Friday, April 18, 2014

Phish and the Art of Trail Running

Back in 1994, I walked out of a concert in a gymnasium, no bigger than the size of your high school's, a changed person. I had undergone within its walls an experience that impacted me so deeply I could still account vital details for you today. The place was Bozeman, Montana, and the band was Phish.

What was it about Phish that was so life altering? It is really hard to put into words, but at that time everything I knew about music and about myself had changed. Music always had been a big part of my life, but this music was different-- it was exploratory; and just as any 18 year old is on a journey of discovery, this music seemed full of those themes of adventure. But it wasn't the lyrics, it was the structure of the songs, and how those structures were abandoned and left behind to seek and create new places. Having just moved out west from Georgia, seeing the Rocky Mountains for the first time and meeting people who were freer and less constrained in their dispositions, this kind of musical idea that made up Phish resonated with me. It seemed a lot like life to me.

It was also this move out west that began my lifelong passion for mountains and trails. While it wasn't until much later that the trail running bug bit me, I was spending more and more time in the mountains snowboarding, mountain biking, backpacking, camping, and just playing around. When I did get into running, and ran my first marathon, it wasn't long before I was seeking out the trails. Trail running, much like the music of Phish, is a break out of the normal b boundaries of sport. Take a road run, for example, and you have a nice, flat, even surface, with maybe a few exciting hills and hopefully some good scenery around. If a road run were music, it would probably be heard on the radio, maybe a little edgy but mostly predictable, standard fare. If you pump up the tempo you'd have some techno or metal. A trail run, on the other hand, winds and shifts, climbs and falls, and every step is like a note of music, atonal at times, with wandering guitar licks and fugues and spontaneity. The trail and the time are mere structures, like the outline of a song;  but the run is an exercise in variables with each step being an experiment, a risk, and more often than not a joyous discovery.

One way I would describe Phish is that their music creates a space. Think of a Beethoven symphony or Miles Davis and you'll get a sense of this. Music can very atmospheric, and this atmosphere can be like images or a painting unfolding in our minds. Sometimes that is straightforward, direct images from lyrics-- like if I'm listening to Wutang Clan, the images will be of dark nights in the ghetto, preparing an attack on a rival drug dealer…
If it is Beethoven, however, the space becomes pastoral, with splinters of light and rushing waters and the lone artist moving through the forest. With Phish, it is a lot of different things, but for me it would be like a painting that describes potential and adventure. The improvisational nature of the music forces the band into unknown places, and there is an amount of instability and precariousness that begs to be resolved.
I was in my late teens and early twenties when I was seeing tons of shows and listening to literally thousands of hours of the music-- a time when my pleasure receptors were burning indelible paths to the joy center of my brain. And it was also at that time that life's major themes were adventure, risk, and potential. When I listen to Phish I sometimes see a lot of these images from my youth; but mostly I see the stuff that made up and continues to make up my dreams-- that ever-searching, relentless thirst for life and all it has to offer. My mind is ignited in a bricolage of memories, places, friends, family, and future. There's always been something about Trey's guitar licks, Mike's bass lines, Page's melodies, and Fishman's super tight, super creative signatures that catapults me into this space of raw joy.
Trail running falls under that same umbrella. It is a creative process, one that requires the runner to co-create the space around them. A normal run will consist of blurring trees, streams of water, log hops, ferns and moss, distant peaks, green, green leaves, and a wealth of introspection, socializing, pain and low moments, and fun. It becomes formative in the way I think about life and relationships. There are a lot of lessons, both gentle and savage, on the trail. But the overwhelming lesson is that the best things in life happen through patience, through low moments of wanting to quit, through an amount of discomfort or even suffering, and finally through an arrival.

The long run:
Trail runners and mountain runners are often considered freakish by the non-running community for the amount of time and distance covered on the trail. The idea is simply mind boggling to a lot of people, and I don't blame them for that perception. In many ways, it is often ridiculous. I myself have often been smacked with that existential question: "What the hell am I doing out here?" But I think my desire to get out there on the super long hauls is made up of the same brainstuff that gets excited about a 58 minute Runaway Jim or a 31 minute Ghost. There is something magical that happens when you get out there for a while, slowly build a rhythm, go through some low moments, and then the highs become extremely high. The tension and resolution of long trail runs is what make them so amazing, and I think that is exactly what Phish does in their long, improvised jams. They beg to be resolved, but the longer it holds off, the more interesting the process becomes, and the more rewarding the resolution is when it finally arrives.

Every single Phish show, just like every trail run, is a different experience. That is why people will see multiple shows, and go on tour to see what the band does. Every show is a question of what the set list will look like (they have very rarely repeated any songs in a pair of nights), what deep cut songs are going to be dropped, and what shape many of the songs will take. It might seem extremely boring, but to the Phan every moment, every note is a moment brimming with promise. And it doesn't always work. Some nights the band doesn't click, or the jams get a little repetitive, or it just gets sloppy. But when everything comes together it is absolutely explosive, and made better by the fact that it isn't rehearsed, it isn't something perfected and polished and brought to you in a perfect package. The magic is happening right in front of you-- a once in a lifetime moment.

