You Run Like Shit: My Pose Journey

This is Part One of a Pose series.  Part Two digs into the (mostly) scientific arguments made against the Pose Method 

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“You run like shit.”

Not exactly something anyone wants to hear. If you’re currently in the process of running 80+ miles a week, this kind of news can be devastating.  I stared blankly at the 50-inch flat screen placed precariously in front of our small group— maybe 16 people—and wondered why I looked so bad. 

The full breadth of my stride was on display here; one foot trailing behind my body and the other reaching in front, driving forward.  This was how I was supposed to look.  This is how “good” runners look.  All those Nike ads and pro-runner’s Instagram feeds had burned the images into my mind.  I didn’t understand.  All these people I emulate run like shit too?

There was clearly a disconnect here.  The smartest man in the world of running, Dr. Nicholas Romanov, was tracing a laser pointer across the TV screen, advancing my lumbering body frame by frame to show everyone in attendance why I couldn’t run.  In increasingly specific terms, he shredded my gait from top to bottom, eventually concluding that if I was going to run like THAT, I should probably just save my energy and not run at all.

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Don’t do this. You’re gonna have a bad time.

As I sat there, disillusioned, disheartened and incredibly embarrassed, I realized this was, in fact, exactly what I wanted.  Did I really spend a shitload of my money and time to fly to Miami (in August!) so I could hear Dr. Romanov tell me that I run perfectly?  That’s an expensive ego boost, even if it is coming from The Most Interesting Man in the World. No, this was a good thing. It was time to figure out what I had been doing wrong.  It was time for my education to begin.

  1. Historical Context

It has become widely accepted that running played a huge part in our development as human beings.  Despite anecdotal romanticisms like Born to Run, the real information (i.e. backed by data) is out there and has become an accepted addition to our larger evolutionary picture.  In his incredible book, The Story of the Human Body, Harvard Evolutionary Biologist Daniel Lieberman describes all the ways evolution designed us to become running machines, from the stabilization and balance systems in our heads/ears/spines specifically designed to let us balance and see clearly while running to the entire anatomy of our lower leg being setup like an energy-returning spring.    

According to Lieberman’s research, running made us who we are today.  It allowed us to track and run large mammals to death, largely thanks to our bipedalism and superior cooling systems, which allowed for larger, more nutrient-dense meals to be consumed, eventually resulting in an explosion in brain size.  So without running, there is no us.  We are inextricably linked to this simple act of locomotion, for better or for worse, and whether we want to believe it or not, we are all “runners”.  We might not be “born to run” but we were certainly “born runners”. 

Most people view running as a very simple movement.  People are constantly uttering cliches like “just put one foot in front of the other” or some similarly reductive phrase to remind you how simple it is.  Sure, at one time it might have been the pinnacle of complex movement, but now we have bikes and baseball bats and basketballs and pole vaults and 110m hurdles.  We go to the gym and sit on massive machines designed to let you barely move a single joint in your body so you can “isolate” it. 

Clearly, we’ve got it all figured out.  All this overcomplexity and information has made us the healthiest we’ve ever been in human history (ha!).  Also, we never get injured anymore (ha!).  All kidding aside, the real irony here is that if you look at all the athletic movements we make as humans, only the ridiculous invented motions (i.e. swinging a golf club, shooting a three-pointer, the backstroke, etc) all come with a universally accepted prescription. In a lot of cases, it’s based in physics (measuring the amount of torque produced at the end of a bat based on various swings) or simply based on years and years of data (the tennis coach who has seen thousands of hours of backhand swings and understand exactly— even if he cannot fully articulate it— why certain players are more effective than others). 

For running, this doesn’t exist.  If you go out and hire a running coach, 90% of them will “coach” you by essentially writing a program that tells you when, where and how hard to run.  They toss around words and phrases like tempo, intervals, aerobic threshold, hill repeats and “recovery run” to make it seem like they’re doing something more complicated to justify the money you’re spending, but the bottom line amounts to ZERO time spent focusing on actual running technique.  People don’t teach it. If you compare that to someone who hires a tennis coach or swimming coach (or any other coach), the vast majority of the time spent coaching, usually around 90%, will be spent on technique. 

What this fact tells us (beyond illuminating running coaches as assholes who steal your money) is that the prevailing sentiment— not just in the running community but in the athletic community at large— is that we all run differently.  People believe that they DO NOT need to be taught how to run.  People will say things like, “Nobody taught me how to walk, when I was eight months old I couldn’t even talk, I don’t need anyone to teach me how to run.”  Most intelligent people quickly see how foolish a statement like this is.  It shows a total lack of understanding for how we “learn” as humans while completely missing the point at the same time (more on this in Part Two).

So just to recap:  All the invented-by-humans human movements we’ve been talking about, swinging a golf club, the breast stroke, karate chopping a cinder block— whatever it may be— has a very specific technique that must be taught and mastered.  Deviation from this technique is worthless and unacceptable.  But running, the movement that was “invented” by natural selection over the course of millions of years with a very specific set of levers and fulcrums acting against a very specific force (gravity), can be done any fucking way you feel like it.  It doesn’t matter at all.  Just do what feels “natural”.  Nature doesn’t know shit.  You know everything. 

