Strava Made Me Do It

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Dre coughed so violently that it activated her gag reflex, sending in her into a sort of mid-stride dry heave.  She looked up the steep ridgeline in front of her and forced the words out through a muffled wheeze:  “We almost there?”

“Yeah, almost done,” I lied. “Last little push.”

It was cold for Southern California, around 45 degrees, but she was stripped down to her sports bra, the previously donned jacket, beanie and gloves stuffed in various locations around her waistband, stripped off and stowed as the effort accumulated.  We were charging up a trail in the Santa Monica Mountains that you won’t find on any map or listed in any guidebook.  One of those locals-only type things that, if you’re lucky enough to know about it, will roll you higher and higher across increasingly technical terrain until it deposits you on the highest point in The Pacific Palisades.  The summit has exposure, solid topographical prominence and even a make-shift register in a plastic box with a little boulder on top.

We kept pushing hard, fighting through the brush and branches jutting out across the seldom-used trail.  Just as we crested one of the many false summits along the ridge and started to descend I heard a muffled exclamation but didn’t see her break stride so I kept moving, not thinking much of it.  It wasn’t until we were back in the car that I saw the gash along her right eyelid and found out that she had been stabbed in the eye by an errant tree branch.

It’s a funny thing that these type of efforts do to you.  Dre was chasing the course record on a Strava segment. You might think that’s pretty lame.  Say whatever you will about it: it’s a social media app, it’s not a real FKT, it’s for old dudes on electric bikes and retired pro cyclists.  But this app and it’s segments, particularly this 1.4 mile ridgeline with 1600ft of vertical gain over rocky, technical terrain with a solid class 4 section, switched what could have been a casual Friday morning jaunt through the mountains into a coughing, hacking, dry heaving, spitting, air-gasping all-out sufferfest where Dre was prepared to leave it all out there on the trail.  Blood, sweat, tears, stomach bile; name your bodily fluid.  She was going after it.

There’s something special about these type of efforts.  There’s something different about charging and moving and hurting yourself.  Taking yourself to this place where you’re not sure what’s going to happen.  A place far outside your comfort zone.  A place where pretense and posturing fall by the wayside, dumped in a pile along with all those other neatly manicured aspects of your personality.

It’s a magical place that, in my opinion, not a lot of people have the ability nor the toughness to experience.  I’m not talking about going out and trying to run a fast mile or targeting the course record on the ½ mile bike path loop by your house.  I’m talking about mountains.  Climbing.  Testing yourself against terrain that most people wouldn’t consider walking on.  Putting yourself in situations where the stakes are high and the risk is real.  I’m talking about being alive.

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Dre is no stranger to tough Strava segments; last summer she set the CR on the Owen-Spaulding Route on Grand Teton (from the lower saddle to the summit), where she free-soloed three class 5 pitches above 13’000ft. 

The amount of time we spend in a climate controlled box, staring at a glowing rectangle has overreached any cliche about being sedentary and far surpassed all hyperbole about “screen time”. For most of us at this point, it’s just the way it is. It’s becoming harder and harder to remember a time when things were different.

We have come so far out of our evolutionary setting that the effects are real and easily measurable.  We hardly experience any of the emotions that make us human anymore.  We don’t do anything that makes us appreciate all the luxuries that we enjoy.  The inordinate amount of time we spend in this luxury makes us soft and whiny so when we don’t have it, we pout and get angry and count the seconds until were back in it, to the point where I hear people talking about not being able to take a shit without their cellphone. How did we get here?

“We’re not gonna get it…” Dre said breathlessly as her left foot slid atop a small pile of loose boulders.

“Just keep moving,” I replied. “Almost there.” I had probably said that so much to her at this point that it reminded me of the opening line of 4th Time Around by Bob Dylan: “Then, she don’t waste, your words they’re just lies.” But she did. She kept charging. Grunting and huffing and puffing away. Approaching the class four section (aptly titled The Wall on Strava). I extended a helping hand but she ignored it. I knew she would. She scrambled to the top, wheezing a bit, fighting off another coughing fit.

All that was left was a couple of little rollers and we were there. I glanced down at my watch as Dre charged past me, hands still on her knees, surveying the terrain waiting for it to flatten out enough for her to start running. It was going to be close. She didn’t ask me how much further, she could smell it. The barn, the summit and the end of this little digital line, drawing a beautiful aesthetic across the ridge by way of satellite.

She was lost in the effort.  Lost in the experience. Completely in the moment, just her against the mountain.  Moving lightly over natural terrain, pushing her body to the edge, redlining and testing those outer edges of her fitness.  Striving to reach the top.  I don’t think it gets much more human than that.  She was learning about herself this morning.

Would she have done it without Strava?  Probably.  That’s just the kind of person she is.  But maybe not quite as hard.  Having a bench mark already set by someone goes a long way toward making your morning runs competitive.  Not for everyone, but for some.

For Dre on this particular morning, the thought of going to work all day after missing the course record by eight seconds was too painful an eventuality.  This time, you could safely say that Strava made her do it.

I was a few steps behind her as she crested peak and stood on the summit, rolling green mountains surrounding her on all sides.  Despite giving all I had on the final 400 meters, I couldn’t stay with her. I found her bent over, breathing hard, watching her sweat hit the dirt in front of her face. I laid my hand gently on her back.

“You got it,” I said with the slightest air of solemnity, “By almost two minutes! Sent a lot of emails this morning…”

She stood up, beaming. Her eyes sparkled and her skin glowed.

“I fucking better have,” she said as a huge smile spread across her face, “cuz there’s no way I’m doing that again.”