Don't get me wrong. These magic moments aren't accidental-- they are the result of hours, months, and years of the band practicing and playing shows, learning how they communicate musically with one another. It is precisely the discipline and rigorous attention to detail that allows them the freedom to break the musical boundaries on stage. The same is true for trail running. While a trail runner isn't concerned, at least on the trail, with perfect splits and precise effort the way a road runner is, the ability to run well is a product of many, many hours spent on the trail, perfecting form and skill, and knowing one's threshold, being able to move just beyond that. It requires intimate knowledge of one's own ability. Even among the professional ultra runners, you hear stories of the wheel's flying off, DNF's, becoming too sick or injured to finish. You'll even hear the winner talk about the low spot that they pushed through, or how everything seemed to just come together. But while the outcome might seem to fall in the fickle hands of lady fortune, the trail runner, whether for racing or for the pure enjoyment of group long runs on the weekend, works hard to put themselves in her graces. We all wanna have a good run.
One more quick word about the similarities: Both Phish and ultra trail running seem to foster a type of tribal community that you don't always get elsewhere. Sure, I know that any similar interests draw people into community, but not always as intensely as these. Both engender their own mythology and a prolific and specialized vernacular. Both have their "rock stars". Bryon Powell and Ultrarunner podcast have recently done for trail ultra running what Andy Gadiel did for Phish in the 90's-- given us plenty of stats and topics to geek out on endlessly. Both great runs and shows will be remembered and discussed, argued about and embellished for years to come.

In the end it is not about a particular brand of music or type of endurance activity, but more about the values that embody these facets of life. In fact, this may all just be in my head. But the way I see it, Phish and trail running are pointers to something much larger: a spirit of adventure, of grit and perseverance, and a spirit not afraid to get a little dirty and take risks. Furthermore, it is a spirit that requires faith that no matter how atonal the notes of life may resound, no matter how dismal the bonk of a long run, that there is sometimes great joy, sometimes an important lesson, and always a masterful resolution waiting at the end of the journey. 

Set the gearshift for the high gear of your soul; You've got to run like an antelope… out of control!!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013


A little recap for 2013, for those of you who don't geek out to or get your overseas subscription to Trail Runner Magazine. Rob Krar won the Leona Divide 50 miler in the spring, earning him a spot at Western States, where he got second behind Timothy Olsen. He set the record for the Rim to Rim to Rim run at The Grand Canyon, shaving Dakota Jones' record of 6:53:38 down to a stubbly 6:21. In September, he took first at UROC100k in Colorado, once again besting Dakota Jones by the hair on his chin. And finally Krar finished with an epic year with a win at the North Face 50 miler in San Francisco. Did I mention that he ran his very first ultra in the fall of 2012? My best educated summation is that it is all about the BEARD:

There is now some pretty clear evidence that links facial hair follicles to everything necessary in an ultra: VO2max, slow-twitch muscles, an iron gut, patience, and perseverance. I won't bore you with all of the data, just know that it is out there. Beards also, quite literally, will retain gels and pieces of Clif Bars and even a pretty decent amount of hydration that you needn't carry in your pockets and are ever-ready at your disposal. The beard secret has been known by only a few, but it is ancient: think Abraham, Socrates, Jesus, Confucius, Darwin, and these guys. Good beards make you better at what ever you do, period. Other ultra runners have proven this theory over and over:

Nick Clark crushed the Grand Slam of ultras in 2013, (I won't mention here that he was beaten by a smooth-chinned Ian Sharmon.)

Unresearched fact: Hal Koerner has won more ultras bearded than he has beard-bereft. 

Before his PBR addiction, TK used to crush races with his beard.

Krar and Olsen. What!?

The major problem with this phenomenon is that I, at age 37, have nearly, almost (not quite… I'll never give up!) realized that my dream of growing a proper beard in this earthly realm may never be realized. Perhaps in those Elysian fields beyond the sun may my follicles grow long and strong, thick and soft-as-silk, inviting and exciting…
nowhere to hide...
In our own little corner of the world here in Kimchilandia, the beard hasn't been in fashion since Sejong and there is little to no indication of its imminent come back…. except by a few local yokels, who are having huge success with their winsome whiskers. Case in point- Javier, who has blasted onto the scene with youth, vigor, and brains. Compare, this picture of Javier beardless, and unable to break 4 hours in a marathon.

He looks happy enough, yes. But once he began to grow a beard he became a freaking mountain lion, tearing through the forests, leaping and flying through rocky crevasses, nimbly floating through gnarly, stumpy landscapes and devouring his helpless, beardless prey. Look at this animal! Unstoppable!

Another case in point. Back in November, Travis, Yann, and Zac set forth to cover a 74km section of the Baugil trails west of Gangneung. Tragically, Zac shaved his beard, and Travis appeared shorn, leaving Speedgoat Yann as the solitary carrier of the sacred whiskers. Did it have any negative effect? Despite their heroic efforts, the day ended without finishing, and one person getting lost. Beard or no beard? You guys be the judge. 

There are countless, unreliable, anecdotal stories like these that strengthen my argument. For example, I recently heard of a powerhouse in our community who moved to Daegu, shaved his beard, and now he runs road marathons. Road marathons! 
I, for one, am bummed out. My facial hair will never grow beyond that of a small rodent suffering the early stages of mange. On the other hand, I am looking forward to 2014 as being one of my biggest years yet on my feet. Should I rely solely on training, nutrition, good living, and trail wisdom? Will those be enough? I'm not so sure!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Happy Trails 30km, November 24, 2013

Javier, Oakley, Murray, and Romain
My day started early: a 6:30 departure from Chuncheon through a thick blanket of fog resting in the valley.  I was worried that the fog, which kept me going about half the speed limit, would slow me down too much to make the 8:30 starting line at Suseo Station in Seoul. But as soon as the highway took me up into the mountains, the fog cleared, and it was an easy, speedy commute. Full cup of coffee and some URP to get psyched, and I was at the station just before 8. Thanks to the micromanaging elbow grease of Javier, we had a fairly large group of Trail Running Korea folks-- eleven or twelve-- amidst a field of a hundred and fifty odd runners. The sky was overcast, it was pretty cold, and the gathering at the starting line was comical-- a horde of brightly dressed athletes clambering to start up one single track trail. Rather than deal with what would inevitably be an hourglass-esque start, I made my way to the front, just to get a jump on the crowd. I picked a somewhat sketchy route right up the first climb, and immediately got out front. I had no intention of staying there, but it was a good feeling getting up the first pitch in front, completely avoiding the bottleneck below. Speedgoat Yann was up there, of course, along with two other fleet-footed runners. I slowed down into a more sustainable pace, and Yann and company powered along, disappearing up the mountain.