II. Looking for Answers in All the Wrong Places 

Ever since reading ’Born to Run” I had been wearing minimal shoes.  For my first race ever, a 50k in Idaho, I “laced up” a pair of Vibram Five Fingers. I ran a mountain 50k wearing these kicks, based on Chistopher McDougall’s generalized view that minimal footwear makes you run properly.  I had dreams of running 100 miles across the mountains like Tony Krupicka and Scott Jurek but I could barely run 50 miles a week without totally breaking down.  I was bruising my feet constantly on rocks, my ankles were always a mess, my knees ached, my IT Bands felt like someone was ratcheting them up like a slackline.  I would read articles about the weekly volume elite ultra runners were putting in, sometimes upwards of 200 miles a week, and wonder how their bodies could possibly withstand all the punishment.  It seemed unfathomable. 

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Back in 2012 before the Foothill Frenzy 50k. Give me a break- it was my first race ever.  I didn’t know what I was doing. A volunteer working the aid station at mile 27 introduced me to my first electrolyte supplement that day.

Nevertheless, I tried and I tried.  I started to get my weekly volume up a bit.  I finished 7th place at the Zion 100k.  I snuck onto the podium at the Malibu Creek 50k. I started really pushing to get more miles on my legs.  I was looking at all these successful runners and the formula seemed obvious: more volume. 

The problem for me was all in the health of my lower extremities.  My energy systems were never an issue.  My feet or legs would always breakdown long before I could get to that point. I needed more volume and my legs hurt… so I began running through a lot of pain.  I ignored my body completely and routinely went out on long runs in the mountains despite experiencing agonizing pain with every footfall. Then one day, about nine miles from the trailhead, the pain got too bad to continue.  After a two-hour hobble and a couple of days of denial, I was at the doctor’s office with a diagnosis: severe stress fracture of the Lateral Malleolus. 

The Lateral Malleolus is the distal end of your Fibula, basically what most people refer to as their “ankle bone”.  According to my physician, during bipedal locomotion, this bone is non-weight bearing.  To me, this immediately meant that my gait was FUCKED UP.  I did enough damage to a non-weight bearing bone to break it?  My stride is so bad that I’ve got muscles wrenching on the end of my fibula to the tune of enough torque to crack it?  This was obviously something I needed to figure out. 

Naturally, I asked the doctor what I was doing wrong.  What could I do to fix this? I will never forget what happened next.  This prestigious orthopedic surgeon, operating out of one of the most respected clinics in Los Angeles (SMOG), sat down in the chair across from the table I was sitting on, took a deep breath, exhaled, looked up at me and said, “Unfortunately, you’re just too tall to run. Especially long distances.  I wouldn’t recommend running more than two miles at a time.  You need to get some shoes with some more padding and on your next visit, we’ll fit you for orthotics.” 

I am tall.  I’m 6’7”.  But I have the same equipment as everyone else.  I have the same set of levers.  Just a little longer. I couldn’t believe what he had just said. I stared blankly through his face as he kept rambling on about the history of tall NBA players and stress fractures of the feet. He was saying something about Yao Ming when I stopped listening. 

This couldn’t be true. I wouldn’t accept it. I’d long held a deep distrust for every doctor I’d ever met so it wasn’t hard to convince myself that he was a myopic idiot.  No, that was easy.  The hard part was going to be figuring out what to do next. 

The answers had to be out there, I just needed to find them.  Freshly clad in a size 15 walking boot, I was out the door and on the search for my running salvation… but a revolution would have to do.   

III. (My) Running Revolution

When you’ve been running a couple hours everyday for the past year or so and then you’re forced to halt this activity abruptly, it really fucks with your psyche.  There have been countless studies done showing the hormonal effects of cardiovascular activity— it changes your brain.  It alters your decision making.  You’re not really the same person, in terms of brain chemistry, when you’re not exercising that you are when you’re regularly getting a good dose of cardio. 

I suffered through this (much of it probably placebo) for about three weeks and fell into a desperate pit of despair.  Then my ankle finally got to the point where I could put some weight on it without any pain, and I started biking, doing a lot of hang cleans and front squats (I still couldn’t do a full power clean) and generally started to feel less worthless and ready to uncover some answers (that I hoped were there). 

So I started doing research.  And this is when I started to realize that most people don’t talk about running form.  If someone was , it was usually a current or former elite runner who has made a transition to coach, but doesn’t understand why they were faster than their peers or happened to stay injury free.  The result of this is a lot of ambiguous, relative terms being thrown around like, “make your stride feel smooth” or “be light on your feet” or “imagine yourself gliding down the trail” or “drive your legs”.  None of this helps anybody and it certainly wasn’t what I was looking for. 

No, I wanted definitive information about the differences between a heel/forefoot strike.  I wanted to know what cues I should be focusing on during the different phases of my stride.  I wanted to know if Nike really ruined the world like Born to Run claimed.  And more than anything, I wanted to be able to run with a certainty that I wasn’t damaging my body.  A quick google search of “running+physics” and I stumbled across the Pose Method site.

I started reading a bit and it sounded promising.  It was offering me a way a singular, correct way to run. At fast speeds and jogging alike.  It has always seemed naive to me that, as creatures of the same species, we run so dramatically different.  I grew up watching NBA games on TV wondering why some of the players (the more athletic ones) ran on their forefeet, while the big centers usually plodded down (very un-athletically) with an obvious heel strike.  It was apparent that these things were not equal, but no one else was talking about it and I was ill-equipped to discover the answer to which of these methods was better. 

