to this run more/race less plan.  I’ve had less success, however, in the last few months.  Once summer settles in here in the Pacific Northwest the races start arriving fast and furious.  Soon my dance card was filled through the end of the October.  I’ve now done 4 races in the last 3 months and sometimes it feels like this summer has been a recurring cycle of race, recover, repeat.  Here’s an overview of my endless summer of running.

White Salmon Backyard Half Marathon

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There’s a lot to love about the White Salmon Backyard Half.  First of all, it’s cheap.  Actually it’s free, but there’s a suggested donation of $12 (all proceeds support the White Salmon cross country team).  The race is nearly all trail and almost all uphill for the first half.  It then finishes fast with a fun five mile descent.  There are some incredible views and the overall feeling is down home and local.  This is the way I imagine all races were back in the 60′s and 70′s.  It was a great race to start off the summer season and I was happy to finish in 14th place.  I’d highly recommend the Backyard Half to anyone who loves to run trail.

Mt. Hood 50

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A 50 miles race on the Pacific Crest Trail with views of Mt. Hood and Timothy Lake…Sign me up.  Registration for this popular race opens in December (more than seven months in advance) and fills up in just a few days.  The Mt. Hood 50 has been around for a few years, but recently became part of the new Northwest Mountain Trail Series.

My buddy Greg and I drove up there the day before and camped at the appropriately named Frog Lake.  Race day started out cool and crisp, the perfect way to begin a long day of trail running.  I ran the first few miles with a girl from Vancouver, B.C.  As we chatted away the miles rolled mindlessly by.  At around the halfway point I started to pick up the pace a bit and was joined by a raven swooping ahead of me along the trail.  I can remember my carb-depleted brain thinking, “Whoa man, this must be my spirit animal guiding me back to the motherland.”  I became so transfixed by this raven that I took a wrong turn and lost more than five minutes.  Damn you spirit animal!

The second half of the race was hot and exposed with some long ups and downs.  Between miles 40 and 45 there was one hill in particular that seemed to drag on and on forever.  Fortunately the last five miles was a smooth fast descent, just like the Backyard Half.  I finished in 7:48 and in 16th place overall.  This race was more competitive in 2013 than it has been in the past with some of the top finishers this year from Colorado, Utah, Arizona and British Columbia.  I guess Oregon’s ultras have now become destination races.

Transcendence 12 Hour Endurance Run

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OK, I’ll be the first to admit that this one is kind of crazy.  Instead of the race having a set distance (like 50 miles or 10 kilometers), there is a set time (12 hours).  Whoever runs furthest within the time limit is the winner.  It’s a simple concept, but psychologically challenging because not everyone is running the same distance.

The Transcendence Run is a 1.5 mile loop of Capital Lake in downtown Olympia.  We would be going round and round from 6am to 6pm.  I know that this may sound boring, but really it wasn’t.  In a long trail race, it’s not uncommon to spend hours running alone.  At the Transcendence it was super social:  people running in groups, taking long breaks, no one in too much of hurry.

For the first hour I ran with John Ticer, a fireman from Eugene.  He’s been running ultras for over 30 years and had such a cool laidback demeanor.  As the day progressed the miles and the hours seem to fly by.  I’d see Yoshimi every lap, except for when she’d leave to grab coffee or lunch or hit up some of the local thrift shops.  I took energy gels every 30 minutes, constantly sipped on sports drinks and munched too many bananas to count.

At around the 10 hour/60 mile mark  my stomach started to rebel and I couldn’t take in any more calories.  I was in second place at that point, but I soon slowed down dramatically.  My mind started screaming at me to stop, to sit, to lay down, to sleep.  I secretly began to hope that Yoshimi would not be there when I completed this next lap.  I didn’t want her to see me suffer and really wanted to sit down without feeling guilty.

When I rolled into the aid station she was gone, and the urge to sit down became overwhelming.  Ahhhhh, the luxury of a simple camp chair.  I had just passed the 100 kilometer (62 mile) mark and can remember thinking, “100 is a nice round number…seems like a good place to stop…nothing to be embarrassed about…that’s a long way to run…I’ll just sit in this chair for two hours, grab some dinner and then head back to Portland…sounds like a pretty good plan to me.”

WAIT A MINUTE!  You can’t give up now.  My goal was not to run 100k.  My goal was to go for the whole 12 hours.  So even if I can’t run, I can at least walk the last 2 hours.

So walk I did, slowly and painfully.  All the runners that I had been passing all day were now passing me.  Some stopped and talked and tried to cheer me up.  I felt better after walking a lap and began walking another.  A women named Ginger stopped to talk with me.  She said that she was going to try and run 70 miles today.  I wished her luck before she took off running again.