Jared and Tibbs, smiling before the grimacing!

Yann is intensely focused on the line up the first climb.

The start. 

Dashing up the start to avoid the bottleneck. I was in the lead for about two minutes! woot!
My plan going into the day was a bit of a test: It's a 30km run, so if I pushed it early could I manage to hang on? Time would tell. I speed-hiked the climbs and took the descents as quickly as I could. I would look back periodically and see where the field was, and it was clear, after the first climb, that it was thinning out. Tibbs was right behind me and she caught up, and we ran together for most of the climb up to Dueryeongsan, the second peak of the day. Descending felt great, I felt pretty nimble on the feet, and was quickly picking lines down some semi-technical sections mixed in with some very flowy, hard packed single track. I looked back, and saw pink, but this time, not from Tibbs, but another foreigner who was moving super efficiently through the forest. I let her pass and followed her through the slowly descending forest, bringing us out to the first transfer. 
At this point, I was sweating up a storm, so decided to stop, take off the jacket, remove my race number and then re-pin it on my jersey, an affair that took around three minutes-- an opportune moment to relax, take stock, and ready myself for the next leg, a 1900 foot climb up to Cheongyesan. This section was an unrelenting stair climb, and I just dug in as best as I could, even to this point probably operating at 90% capacity. After what seemed like hours summiting this beast, the trail wound its way along a rocky, undulating ridge, until making its way up Isubong where the out and back section of the course began. Still feeling fantastic, I made my way out to see the leaders come by, looking strong and moving steadily, Yann and Murray among the top five. I made the turn, surprisingly, just minutes behind them, but all of a sudden, I was attacked by these intense cramps in my hamstrings and my quads. I had noticed some tension in my hamstring on the way out, but I thought that was just a result from all of the climbing and thought it would work itself out once I got running again. But these cramps were intense, causing my legs to either seize or to charley horse. I had to stop several times and just try to lengthen the muscles out with stretches; but each time I got going again, they would cramp. I didn't want to stop, especially at this stage, because this was where I was passing the field behind me moving quickly in the opposite direction, giving me a adrenaline boosting visual of the vast number of racers who were in hot pursuit. But there was nothing I could do! Tibbs passed me and gave me some dried mangoes and a granola bar, and I got a few salt pills from Jared as he passed on his way out to the turnaround. And I basically walked until I could run again, and when I ran, I was forced to run slow. 
This has never happened to me in a race, and I was pretty sure it was a salt deficiency, so perhaps the salt tablets gave me some confidence that the cramps would resolve. As we reached Isubong, we started the descent to the second road transfer, and I fell into a small group of runners moving at a blistering pace down the mountain. Soon my cramps were forgotten, and we made our way through a heavily populated trail, yelling out for heads up to all of the hikers. It became this really exciting foot race, and the hikers became cheering spectators, lining the side of the trails, really enjoying the spectacle we made plummeting down the mountain. Everyone was courteous and made way for us, and we continued down until reaching the road and the second and final transfer.
As soon as I hit the road, I instantly realized that my speed antics down the previous four kilometers had all but trashed my legs. The cramps had come back, and I fell into a slow shuffle, drinking lots of water, taking more salt and eating a gel. I felt a bit disheartened, feeling this trashed, but was hoping the nutrition and water would prop me up for the final section. Javier, looking in fine form, caught up to me as I shuffled along, and I tried to tag on to him. Lucky that I did, as soon we saw Murray, standing on the side of the trail, unsure of where to proceed. Apparently there was a very vague trail shooting up the left side of the mountain, and the turn sign was buried under some leaves. I would have definitely missed it. Javier had done some reconnaissance the week before, and assured us that the turn would get us to where we needed to go. I was actually skeptical, as the course, up to that point, had been marked brilliantly. At this point Martin, another runner, had joined us, and I was ready to run a bit down the road past where Murray had been. But then up from the opposite direction came Lina, the girl in pink who had passed me on the first descent. She had been a ways down the road and hit a dead end. (Even after the extra kilometers, she still went on to take first in the ladies race). So we all set off up the trail, completely covered by leaves.
The Korean Scott Jurek and fellow trail crushers!
This final climb up to Inuengsan wasn't far, just a 700 foot climb, but it was steep. I had nothing in my legs, and Javier, Murray, and company moved out of sight pretty quickly. Eventually, I reached the ridge, and resumed my slow shuffle to the peak. My cramping legs never really recovered, but I managed them by keeping a slow pace. I was pretty bummed that I couldn't use my resources to lay down the hammer on this last section, but slow and steady got me to the finish in a respectable time and I was overall quite pleased with my Happy Trails race, finishing right at 4:00:36 and good enough for 11th place. Yann, Murray, Javier, and Martin were all top ten. Tibbs finished second among the ladies. Everybody made it in, so an overall stellar effort by the Trail Running Korea contingent.