Dr. Romanov was laying it all out there for me: here’s how you run and here’s why.  Not only did he have the balls to say something audacious, but his claims were making sense.  I was never a competitive runner before I started entering ultra marathons in my 30s.  I never worked with a track or cross country coach and I never had anyone tell me how to run (my college basketball coaches wouldn’t have dared to correct someone’s running form).  So, I was picking all of this up starting at first principles, with an empty cup waiting to be filled with information.  (I honestly think this was a huge advantage for me because I didn’t have to unlearn a bunch or erroneous information or running dogma.  A lot of runners are already full of that shit, so it’s hard.) 

Upon my initial reading of The Running Revolution, I missed a lot. Even with the videos that accompanied the iPad version of the book, it’s hard to learn how to run by reading a book.  It’s hard when you can’t watch yourself and see what you’re actually doing. So I kind of heard what I wanted to hear and picked up about half of the Pose tenants and adopted them in my running. 

It helped a lot, but it wasn’t perfect.  My big mistake after reading the book was inaccurately synonymizing  the words “fall” and “lean”.  I took falling to mean leaning, and I ran with poor posture.  I was trying to do a continuous-leaning-type-thing instead of the pendulum falling effect.  Then, when your posture is shit and you’re bent at the waist, you’re forced to counter-balance (around your GCM) by leaving your feet trailing behind you when they should be directly underneath your hips.  I had more time on support because I was waiting for my trailing leg to catch up with the rest of my body that was essentially running away from it. 

I need someone to look at me and point out my specific deficiencies, and Dr. Romanov certainly obliged.  After I left the clinic in Miami, I couldn’t wait to get out and try my new technique.  I had finally seen myself in action and I knew what was going wrong.  At first it wasn’t easy.  I had been so conditioned to “use my long stride” that the short, choppy steps felt incredibly foreign to me.  I didn’t feel like it was conducive to running fast.  Then, one day about two weeks of running, I had a breakthrough. 

I was running on a trail that I had been on a lot (over 100 times) and I was focusing on pulling my foot from the floor as quickly as possible— even though the high cadence felt weird— and maintaining my posture.  I got to the top of the climb much quicker than I normally would, but I was keeping the effort easy and (incorrectly) assumed that there was some mistake or I had forgotten to un-pause for a bit after I took a leak.

I turned and started back down the mountain, once again with laser-focus on my cues, fighting the urge to over-stride.  What happened next was amazing.  I still remember the sensation vividly. My short, choppy steps started to flow.  My legs started to feel light, like they were popping off the ground as soon as they touched down.  It felt great, but I assumed that I was running very slowly.  I felt way too in control of my body to be running fast downhill— usually when I hit seven minute pace, I felt out of control like I was pounding and the impact felt dangerously high. 

I glanced down at my watch and did a double-take.  It said I was running at 5:30min/mile pace. That can’t be right!  There’s no way I could be running this fast and be in control like this.  I didn’t feel like I was doing anything.  I had this weird feeling where I felt detached from my legs.  I was just this person up in the cockpit driving, and all I had to do was pick my feet up and get them under my GCM as quickly as possible. It was surreal. And I was fucking flying down the hill. I couldn’t help but let a huge smile grow across my face.  

Never in 100 years would I have come to the conclusion that my downhill running problem was from leaving my foot trailing behind me too far.  This type of error wasn’t even on my radar. In a single moment of clarity, running downhill switched from being slow and strenuous to being fast and fun.

I got home and checked the results of my run on Strava.  I set something like 25 personal records on a run that I had done 100+ times.  And I had kept my effort easy the entire time.  I wasn’t pushing, I was concentrating on my cues.  From that day forward, I was sold.  You could now call me a Pose runner.

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Since then, I’ve naturally had some ups and downs with my training, but you can’t even compare the runner I was with the runner I am now.  100 mile weeks aren’t scary anymore.  My legs don’t hurt.  I’m partially convinced that the only thing holding my running back at this point is the amount of food I can eat.  Now, instead of having my legs break down, I’m dealing with energy systems issues (which has led to a few dangerous situations actually where I was way too far away from home and running out of energy— it took me a little while to get a handle on that situation because it hadn’t happened before). 

I do a lot more flat running too.  I still hate it, like I did before Pose, but now I see the real benefit in it and I understand how it translates to the mountains a lot better.  I need to come back to the flat to push the reset button after too much time on variable terrain.  Taking all the other variables out of the equation is still the best way for me to get in touch with my form, but as I said, I’m still very new to this whole thing, so hopefully that’ll improve in the future. 

I’ve fared well in my races since fully adopting the Pose method as well.  I brought my 50k PR well below five hours and somehow (I’m slow) managed to place 2nd in the Santa Barbara Red Rock Marathon with I time I wouldn’t have dreamed of a year before. 

I haven’t raced much though, and it seems to surprise people when they look at the volume I’ve been consistently putting up for the last year.  They want to know what I’m training for.  I’m just having too much fun running as much as I want as hard as I want.  I’m having too much fun pushing the boundaries of my own body right now. When I’m interested, the races will be there.  It’s like someone finally gave me the blueprint to operate this vehicle I call a body and I’m still test driving the shit out of it. 

There are myriad reasons why I’m sold on Pose running.  But to avoid sounding dogmatic, I’m going to save you the rest of the anecdotal evidence of my personal experience and do my best to look at some of the common arguments made against Pose (scientific and otherwise), understand why they are being made and attempt to get to the truth.  Because at the end of it all, after the trolling and debating and commenting is over, truth is all that matters. 