That Ginger got me thinking.  If she could run 70 miles, then maybe I could too.  In fact, I could even try and beat her.  I started running again and was surprised that it wasn’t that much more difficult than walking.  I slowly picked up the pace and started to feel good again.

I don’t know where this second wind came from, but it pulled me through till the end.  I ran six miles in the last hour for a total of 72 miles for the day.  I finished in 3rd place, just behind John and just in front of Ginger.  After he finished, John ran with me the last few hundred yards to make sure I got that last lap in before the 12 hour cutoff.  What a great guy.

McKenzie River Trail Run 50K

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Two years ago, the MRTR was my first ultra distance race.  I can remember being so nervous beforehand.  But I wound up having so much fun that first year that I’ve decided to make this race an annual tradition.  Part of the appeal I’ll admit is the awesome campsite along the McKenzie River that Greg and I book six months in advance.  It’s the perfect place to chill out before and after a long run in the woods.

I felt confident as I lined up for the start of this year’s race.  I was well trained, injury free and had a thorough knowledge of the course.  It was going to be a good day.  With less then a minute before the start Greg looked over at me and said, “Dude, where’s your number?”  Shit!  What a boneheaded move.  I had left it in the car.

Just then the race started and we began running along the Carmen Reservoir.  When everyone turned left onto the McKenzie Trail, I continued straight to the car, quickly grabbed my number, pinned it on and was soon back on the trail.  Two minutes lost, no big deal.  But then the full extent of my mistake hit me.  I was now dead last on a narrow, uphill, single track trail.  The back-of-the-packers were talking, walking, and having a good time.  It was going to be a long stressful few miles to try and pass more than a hundred runners and get back on track.

But what could I really do?  The mistake was already made.  No point in getting too worried out about it.  So I picked up the pace and passed when I could and conserved energy when I couldn’t.  By around mile five things started to open up a bit.  By then I had lost at least ten minutes, but it was fun coming from behind and passing so many people.

All day long I just kept getting faster and faster.  Maybe this slow start was actually a blessing in disguise.  I ran for a while with a guy from Ohio who was running this race for the 16th year in a row.  He uses the race as an excuse to come back and visit his parents every year.  By the end of the race I was able pass 183 people, finish in 4:37 and get 16th place overall.  Maybe I should forget my number in the car more often.

It’s now the middle of September and summer’s not quite ready to give up the ghost.  Today was just about perfect here in Portland with a high of 81 degrees.  I’d love to add a few more weeks of good weather to this year of the endless summer.

boys in the boat

Recently the following question was posed on the website, irunfar, “Are runners better people on average than non-runners?”

Now this question may seem odd and even a bit presumptuous, but I would imagine that many of you have asked yourselves similar questions about the practitioners of your passions and professions.  If you are a musician, an artist, a teacher, a cyclist, a writer, or a traveler, I bet there were times when you felt that your fellow enthusiasts were better than the average folk.

Geoff Roes, a former ultrarunning champion, had an interesting take on this question.  He said, “I think that all people are inherently good people, but running does a huge part to help people to be closer to this reality.  People who have a daily practice like running tend to be healthier, more grounded, and happier.  It’s not that better people are attracted to running, it’s that running generally does a really good job of nurturing the goodness in people.”

I feel that the same could be said for any activity that is pursued on a daily basis and in a deliberate manner.  When you do something consistently, with a goal of progressive improvement, you will most likely be a healthier and happier person.  It doesn’t matter what that passion is, the key is to find one and pursue it wholeheartedly.

A few weeks ago I interviewed the author of The Boys in the Boat, a book about the 1936 University of Washington rowing team.  The team was made up of working class kids struggling through the worst of the Great Depression.  These nine guys discovered rowing and each other at a time when they most needed something to latch on to.  They were total underdogs that competed against the elite crews of Harvard, Yale, Oxford, Cambridge and eventually Hitler’s own German team at the Berlin Olympics.

It was a shared passion for rowing that gave these guys a sense of purpose and a common goal.  The end result of which was that they not only became better rowers, but better individuals as well.

Like many great works of nonfiction The Boys in the Boat contains elements of several genre:  sports, history, science and psychology.  It also has a great sense of time and place.  Before reading the book I hardly knew anything about collegiate rowing or the Great Depression or the fine art of boat building or the use of Nazi propaganda at the 1936 Olympics, but I loved learning about each of these interesting subcultures and specific points in history.

Here’s a link to the interview…Enjoy.

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