Tibbs took Second, behind Lina, and in front of Ha KeumSun
The cramps. Like I said, I have never experienced anything like the cramps that I had, except at the very end of the 100 km race in Yang Yang earlier this fall. That particular time, I had been pounding out some pretty fast (for me) kilometers towards the end of the race, running at my threshold, when suddenly my calf muscle starting going crazy. During yesterday's effort, I assumed without a doubt that it was a salt issue-- it is conventional wisdom to associate cramps with an electrolyte deficiency. But in retrospect, I think it was mainly that I went too hard early in the race. In my original calculations, I thought I could hang on going that hard for 30km. It was really an experiment because I've never pushed it with that kind of intensity for that much distance combined with elevation gain. Even though my energy and my cardio seemed to cope well with the effort, my leg muscles were telling me a different story. Lesson learned. 30km with that kind of elevation profile does not (yet) allow me to go hard from the start. Another lesson is to bring salty foods with me. I read this fascinating article by Joe Uhan at Irunfar that refutes the benefits of salt intake on sodium stores in our blood during runs; but says that when our tongues taste salt our brains reduce the cramping. Sounds a bit crazy? Read the article. All in all very happy with the overall effort, do not regret a thing, and feel like I've just banked a tiny smidgeon more of that golden trail wisdom. Peace!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

To Strava or Not to Strava

That is the question. Does Strava weigh in on the side of being a benefit, or does it tip the scales toward actually taking something away from the activities that we love to do?
The benefits of Strava are pretty self-evident-- it is a great training tool, a community builder, a place to find new trails, push our own limits, and engage our competitive spirits in a friendly manner. But, as with all new technologies, we are faced with the question of how this changes the sports we love, if at all; and if the overall changes are worth it. 
Sometime back I read an article about a cyclist who died going after a descent record that he held and then lost. In another event, a pedestrian was killed by a cyclist who was timing himself on Strava. I hear other stories, as well-- like how Strava has turned mountain bikers into maniacal monsters that render well-used hiking paths into dangerous arenas of competition. I have even heard that Strava is now beginning to show its mark on the bike paths in Seoul, where KOM's and speed records are showing up on the pedestrian bike paths of the Han River. 
For the trail runner, the dangers of Strava are lessened significantly. Crashing on the trail in my running shoes gives me or another hiker much better odds than a bicycle moving at much higher speeds. But there might be another danger, one that is more insidious over time, one that might not put the runner in immediate physical danger, but perhaps danger of a more spiritual nature, one that gets at the very heart of why we run.

Lately, I've become more and more obsessed with the CR's (course records) around our city of Chuncheon, and with the advantage that only a few people use Strava around here, I've managed to collect a few. I accredit that mostly to the folks who went out and set the CR's in the first place, as it is much easier to chase a rabbit than it is to push yourself up something big on a training run in the first place. Also, there are several folks I run with who regularly leave me in the dust and are not on Strava, or don't use it regularly. I know for a fact that one of my proudest CR's was beat significantly by a friend, but I still feel a streak of pride over my official (Strava says so!) CR on the climb. The other day I dug in deeply on another climb with the idea that I might take this particularly difficult CR. I arrived at the top, where I dropped to the ground and took a few minutes on my back to recover, sweating from every pore, gasping for breath. And even though I knew this friend had not trashed himself as I had going up the climb; and even though this friend no longer lives in Chuncheon to come and easily retake the record, I was still flying pretty high when I saw that beautiful trophy icon come up in my run detail.  And that's OK, I guess--work hard, and feel rewarded. Like I said, one of the benefits is that we get to push ourselves and have friendly challenges within our community.

But there are obvious caveats, like a heavy dose of good old-fashioned hubris. I would be dead wrong to think that I'm special because of these "accolades". I know that if I fancy that these CR's are anything beyond fun markers for us to chase, then I would be both delusional and foolish. It is fun to go after CR's and, admittedly, it's even more fun to get them; but if that becomes my reason for running and the reason I'm a part of a community on Strava, then, well, I'd just be a nimrod.

The second caveat is similar to one that I have with Facebook-- being that now Strava has, in its particular way, blazed its path into the way I think and feel about running. If I let it, it tells me how I am supposed to feel and think about something that was previously just me getting out on the trail for the sake of getting out on the trail. I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge that there is a real and present danger of Strava changing my mental and spiritual approach to running.
To illustrate, I had a great run into work a few weeks ago, getting up in the mountains and hitting several trails as I made a slow commute over to school. The run lasted two hours, and I was stoked to get into the office, and shower just before class. What a way to kick off the day! But then I noticed that my Strava app, for whatever reason, had stopped recording my run midway through. I spent a few minutes genuinely gutted that my big run was cut by more than half, and then I realized my run-- the actual movement over the trails, had not been cut short at all! My run happened and here I was upset by how a virtual world would see it...
Yet another example of how Strava has gotten into that space between my run and my spirit is shown in the fact that I recently lost my Garmin watch, and I have to think long and hard about whether or not I'm going to carry my phone just so I can track my run! (you'll be happy to know that I have had several runs without carrying my phone, and they were just as satisfying).

One final point worth consideration. Just last week, I was involved in one of the many challenges that Strava offers. This particular one was about how much vertical gain we can do over ten days. I kept pretty good tabs on my performance, and that of my friends, and even the elites I was following. It was a great motivation to get up in the mountains as much as I could. Let me tell you that the leaders of this challenge were nothing short of heroic-- one guy managed to climb over 15,000 (that's 50,000 feet!) meters in 10 days.
One day, however, I noticed that someone had sky-rocketed to nearly 30,000 meters into first place. An obvious glitch that took him from the bottom of the field to the top, the very top, as in number one, and significantly higher than second and third place.
The glitch didn't surprise me, I've seen it before. But what did surprise me was that some folks (not many, and I accredit that to how cordial trail runners are) absolutely lambasted and berated this guy with insults. One person called him a poser and then went on to criticize the guy's athletic ability based on his public work out reports. It reminded me of another distance challenge where a woman was cyber-bullied on Strava because a glitch that put her far into the lead of a challenge. A few people dragged her over the coals even though she openly admitted the glitch and was trying to get the run removed from her profile.
And as I was thinking about this, it suddenly occurred to me... there is nothing wrong with Strava. Strava is a service, and a handy service at that. If there is any problem, it lies with me, within my own heart. Any negativity that breeds from me in regards to this program says more about me than it does about Strava. If I may wax philosophical, Strava is like a mirror into my soul. If I get upset about some competition, or some course record that gets beat; or if I get my ego all stroked and puffed up; or if I endanger myself or others in pursuit of a record, then those are all issues with me.
I think that this is an even larger philosophical issue about how we use technology in general-- are we using it to strengthen community and push ourselves in positive ways; or do we use it in self-absorbing ways that actually get between us and what we truly love?
I whole-heartedly believe that running helps to make us better people; and when we throw mountains and trails and trees and rivers into the mix, the equation only grows. When I run, I often confront beauty in its purest form-- in nature, in my own physical exertion and the simplicity of work, and in those hours on the trail spent in either prayer and meditation or in community. I need to be vigilant about protecting that beauty. Strava is not a threat, but my relationship with Strava could be.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Yang Yang Songi Ultramarathon 2013