Part Two: The Problems with Pose, Breaking Down the Arguments

 

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Jenn Shelton’s Outside Voices

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I have been a big fan of Joel Wolpert for the last few years.  His films are things of beauty, to say the least, and whether he’s chasing Anton Krupicka down Green Mountain in the snow in Runner in Winter or flying down the Kabib Trail with a deeply introspective Rob Krar in Depressions, you know you’re watching more than a simple trail running film, you’re viewing a piece of art.  From the spot-on soundtrack choices to the compelling subject matter and the flawless tracking shots, Joel Wolpert is producing quality content.

I was lucky enough to attend the Los Angeles screening of the Wolpertinger’s last Vimeo VOD offering, In the High Country back in late 2014.  This film is essentially Joel’s “ode to the moutains” and follows Tony Krupicka around the Rockies (specifically up Long’s Peak).  I was always amazed at the candor and vulnerability that this film was able to access from its star; most of the others things I had seen or read almost always portrayed Krupicka as this bearded enigma who, if you’re lucky enough, you might catch a glimpse of tearing shirtless down a Boulder-area trail. 

In the High Country did a great job (for me at least) of breaking down some of these barriers and not only showing some of Tony’s personality but also some of his running too.  During the Q&A session the followed the screening, Krupicka was raving about Joel’s technical trail running ability— something that is certainly witnessed in most of his films (just watch how smooth the shots of Rob Krar bombing into the Grand Canyon come out). I love Billy Yang and his running films, but he would need a vehicle of some sort to keep up with TK and it shows in how impersonal a film like 15 Hours with Anton Krupicka comes across. (Note: I’m not trying to knock Billy Yang, his work is awesome, if you haven’t seen his Mont Blanc film, you should definitely check it out.)

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Joel Wolpert seems to be the perfect package for producing this type of film: he has the eye, the skill and acumen to follow athletes through technical, varied terrain and he picks compelling subjects. Or maybe he’s just lucky enough to have awesome friends, but Jenn Shelton certainly does not disappoint in Outside Voices.  The first thing you hear the “Hunter S. Thompson of ultra running” say as she’s about to begin a speed work session on the track is “I just ate a shit-ton of Taco Bell so this could be interesting”. 

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What follows is a gorgeously crafted, black and white film showcasing Jenn Shelton’s eclectic personality, fun-loving attitude and her hard-charging, leave-it-all-on-the-trail approach to running. Shelton might not necessarily be worthy of the HST comparisons but her gonzo approach to her (decent) writing coupled with her hard-partying antics certainly make her the best candidate in the ultra running scene to carry on the flame.  I, for one, would much rather hear Jenn talk about Taco Bell and beer than listen Timothy Olsen tell me how to “run mindful”. 

Some of my favorite moments in the film:

Shelton getting hammered on Mezcal while volunteering at an aid station and attempting to get every runner who comes through to “take a nip” off the bottle. 

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Her story involving $20 of Taco Bell being puked all over her kitchen floor directly in front of her ex-boyfriend and the realization that they probably wouldn’t be together too much longer after that. 

Shelton about to strip off her sports bra and hop into an alpine lake for a mid-run dip when she asks, “Do you think Vimeo is ready for some milky white jugs?” and Joel, who is behind the camera, firing off a super quick “Yeah” without an instant of hesitation.

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The Tony Krupicka cameo where he shows up to crew/pace her to a 3rd place finish at the Bear 100 looking impossibly cool (per usual) in a Sombra Mezcal tank-top and his Fr33ky cap.  The best part is probably when Tony is handing her a bottle of water and she calls him her “fucking cabana boy”.

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For what seems to be her “recovery run” a day or two post-Bear 100, Shelton organizes a beer/shoot a can mile where she has to pound a beer and shoot a can off of a fence with a rifle every lap.  And then proceeds to run it hard and not miss a shot.  Doesn’t get much better. 

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Six Ways to Suck at Strava

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We all love Strava.  Or hate it.  Or spend hours obsessing over it while simultaneously pretending that we don’t care at all.  As has been pointed out exhaustively—it’s a pretty polarizing piece of the social media puzzle.

I personally spend anywhere between five minutes and two hours a day on the site, a time usually determined by how impressive I deem my current activity levels.  If I went on a run that boasts impressive stats, I’ll repeatedly open the page throughout the day at work just to look at the run—check my splits again, memorize my segment goals or simply just stare at mileage totals. 

If I haven’t been doing anything impressive—or anything at all—I am far less likely to open the app throughout the day.  I’m just going to see that Dylan Bowman ran 22 miles in a little over 40 minutes and summited Mt. Tam for the #108 time that week.  Or that Anton Krupicka rode his bike 150 miles to the base of Longs Peak before skipping up the keyhole route and tagging the summit.  Just a bunch of depressing shit mainly.  But you can’t say that it isn’t motivating. 

Strava at it’s best is a statistical catalog that allows you to track and share your endurance activities while giving you a transparent look at the training programs of your friends and some of your favorite athletes.   

Like all social media, however, it can be horribly misused.  Just like you have friends who suck at Facebook or Instagram whose name you dread seeing pop-up in your feed, we all have those people on Strava that we feel obligated to follow even though they suck at using it and perpetually flood your feed with garbage.

If you’re already one of those people who suck at Strava, just keep doing what you’re doing.  If you are using it properly, please stop immediately and follow these six steps:

1. Break your run into as many parts as you possibly can.    You would never want to have a single activity as your run on Strava.  Then you’re just lumping your warm-up, cool-down and actual run into one thing.  This is going to bring your average pace way down.  Not cool. 

If you can, try to break every run into 4 separate activities: pre-warm up, warm-up, run, cool-down, and post-cool down cool down.  That way, we can all see your “real” pace during your workout but you can also flood all of your follower’s feeds with multiple activities. And— perhaps most importantly— you are effectively quadrupling your Kudo potential.  Just think about all of those extra Kudos. They are going to make you feel sooo good.

2.  Put EVERYTHING you do on Strava. Did you walk to the mailbox?  Strava that shit.  Did you walk around Whole Foods for 15 minutes?  Strava the hell out of that shit.  That’s mileage you gotta keep track of.  When you’re looking back at your training log trying to figure out why you performed so well last year, the answer might be in all those walks down to the corner store for beers.  You never know.

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Holy shit bro, you were walking FAST that last mile. 

3. Log your indoor resistance training workouts (with details).  I love it when I’m looking through my feed and I see “Lats and Core Work Today” or “4 x 10 reps of Bicep Curls”.  This is really why I started using Strava. Oh, the motivation!  I think I’m going to drop to floor right now and do 25 pushups so I can log it.  I should probably take a photo too…

4. Sign up for every possible challenge that you can, every month, over and over again.  Sign up for the 10k challenge every month, even though you run a 10k every other day.  And definitely sign up for the open-ended challenges that track your mileage monthly, that way it pops up into feeds each time you run 25 or 50k.  That’s better.  I love when I can’t even see a single activity in my feed because all I can see are someone’s list of 14 current challenges. It’s awesome.

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Nothing against Jorge Maravilla obviously- the guy is a badass- he just sucks at Strava

 5. Create a bunch of segments-within-segments so you can find the perfect section where your time cracks the top ten. I know Strava says they don’t want you doing this but simply ignore all those warnings about your segments being to similar to existing segments.  And definitely do NOT make it private. We all need to see these results and how amazing you are.

6.  If you go running on the treadmill, please take a picture of the treadmill screen after you’re finished.  Otherwise, you could totally be lying.  Plus, when Strava updated their app to give photographs a much bigger role in the interface, this is exactly what they had in mind: treadmill photos.  Just like treadmill runners are their target demographic for Strava Premium Memberships. 

An Open Letter to the Non-Runner

I know what you’re thinking: Here’s another self-righteous asshole trying to tell me what to do. Up on his high horse, berating my sedentary lifestyle, tossing around phrases like “obesity epidemic” and “heart disease”.  Making grandiose claims about brain chemistry, all while promising a decrease in body fat and an increase in energy. 

But that’s not what I’m here to do.  I want to talk about running in the context of our culture.  I want to talk about running as a way to escape. 

I used to be just like you.  There was nothing about running that appealed to me.  I used to sit behind the wheel of my car and scoff at the idiots running by in their short little running shorts and stupid visors.  I would laugh at their sweat stained shirts as the artificially cooled air spilled out of the vents and into my face. 

“Why would anyone want to run, just for the sake of running?” I would often wonder.  It just didn’t make sense.  It was too simple to be attractive. There were no bells and whistles.  It wasn’t exciting enough. “If I want to do cardio, I’ll just play basketball.  Then at least the running has a purpose beyond just… running.”  

But then something changed.  And it wasn’t from a physical standpoint, like you’re probably imagining.  No, this particular change came from a spiritual standpoint.  To put it succinctly, I was bored.  I had gotten myself into a place where I was completely overrun with stimulus; sounds and pictures and lights constantly bombarding my senses; computer screens and TV screens and a cell phone screens, music being pumped directly into my ear canal and advertisements shouting at me from every direction I looked.  But somehow, amidst the ever-present stimuli being disseminated on a level unlike anything the human brain has ever seen, I was incredibly bored. 

I found myself withdrawing further and further from the reality TV, fast food, endless-consumption culture that was being thrust upon me at every turn.  It just didn’t feel right.  Everything about my life had become so complicated.  All the technology that professed such convenience and comfort was making me feel like a prisoner.  Complications that beget more complications.  Did it ever end?  Suddenly, I was craving simplicity. 

As Steve House, arguably the finest American Alpinist, reiterates many times in his book, Beyond the Mountain, “The simpler you make things, the richer the experience becomes.” It seems counter-intuitive, but if you keep it simple you’ll never get bored. We’ve been brainwashed by consumer culture to think that we need a huge production to be entertained.  I’m here to tell you that the exact opposite is true.  What you really need is to get as far away from your cell phone and TV as is possible in your current situation.  You need to pull the headphones off of your ears, get off of the air-conditioned car seat and start putting one foot in front of the other.  Just run—like we’ve been doing for thousands of years.  It’s time to regain a little primal simplicity.

Use running as a way to stand up and rebel.  Don’t watch Keepin’ up with the Kardashians like everyone else.  Don’t spend countless hours a day mindlessly browsing Instagram and Twitter feeds like everyone else. Just get outside and do exactly what we were designed to do: move. 

Use running as an escape.  Don’t think about how many calories you’re burning or how fast you’re running. Take the most simplistic, primal activity that exists and make it a part of your everyday life.  Get away from your work emails and group texts.  Don’t worry about the trending topics.   Just enjoy the rhythm of your feet falling onto the dirt or the road or the grass.  Really listen to the sound of your breath.  Connect with the landscape.  Find your place in the natural world.  Find your flow.