"If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes." (Mark 9:23)

There is a subtle, but crucial difference in knowing that conditions are right for something to happen, and believing that they will. The first requires that one be one be confident in what has happened before, but the latter is a confidence in the unknown, in the yet-to-come. The first is all about preparation; the second is all about taking that leap of faith, and believing, without empirical evidence, that the outcome will be a certain way.

When a friend asked me if I was ready to run 100km (62 miles) through the mountains, I told him that I was unable to visualize beyond 60km-- that is, I was unable to access information about how I would feel, what my legs and hips and feet would feel like, how my stomach would feel, and whether my mind would be in the gutter, in the clouds, or insane. In all of my training and race runs, I had never gone beyond 60km. All of the training runs leading up to this had never breached the 50km mark, and the last time I had run that (about a month before the race) I had felt the idea of 50km being the half way point was absolutely ludicrous!

"Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24)

The crew getting ready for adventure!

The 60km boys waiting to crush it, and crush it they did.
The Yang Yang Song-I Ultramarathon is not unfamiliar territory-- I ran the 60km race last year and three friends ran the 100km. I knew a good deal about the course and I was preparing, mentally at least, to return and do the hundred for a year. The only difference this year was the 1 AM start, two hours earlier than the previous year's 100km starters and four hours earlier than my 60km start. That meant that I would be running through a good five and half hours of darkness. I never worried too much about this. Our Jirisan run in late summer had a good three and half hours in the dark, and what I learned from that was in some ways, the darkness is your friend. For example, you don't see the climbs, so you don't register them mentally. You simply do them with no energy wasted in thinking about them. Another strange benefit is the psychedelic nature of your entire visual reality being mostly confined to a circle of light a few feet in front of you. It becomes a sort of cocoon of protection, and beyond paying attention to the rocky steps of the access road, the mind was left free to pursue its thoughts. Its sort of like the idea behind the isolation tanks, in that my brain moves into this transcendent sort of theta phase, a feeling of almost relaxation. Running with the headlamp for 40km through the woods might not seem relaxing, but in a way it was.

There was also a very social aspect of that first half of the race, where longer, more sophisticated conversations could take place. I'll give an example:

"Hey, how ya feeling?"
           "Oh, good, good. You?"
"Yeah, not too bad."
           "Alright, alright."


"Hey, you like your Hokas?"
          "Yeah, I like em for the longer stuff."
"Yeah, they are nice."

and so on... very sophisticated conversations. At least compared to the grunts and the nods and the howls and the heavy breathing that became a form of communication in the latter half of the race.

But the first forty kilometers were really easy. I found a good, conservative rhythm. I ran in a group for a while, then I would hang back or push forward. Then I would run in another group for a while. It felt good to mix it up.

Starting line! The winner is in the middle of the frame with the
red shoe laces. I'm on the right side of the frame starting my watch.
The day before, I had driven to Yang Yang to arrive at around 5, to meet Brandon and Travis for dinner. We had a great dinner, got to know a bit about each other, talked race stuff and geeked out on strange knowledge about the ultra racing world and its heroes. And then we tried to settle in at our little make shift camp at the children's playground near the start of the race. I crawled into my tent at 7:30 with my headlamp and a book, but sleep, not surprisingly, never came. Folks started arriving, Stephen and Katie pulled in, as well as Zac from Gangneung. The tension and excitement became tangible, and the best I could do was lie there in thought, read a few pages here and there, and listen to music. So, once I toed the starting line, I knew that I'd be missing an entire night of sleep.

Surprisingly, though, I felt great throughout the night. I was just behind Katie and a Korean man who we later realized may have been Michael Kim's "Trail Angel" the year before. I followed their headlamp glows, like two lightening bugs, for the long, steady descent down to the 40km aid station, which was where we had started our races the year before. How I felt coming into that station and how I felt when I left was like a bizarro world where reality becomes its opposite. I felt great going in, awful going out. The sun was just beginning to color the western sky with its glow, and yet my body was beginning to shut down from lack of sleep. I became frigidly cold from sitting for a few minutes, and the rest at the aid station seemed to beat me up more than the 40km. I walked out of the aid station with Katie feeling cold, tired, and pretty dreadful.

And in these spirits, we began the long climb out of the valley. This year, as the light began to come out, I was able to see the amazing beauty of the valley as we ascended. Beautiful evergreens, a cascading stream, all underneath a purple, twilit sky that still contained smatterings of firmament that had blazed with stars through the night. It was truly inspiring, in spite of my condition. And Katie said something that was utterly crucial in pulling me back from the edge of oblivion. She said, "We left our egos at the starting line." And that clicked. That made sense. It reminded me of everything that I had prayed for in terms of staying positive and strong in this race. The idea of running wasn't about beating my time goal, or being competitive, or even about getting validation for finishing. I didn't need to run this 100km to prove myself. I was already validated. Recently, I was studying this Tim Keller commentary on 1 Corinthians 3:2-4:7 entitled The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness.  It discussed the way the way that the ego works, the way we judge others and ourselves, and how the gospel frees us from that judgment of the ego. All that we do doesn't have to  emit from a deep need to stroke the ego, that temporary and fickle thing; but rather our actions emit from a place of deep joy and contentment in knowing that all of our worth has already been proven on the cross. In this way, we can forget ourselves in terms of how everything we do is somehow building us up as human beings or adding meaning to our lives. Rather, our actions can be a reflection of love, not as a point to prove to ourselves or others, or a footrace with our own sense of self worth. In any case, the verdict is already in. Christ has vouched for me, He has paid my ransom, and and liberated me from the slavery of self esteem. And Katie reminded me of that-- the ego, in its proper place, was not a force driving me through this 100km. I was essentially freed to run, to move forward, to walk if need be. And that was the crucible of the race: that freedom that I found through that rough patch. Just keep moving.

Katie in relentless forward progress

Shuffling up the 16km climb from 40 to 56km
Zac smiling his way through 100km.

So, we struggled up the beautiful valley, along a melodious brook, underneath these behemoth power line towers that Katie later confessed she never saw. And another beautiful thing happened. My memory served me incorrectly (and fortuitously) that the climb was 12km. At one point, with about a kilometer left to reach the summit, I exclaimed that this was the longest 12km climb on the planet, Katie corrected me that it was 16km. I was elated by the news, and my mind happily collected the four bonus kilometers at the top. Once there, I sat down, drank some Coke, ate a banana, and refilled my camelbak. After maybe three minutes of sitting, I stood and felt that old familiar stiffness in my hips and legs. As I gingerly made my way down the mountain, the Trail Angel passed me, "Bulpyeon-haejo?" which means, in this context, "Pretty sore, huh?" I grimaced in the affirmative, and he shot me a thumbs up and a "Fighting", and it was at this point I remembered the magic pills in my pack, the little Vitamin I's, the ibuprofen. I hadn't planned on taking these guys until late in the race and only if they were absolutely necessary. Well, I reasoned, it is later in the race (56km) and it is gonna be a long painful descent, so what the heck? I popped one, put in my headphones and listened to an old episode of Talk Ultra. There is something very meta and very encouraging about listening to a podcast about ultrarunning in the very act of running an ultra. Before I knew it, I was moving pretty swiftly down the mountain, listening to JB Benna (producer of Ubreakable, the 2010 Western States movie), and I had forgotten my pain.
The beautiful valley of the 16km climb. Those giant power line towers
followed us all the way up. (photo: Zac Metcalf)

I caught up with Katie at the bottom, just short of the aid station that I knew from before has this amazing fish stew and rice, and she told me that her foot was killing her. I got some magic pills, I said, and suddenly became the drug dealer on the mountain. Katie had tweaked her ankle 30km in, thought it was minor, but the more than 30km after had only increased the pain. I gave her an ibuprofen as a slurped down some stew and inhaled some sticky rice. We learned from the station volunteers that the leader was poised to run a sub 10. That's ridiculous, I thought. As we exited the aid station, I saw that Katie was limping. Dammit, this didn't look good. We were still 36km away from finishing and her limp looked like it would make her drop. I jogged on ahead to give her some space to work things out, and then, three or four kilometers later, Katie comes flying by me, "Thanks for the ibuprofen!", and then just kept hammering up the hill. That was the Tibbetts that I was more accustomed to, the one that rapidly advances up mountains and recedes from my line of sight. I had asked her before when she would "make her move", knowing the potential in those legs, and I figured this was it. I probably wouldn't see her again. I was feeling pretty wrecked, so I just kept shuffling, walking, shuffling, and walking. I though at this point, this is gonna take fourteen or more hours at this rate.

My race strategy going in to the race was inspired by Speedgoat Karl Meltzer and Anton Krupicka, who say that the only important part of a race is the final 20%, and that if you are gonna turn it on and have the legs to do it, that is the time. Knowing what I knew about the Yang Yang course, I adjusted my plan to start "turning it on" at kilometer 70. I thought this because I knew that all of the big climbs were finished, and that the remainder of the course was mostly rollers and then a long and steady descent down the mountain. The 70km mark was right at the top of the climb up from the fish stew aid station, and so I popped another vitamin I, and changed from the podcast to music, and started to slowly build up my tempo.

The 70km mark!

My legs seemed to kick into a higher gear, something that never happens. When I did the 60 the year before, my splits throughout the race got progressively slower. Even in training runs I find myself slowing down in the latter miles. But my conservative pace early on, and the slow kilometers between 40 and 70km markers, put me into altogether new territory. I had never run this far, so why should I be surprised at anything? In this distance barriers were constantly be stripped away, and I found myself moving along at a pretty quick and steady clip. The next ten kilometers blazed by, and I found myself entering that advantageous space where my mind grasped that I was now just under 20km from finishing. I kept pushing, and in so doing, starting passing folks (I hadn't passed anyone since probably around 20 kilometers in the wee hours of the morning). These were all the folks who I had run with in the early stages of the race and had surged forward when I slowed down. This, following Meltzer's plan, was exactly what I had tried to visualize. Meltzer calls it "picking up the carnage" in the later stages. I was just happy to start seeing people again. I caught up with the Trail Angel, and Jang Boo, and others whom I'd seen early in the race. This got me even more pumped, and I flew into the aid station at 85 kilometers, just as Katie was pulling out. I couldn't believe I saw her!

This aid station at 85km had something very special the year before-- canned peaches. I never eat canned peaches, but there is just something about them, and the syrup that they come in, that quenches you deep down in your soul in an ultra. The sugary syrup seems to pass right through the stomach lining directly into the blood stream, filling your entire body with an epic, peach syrup sugar high. I asked the aid station workers for extra syrup and slurped it down. I quickly refilled my water bottle and tried to blaze out of the station, but there was a low grade climb, and soon I was hobbling up the hill. The doubts set in-- maybe I shouldn't have pushed it at 70km, maybe I should have waited until 80. Again, the fatigue from earlier was on me. Relentless forward progress. One step in front of the other. That's all you have to do, I was reminded, and again, I felt that sweet submission that I had earlier in the race. Time was of no consequence. Pain was peripheral, almost pleasant.