If you’re even a little bit like me and you’ve been feeling bored staring at all those screens—trapped in a world that never stops trying to sell you something—I am offering you a simple, no-strings-attached escape:  Run.

Run Steep, Be Humble

The beads of sweat were pouring off my nose and chin into the dirt with such force, they were actually kicking up dust.  I broke my running cadence for the first time since the trailhead and fell into a hands-on-the-knees power hike, glancing up the looming mountain in front of me and it’s vertical mile still waiting to be gained.  Quickly shifting my focus back to the next few feet to be climbed, I noticed that the beads of sweat hitting the dirt were falling at such a rate that they were blurring the line between bead and stream. 

I was fighting the urge to cease my forward progress with every step.  No matter how strong of a runner I might have thought I was, no matter how many times I had tagged the summit of this mountain before, I was once again being humbled. 

Anton Krupicka wrote a blog entry for Running Times a few years ago about, as he termed it, “Being Real”.  His post was grappling with maintaining authenticity in what he sees as an utterly inauthentic world.  He came to the conclusion that, ultimately, our actions are going to be what defines us as people.  For him, the only way to feel authentic, or like he was truly alive, was to get out of the human construction we call society, and find his place in the natural world. 

I couldn’t agree more.  We’re all living in a world of artificial construction.  The actions that we take within this world lack a certain level of perspective.  We are continually caught in our own little bubbles, trapped by ubiquitous distraction, most of the time viewing the world through the windshield of our cars, or even worse, through the screen of a computer or phone. 

People used to grow all of their food in a garden, spend endless hours caring and nurturing it; pick it, clean it, cook it.  They were actually working to create something.  Now, people go to a restaurant, sit at a table, pick something off of a menu, wait for it to arrive at their table (completely uninterested in the process that brought it there) and then proceed to take a photo of it and post it on Instagram and expect people to be impressed enough with the food they ordered to “like” it. 

Like it or not, all of this is inevitable to a certain extent and we’re all tied into these mechanisms in one way or another.  It can’t be escaped.  It just needs to be placed in the proper context.  We need to realize what is important and what is superfluous.  For me, this understanding is gained through running up mountains.

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It’s hard to be a cocky asshole after climbing a couple thousand feet of vert.  The mountains help you realize how insignificant you really are.  They help you find your true place.  They strip you of false confidence gained through owning things.  They show you what is truly important.  They help keep you sane in a world gone completely nuts. 

I look back at my considerably brief mountain running career and the moment that stands out the most; finishing in the top ten in my first 50 miler.  I was perhaps the most elated I had ever been, a beautiful mix of hard-earned exhaustion, immense relief that I got to stop running, the sincere feeling of accomplishing something I wasn’t sure that I could do and the utter joy of doing it well enough to finish in the top ten.  It was like the perfect storm of emotion, something I may never be able to replicate. 

But even after accomplishing something so (for me) difficult that had cost me gallons of sweat and blood dumped in the dirt, I was completely humbled. I didn’t do a fraction of the celebrating a NFL player does after a mediocre tackle on a play that took less then four seconds.  I just wanted to thank the members of my crew and everyone that had been there to support me.  I wanted to let them know I could never have done it without them.  I wanted to let them know how much it meant to me that they were there. 

I finally reached the top of the steep section I was power hiking and straightened back up into a run, the stream of sweat slowing slightly as a cool breeze came cascading over the peak I had just crested.  I was hurting but I knew I would make the summit.  It would be a struggle, I would have to push myself hard, but I would get there.  I had gained the confidence to know that, to understand what I had to go through to achieve my goal.  It was a confidence born in humility.  It was, and I’m sure Anton Krupicka would agree, an authentic form of confidence.

The 2016 Bandit 50k

(Photo by Howie Stern)

I had heard about the Bandit 50k from Chris Price at a race a few years back but at the time I didn’t know anything about the Santa Susana Mountains.  Since then, I’ve gotten married and I have begun to spend a decent amount of time out in Chatsworth at my in-laws house.  At first I thought this sounded terrible.  Then I realized that the summit of Rocky Peak was only a five-mile run from their doorstep.  Then I discovered the Chumash Trail.  Then my wife started thinking we were spending too much time at her parent’s house. 

Bottom line: I fell in love with the Santa Susana Mountains (I summited Rocky Peak 26 times in 2015), so I knew I had to try the Bandit 50k, and it did not disappoint.  I thought the Race Director was crazy for giving his address to all the runners who signed up for the race, inviting them over for early registration… but then I realized that these are just good people.  It made so much sense.  Leaving the Shoemaker residence on Friday night, I had a very good feeling about the event and the people running it. I was excited. 

I pulled into the parking lot at Corriganville Park at 6:30am on the dot.  Perfect timing.  I had plenty of time to get dressed, warm up, use the facilities and make it to the start line to hear Randy give the pre-race briefing.  I took a sip of coffee and reached into the backseat for my shoes.  No shoes.  My hand frantically searched every inch of the backseat in the dark.  Nothing.  Fuck.

Seconds later I was flying back out of the park against the heavy flow of traffic pouring in.  Luckily, my in-laws house is only seven minutes away. One exit on the freeway. Two blown red lights and a few miles on the 118 and I was back— with my shoes— and ten minutes to spare.  Fortunately for me, this time I got to park about 3/4 of a mile away from the park, the distance lending itself to a nice little warm-up.  Not exactly the relaxing, auspicious start I was hoping for, but hey, I wasn’t starting late and trying to pass 100 people. 

Without much time to think about anything, we were off, flying around the park in a loop before starting the climbing up toward Rocky Peak.  I don’t know if it was the stressful shoe situation, my restless sleep the night before or my coffee fiasco (I won’t even go into the details here) but I felt like absolute shit the for the first six miles of the race.  We left the park and headed up under the 118 freeway, Kenny Ringled and Felix Lawson out front, Michael Eastburn (fresh off a 2nd place finish at the Ray Miller 50k) running in a close third… and then me, desperately trying and failing to keep up as we marched up the steep, technical sandstone toward the Rocky Peak Fire Road. 

I was barely able to keep the lead group in sight as they crossed the small valley and headed up the climb.  I kept going over the checklist in my head, I couldn’t figure out what was wrong.  I shouldn’t have been feeling this bad this early.  I had done anything yet. I ripped off my shirt. I was sweating too much too soon. The weather was too good for this to be happening. It was 57 degrees.

I tried to shift my focus away from how I was feeling and focus on the looming climb.  It was time to settle in and grind it out.  It would be over soon enough and I’d be floating down the Chumash trail (currently one of my favorite trails in Southern California— especially when you’re going down).  Just the thought of that was enough to put a smile on my face and lift my spirits a bit.  I got a little Vitamin D on my chest, put my head down and fell into a rhythmic breathing/stride up toward my current peak of choice: Rocky.  Honestly, if it didn’t take so damn long, I would have tried to sneak a summit into the race.  But that would have cost me 15 minutes easy and added a couple hundred feet of vert.  I was still trying to win this race. 

I was starting to feel a bit better as I cruised into the Chumash aid station.  Lead group nowhere in sight.  There seem to be far less restrictions in Ventura County about what can go on at the aid stations and as such, this race was AWESOME! It was like a party at the stations.  Volunteers were offering me beer.  During the race.  There was music blasting, people dressed in costumes dancing, drinking and generally having a great time.  It was hard to leave not feeling great.  A handful of pretzels, a swig of coke and three S! Caps later, I was flying down the Chumash Trail, enjoying the dramatic views and buttery single track. 

I finally started to feel like I was emerging from the fog.  It was time to start running.  I hung two sub-seven minute miles down the Chumash Trail and pulled into the Marr Land Aid in what seemed like no time at all.  This aid station seemed to have a prevailing Star Wars theme and there were little Yoda and Boba Fett signs encouraging me as I left.  Still feeling and anxious to try to close the distance between myself and the leaders, I drank a couple dixie cups full of coke and was gone (I only spent a cumulative seven minutes in Aid Stations during the Bandit 50k, down from 13 minutes at Mt. Disappointment 50k in July. Getting better).  I knew I had an out-and-back section coming up so I would get to see exactly where I stood.

The section after the Marr Land aid station was the only part of the course I was unfamiliar with, so I was excited to get to see a new section of the mountains.  There wasn’t a ton of climbing in this section— really only one—but it was gorgeous, cut along a nice ridge and the mountains seemed to have changed topography, losing the ubiquitous peppering of sandstone boulders for a little limestone and some trees.

I was cruising along through this mostly flat section, keeping my pace comfortably below eight minutes a mile.  My only concern was the slightly rising temperatures.  It seemed significantly warmer the farther west we traveled (it was after 9am now) and the cloud cover had thinned out quite a bit.  I wanted to get back to higher elevations and cooler temperatures as quickly as possible and made a mental note to spend some time drinking water at the next aid station. 

Depressingly, still almost a half a mile from the turn around, I caught a glimpse of Felix’s face rounding a corner.  We nodded and muttered words of encouragement.  Ten seconds later, Kenny came whipping by, looking fresh, with a nice high cadence that makes us tall guys jealous.  It was about two minutes before the third place runner, Michael Eastburn, appeared around a bend.  He didn’t look as fresh as the other two but he was still moving at a nice pace and I made another mental note that I had my fucking work cut out for me going forward. 

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Photo by Sarita Shoemaker

I pounded five dixie cups full of water, took four salt caps, ate two Oreos and I was gone.  The chase was on.  I had to catch at least one of these guys.  The podium was in reach and I had to go for it.  Win or blow up trying.  I dropped my pace and hung a couple seven minute miles back out of the turnaround (where I picked up my conveniently placed t-shirt, at least I didn’t have to hold it in my hand the ENTIRE race. At some point I’m going to learn to just leave them in the car) and started climbing back toward the aid station.

The legs and the wind were feeling solid on this climb and toward the top I passed a fellow 50k racer coming down the climb who shouted, “Bro, you look great!! Go for it! You can catch those guys!!” and I can’t even tell you what a burst of energy it gave me.  I don’t know who that guy was, but because of him I ran that next mile and finished that climb at least two minutes faster.  My spirits boosted and my confidence restored, I found myself back at the Marr Land Aid Station at 2:51 elapsed time.

Randy was there to give me some words of encouragement and I felt great leaving the aid station with a fat Red Vine sticking out of my mouth and approximately 12 pretzels in the pockets of my Patagonia shorts.  This time, we headed up through Las Llajas Canyon to make the ridge and the Rocky Peak Fire Road (another great quality of the Bandit: it could have been an out and back but they offer two separate loops to switch up the course and the terrain).  I was still feeling good as we started the climb— and at this point I’m passing 25k racers every few minutes, what went from such solitude the for the first three hours has suddenly became a traffic jam— so I kept pounding, maintaining what I felt was a good pace, waiting to see that Chumash Aid Station and the end of all the real climbing.  After that, it was a couple rollers along the fire road and about 1500’ of descent back into Corriganville Park. 