Another runner I knew from our facebook group was Jang Boo, a younger guy serving in the Korean military and has an obvious, awesome passion for trail running, started leap-frogging with me at this point. We were both, I think, beyond the point of conversing, but we were communicating in a fashion, both slowly pushing and encouraging one another. I was getting lost in my music and trying to find a steady rhythm that would bring me home, but the terrain was really rolling, and we would walk each little ascent. In my headphones I had a play list that ranged from bluegrass to death metal. A song by the band Slayer popped up on the random mix, and this signaled a new turn, a new chapter in the race. I dug out my I Phone and set it to play the entire album of South of Heaven, and I dug in-- no longer waxing philosophically about the run, or submitting to the ethos of my community of peers. This was game on. I popped yet another ibuprofen (not wise), sucked down a gel, and turned up the death metal. I glanced down at my watch, for the first time in ages, and realized that I might still make that sub 13 hour time that I had pushed out of mind. I started running the downhill, and running it fast. I was using the inside corners of all turns in the road, trying to minimize added distance, and my feet were merely trouncing along to the death march drums of the South of Heaven track list. I found a pocket, a higher gear, if you will, of energy that I had only tapped into in shorter races. It was this special calculus that says the more you give, the more you will receive. I pushed harder, and in doing so I felt more energized. When I hit the steep hills that would normally be hell on my tender bones and joints, I extended my stride and moved even faster. Before I knew it, the highway came into sight, and I was on the road, the road home.

The previous year, this stretch of road killed me. For one, it starts at the 95km mark, so you think you have 5km to run, but it is really more like 7. It was at this point last year that Sonya had passed me, flying up the road, and I was destroyed and unable to keep up. This year, I tried to harness Sonya's energy, and I just kept moving. I saw another runner about 500 meters up the long flat road through the farms, and I caught him after two kilometers. I ran over three bridges that are slightly arched, the minimal elevation making me walk the year before. I finally saw the balloons that hovered high above the festival grounds where our finish was, where people were, where stopping was. I pushed harder. I dug into a section of road where there was no shoulder due to construction, and I was running into traffic. The frustration at this poor planning from last year no longer present. Everything was about finishing. I made it to the bridge, passed a few more guys, and kept pushing. I hit the festival strip, passed by vendors and performers, families who gave this sweaty, destroyed looking waygookin almost no notice, and I just kept pushing, until I saw that Glorious yellow arch, that Promised Land where my work and toil would be finished forevermore. I saw Sessions, and he cheered and chased me with the GoPro, I heard whoops and hollers from Brandon and Travis, and pushed still, the final few meters over the brick surface, and I crossed the tape, a changed man. The time was 13:04. Didn't make my sub 13 but that didn't matter one iota. My odyssey had brought me back home.

The journey ends!
Katie is all smiles after running on a tweaked ankle for 70km!
Jang Boo ran a super solid race!

Zac finishing his second 100km race!

Travis the speedster comes in with a new course record for the 60km-- 6:20. That's flying!

Sessions ran a super strong race, coming in at 7:20. 
Air Brandon comes flying into his first ultra finish!

Rookie mistake, Ibuprofen. I was only vaguely aware of the dangers of ibuprofen and dehydration and its effects on the kidneys. I should have done my research. I think I got lucky this time, but if you are planning on running an ultra please be aware of the possible dangers of kidney damage with ibuprofen. I think if it is taken very minimally and if you are super on top of your hydration, it can be ok. But I think the best approach is to try to make it without it. I took three (maybe four) over a six hour period, and drank plenty of water, but I think the ibuprofen had a lot to do with my nausea and inability to digest food towards the end of the race. In some ways it saved me, but I think next time I'll soldier through the pain much longer.

The Trail Angel. The trail angel is someone whom we think helped out Michael Kim with his legendary struggle through the Yang Yang 100km in 2012. According to Mike, he talked him out of quitting, he reminded him of his family and why he was running. Katie and I now are under the suspicion that the Trail Angel is indeed an ethereal being from another world. Katie even thinks he may have succumbed to the doldrums between the 40 and 70km mark, and now makes a pilgrimage from heaven each year to encourage and strengthen fading runners. Whatever his story, we are all very grateful, Trail Angel, wherever you are!

Post Race: As soon as I finished, Travis handed me an ice cold beer, which I chugged dutifully. I felt fine, went and got a shower, and then returned to watch some runners come in. I laid down in the grass and the sky started to spin. I felt awful, and just before we left, I stuck my fingers down my throat and purged the most unbelievably foul concoction of espresso gels, peach syrup, and beer. Nothing in the last few hours had made it too far through my system. I felt much better after the self induced upchucking, but it ruined my plans of having a few beers over the course of the afternoon, looking out at the beach, and smoking my pipe. I was left feeling slightly nauseous for a couple of days.

My legs, painwise, recovered super quick. I was able to get out on a run Wednesday and Friday, and have decided to run the Chuncheon Marathon on October 26th. Don't think I'll be doing any PRing on my legs, but I am excited to run it. The last time I ran it was 2008!

I love my Jina, my Jonah, the HKA crew and Mike Kim and Robb Kerr-- thanks guys for always inspiring. I am so blessed by God to have my health and the yearning in my veins to explore His beautiful creation, and to play in and with His provision. "He brought me up up out of the pit of destruction, out of the miry clay, And He set my feet upon a rock making my footsteps firm."

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Prep for Yang Yang 100km Week -6

Start time: 7:00 AM
25km Road run.
Shoes: PI Emotion M3

Notes: Great road run! Started off with moderate pace, but felt good and got a little faster. Best news is that I just felt a little more fluid on the road, something I've been aiming for.

Start time: 8:00 AM
8km (backyard trails)
93 meters
Shoes: PI Emotion Trail M2

Notes: Was a wee bit hungover for this, had a send off for a friend the night before. Nothing spectacular, but was happy to get out and get moving.

Morning weight: 87kg
Start time 5:45 AM
18.26km (Daeryongsan)
890 meters
Shoes: PI Emotion Trail M2

A surprisingly strong run on tired legs. Had my fastest time up the mountain in under 53 minutes and shaved 12 minutes off last weeks full run. Feeling great and needing rest for the big out and back on Saturday!

Start time: 7:30
10.1km (road)
45 minutes
Shoes: PI Emotion M3

Wanted to keep the heart rate high on this one and kick a little bit. Felt pretty good, was mostly under 4:30's and did one or two under 4:10. Worked up a mighty sweat in the humidity. Feeling good going into tomorrow's 50k Gangchon run! Need to drink lots of water today!

Start time: 6:30
50.2km (mountain fire road, Gangchon)
3100 meters
Shoes: PI Emotion Trail M2

Notes: Good ol' Gangchon.
This run is the heart and soul of training for Yang Yang. The course is all on fire roads much like Yang Yang, and what I think are a bit steeper climbs, so it gives you that added training. It truly is a barometer for Yang Yang, as most who trained on this and ran the race last year have said. I have now done the out and back four or five times, and I have to say that this was one of my better attempts. It wasn't easy, in fact, it got to be a really hard slog the last 10km, but both mentally and physically I think I was better than I've been in the past. I managed to keep my spirits fairly up, even while the pain was increasing. My hip flexors became extremely tender, as they do, late in the run, and the whole question that entered my mind was "how do I do this for another 50km?". Good question, but I think it might be the wrong question. Katie and I talked about it and this is what we came up with:
A: Whatever distance your running, your mind will adjust to cope. On a hundred km run, I hopefully won't think the same thoughts that I think at 40km on a 50km run, that I am really ready to be done with the run.

B: I am hoping that with the taper, and some more core exercises over the next month, the pain won't come on until the latter part of the race. I went into this 50km with already 61km on the week, so I wasn't fresh. Part of the pain is coming from those other, aggregate runs. Again, all hypothetical but I hope its true!

C: Thinking about the race as a whole will be deadly. My race plan is to just knock out small goals and continue onto the nest. Rather than after the first 50km thinking, well I got 50 more kilometers to go, the foremost thought in my mind will need to be, make it to the next aid station or knock out these next 10km, etc. I don't need to be overwhelmed by the big numbers.

D: The watch: I have deactivated the sound alarm on my watch since my day on Jirisan, and I think it helps. When on some runs that beep for every kilometer can be motivated, I think in the longer runs it gets frustrating, because our sense of time becomes warped. What may be a 7 minute kilometer will feel like a 12 minute kilometer, and I just don't need to be reminded of that every kilometer. I'll try and look at the watch as little as possible, other than checking my pace every now and again.

That's it! Feeling pretty well and recovered quickly. Looking forward to some cooler weather training in September!

Sunday: (rest) morning weight: 86.2kg

Friday, August 23, 2013

Prep for Yang Yang 100km: Week -7

5:15 wake up, coffee, 6:00 AM start.
Morning weight: 87.3kg (192.5lbs)
10.4 km, back yard trails, moderate pace.
Time: 1:05:14
Shoes: Hoka Stinson B Evo's.

Notes: Moderate paced, feeling pretty good, moderate temperature but still super muggy. Felt a little tired from the Jirisan Traverse but am ready!

9 AM start
Morning weight: N/A
9.4 km interval hill repeats. walked to start and back with watch running.
Time: 1:02:37
Shoes: Pearl Izumi E-motion M3 Road

Notes: Late start b/c we stayed at a pension last night, but luckily the weather was fairly cool this morning, lingering in the mid 20's before spiking just before lunch. Went and did P-vo's hill repeats, semi-sprinting the climb and resting on the down hill. The hill is just over 400 meters and only climbs 30 meters, so its fun to try and keep a pretty good pace up it. I did it 8X and felt very decent. Next time 10!

Wednesday: Woke up 5:30. Quick cup of coffee, out the door at 6.
Morning weight 87.6km
14km, tempo run
Time: 1:08:52
Shoes: Pearl Izumi E-motion M3 Road

Notes: Didn't feel great or smooth on this run. Wasn't a struggle, just didn't feel like I was moving efficiently. Time was a few minutes back of my best attempt on this route. Need to focus on form and get more road miles in, I feel. Really enjoying the shoes, the right foot feels fine but still have a little tweakage in my ankle.

Thursday: rest

6AM start
Morning weight: don't know, scale is out of batteries
27.5km mountain run 1,653 meters
Time: about 4 hours
Shoes: New* Pearl Izumi Emotion M2 Trail

Notes: Great run with Tibbs and Sesh, was feeling really good most of the run, pretty shattered by the end. Love the new trail shoes, will give them a few more test runs but really comfy and light. Post run pain in my right achilles, but nothing too dramatic. Will keep an eye on it.

5:15 wake up, coffee and toast. 5:45 Start
Morning weight: 86.9kg
18.1km mountain run (Daeryeongsan) 902 meters
Time: 2:45
Sheos: Salomon XA3D Ultra 2

Slow start, but worked out the legs on the road. The climbing was super slow to begin with, hiked a lot, and then finally got going the last 2km from the peak. Had a good run down and finally felt the leg fatigue just as I was pulling up to the house. Great weekend, feel great going into my rest Sunday!

Week Totals:
79.4 km
2812 meters of climbing
Time off my gludius maximus: 10 hours and change
Starting/ending weight: 87.3/ 86.9