I rounded a bend in the steep fire road, still maintaining a decent running stride when I was distracted by a large group of 25k runners (yellow bibs) sitting on the side of the trail.  As I came around the corner they all started to get up, obstructing my view of the trail ahead.  I had to veer to the far left side to pass them and as I did, I was surprised (and elated) to see a hunched, hiking Michael Eastburn.  I pulled along side of him and asked him how he was doing.  All he could muster was a muffled, “I feel like shit.”  I tried to offer some encouraging words but, having been in that place before, knew it probably didn’t do much good. I knew he didn’t want to waste his energy talking to me so I pushed on. The podium was now in my sights.  Third place was mine to lose.

My arrival into the Chumash Aid Station was bittersweet.  This aid station was particularly awesome, I was almost talked into a beer there and the volunteers gave me a tremendous boost. Plus the climbing was over.  But I felt like I hadn’t pushed hard enough coming into that aid.  I know that trail too well.  I should have hit a couple of those last climbs harder and tried close the gap.  As it was, I was 12 minutes back of Felix and 10 mins behind Kenny.  Almost an impossible distance to make up in less than six miles, all downhill, with those guys running out in front.  They’re fast. 

I resigned to cruise in, relax and enjoy the finish.  The fourth place runner wasn’t in sight as I left the aid station so I knew I didn’t need to push too hard.  During my last few races, I have become much more conscious in the moment during my finishes.  In the past, I had always been so happy to be done or so emotional or simply too overwhelmed at the finish of a race to fully appreciate the moment. Then I look back on it later and realize how incredible it actually was and what an amazing feeling of accomplishment it really is to finish a race like this…

So this time I consciously let it all soak in.  I just wish I could bottle it up.  It’s my drug. I love it.  It feels special to finish well at a race in (what feels like) my backyard.  I love these mountains. I’ll be back.

This was a great race put on by amazing people with a competitive field of runners (the swag was dope too).  I can’t wait to come back next year and spend (hopefully) around four hours running through the Santa Susanas again. 

The Pursuit of Happiness

“The quality, not the longevity, of one’s life is what is important.”       – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Most Monday mornings when I’m attempting to drag my ass out of bed at five to go to work, it’s quotes like the one above that seem to be playing on a loop inside my skull (interspersed with the obligatory Monday morning suicide plotting). I can’t help but wonder what I am doing.

It’s my life. I only get to live it once. So why do I spend so much time doing things that I hate? Is the allure of security really that strong? Do I really need to fit into this perfect little cardboard box of societal norms?

Last week I was at a bar when someone asked me what I “did”. As in, what was my job, how did I make the money I just used to pay for the IPA I was drinking. Always an irksome question, it has been extremely difficult for me to answer lately. Not because I’m ashamed of what I do– but because there are other things I do (without collecting a paycheck) that are far more representative of who I am.

More than anything, I wanted to be able to say something like, “Oh, I’m a dirt-bag trail runner. I work on odd job here and there so I can pay the camping fees at trailheads and purchase an occasional pair of running shoes.” Alas, I don’t have the balls to spend the majority of my time doing what it is I actually love to do… So I just mumbled something into my beer about my day job and tried to change the subject as fast I could.

But the encounter got me thinking… Never before in my life have I been so close to a state of financial security (whatever the hell that means), and never before have I been so unhappy with my professional life.  So what am I doing? It’s my life. I only get one. Why have I resigned to spend it being a total bitch? Living a lie, biding my time until I die, trading excitement and passion for security and longevity?

All of us, in one way or another, are on our own pursuits of happiness. We’re trying to get it. We think we can get it. Yet we slave away, spending the majority of our time miserable, waiting for something to happen, complaining about our situation but never doing anything to change it.  It could be worse, right?  But that type of logic seems to be the root of the problem to begin with.  It’s all so convoluted. Complication after complication to consider.  All I want to do is run.

I want to run all the time.  Running is the simplest, most primal activity that I can possible think of. When I get out on the trail and start charging up the side of a mountain, sweat dripping into the dirt around me, everything else seems to melt away.  Running as hard as I can, blurring the line between control and abandon– this is where I feel alive.  This is my way of revolting against a society that refuses to let me be happy.  To let me be who I am.

Human beings, like all other creatures on this planet, evolved to procreate. To spread our genes. We didn’t evolve to be happy.  Truth be told, happiness is probably a detriment to our general ability to pass our genes to the next generation. We’re probably not going to find this elusive state of happiness we’re all so feverishly pursing. Especially not with our head buried in a screen or our ass stuck in a chair.

I’m not an evolutionary biologist, but it seems to me that, as we were becoming the species we are now– the dominant species on earth, we spent most of our time running.  Running to eat and running to avoid being eaten. In either of these scenarios, success had to be a pretty joyful occasion– possibly the most joyful occasion of our ancestor’s lives– and it was always inexorably linked with running.

I run to be happy.  My ancestors were happy because they ran. Is there a difference?  Isn’t it all the same thing?  Is the bliss they felt after running down an antelope the same thing I experience after finishing a 50 mile race? There’s no way to know for sure.  What I do know is that when I toe the starting line at the Bandit 50k this Saturday, I’ll be on a good, old-fashioned pursuit of happiness, just like my ancestors used to do.IMG_0249