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Still smiling though…
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Chasing Jeff Browning

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Photo: Howie Stern

Author’s Note: All Jeff Browning quotes are reconstructed from memory.  While I think I did an accurate job remembering what was said and how it was said, we were running (fast) up a mountain at the time. 

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“Within five years, Walmsley will be out of the sport.”  My ears perked as the musing from Jeff Browning came floating over his shoulder.  My head snapped back toward the trail and Jeff, away from Sullivan Canyon, slowly being awoken by the soft morning light.

“You think?” I wondered aloud.  

“Have you seen that dude’s Strava?” Jeff asked. “He’s running sooo much. Too much. One hundred and forty, one hundred and sixty mile weeks, one after another.”

“And super fast too.” I added.

“If you look at anyone who’s had any longevity in this sport– like me or Meltzer– we’re consistently putting in 70-80 mile weeks.  There’s a place for a 100 mile week in a training plan.  But you can’t be there all the time. You’re gonna flame out.  That’s exactly what happened to Tony.”  

I think it was right around this point, when I heard Jeff casually referred to Anton Krupicka as “Tony” during a conversation he was having with me that I started to realize how lucky I was in the present moment.  Not only was I running with Jeff Browning (in the lead of a race) but he– one of the most successful, competitive, smart ultrarunners in the world– was dropping knowledge on me like a professor.  

“I think you can run year-round if you stay in that 70-80 mile range.” Jeff said. “You don’t really need an offseason.”

It was only 7:15am but it was already getting hot.  We were hammering hard uphill, climbing away from Will Rogers State Park en route to Trippet Ranch in the heart of Topanga.  My hat felt heavy with sweat.  I glanced down at my watch as we approached the top of the Will Rogers trail: we had been averaging just over eight minute per mile pace for the first seven miles, which had over two thousand feet of vertical gain and no relief– maybe 10 cumulative feet of descent.  

“Would you go out this hard in a 100 typically?” I asked.  

“No, definitely not. We’re going out pretty hot right now,” Jeff said glancing back at me with slightly raised eyebrows.  “For 68, this will be ok for me.  In a 100, it’s too risky.  Once the wheels fall off, they ain’t going back on.  I like to make sure I can run the last 50k of a 100.  If I can just run nine minute pace, I’m picking people off.  I was in 17th at Forest Hill last year at Western.”

And we all know how that turned out.  I was just trying to soak in all of the wisdom I could from a guy who is 45 years old and still crushing 100 milers in big mountains (he finished just behind Kilian at Hardrock last year), has consistently shown an ability to be competitive and run an exceptional smart race from start to finish (regardless of what is happening at the front of the pack).  His nutrition is on point.  He basically invented drilling screws into your shoes for running on snow and ice, making anyone who purchased “running crampons” feel like a total moron. 

“You trying to go under the FKT today?” I asked.  I had been wanting to ask him this from the first moment we started chatting but I had held off.  Somehow I don’t think I really wanted to know the answer.

“Yeah….” Jeff said casually, “I’m just trying to finish in the daylight.  Under twelve hours.”

The current FKT stood at 12 hours nine minutes, set by Mark Hartell back in 2012.  Before that, Chris Price had it for a little bit but he ran it the “wrong way”: West to East, which is less vert and ignores the historical significance of the trail.  It’s run the way it was established: East to West.  And there’s also just something beautiful and poetic and perfect about descending the Ray Miller trail down toward Pt. Mugu, racing the sun toward the horizon, hoping to reach the finish line before it disappears beneath the endless expanse of ocean.  Running back into smoggy Santa Monica isn’t as satisfying for a number of reasons, regardless of how much closer it may be to my apartment.  

“Twelve hours seems kinda slow for 68 miles.” I stated, fully aware that with over 15,000 feet of climbing, most people tell you the Backbone runs like a 100 miler.  I was simply attempting to draw attention to the fact that not a lot of fast people had attempted the FKT and any number of runners could probably come and break it if they were interested (as Jeff would do that day).

“But dude,” Jeff replied, “It’s just so technical.  And there’s a ton of climbing. The guy with the FKT has won Hardrock a couple times.”

And it was true.  The Backbone is super technical.  Jeff didn’t need to tell me that.  I had run every step of it (with a tiny exception on a recently re-opened section).  Mark Hartell certainly was a badass: he won Hardrock and finished second there twice.  He finished top-five at Western States and top-twenty at UTMB.  It’s not like he was some scrub who rolled off the couch and decided to go for a run on a random Saturday because he was bored.  This was a highly coordinated attempt by a highly accomplished runner.  

“But I guess if you’re gonna set the FKT, a race is the time to do it, with all the aid you could ever need laid out for you.” I added.  

“Yeah, it’s kind of weird.  There’s not many races that take place over routes that people run for FKTs…” Jeff said before trailing off.  I was half hoping we were going to get into a philosophical discussion about the relative merits of unsupported vs supported vs full race aid station FKT attempts. Not only was Jeff Browning a total badass, he was a super cool guy.  

As we floated into Trippett Ranch, the first aid station at mile 11.5, Jesse Haynes running along side us holding his GoPro in an outstretched arm, I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.  

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Coming into the first aid at Trippet Ranch. Yeah, my shorts are already soaked– at mile 11.5 before 8am. Side note: that is not an optical illusion, Jeff Browning is tiny (roughly half my size, haha). I thought he was on the “bigger” side of elite ultra runners, I always thought he had big arms and was muscular- I was wrong. 

 

I was so into the conversation with Jeff, I realized I had barely drank anything and my shorts were already soaked with sweat.  We kept saying how hot it was going to be today.  Fuck that, it was hot right now.  I filled my bottles– that were only half empty– tossed a cup of water on my head and was pounding down Dead Horse toward Topanga Canyon Blvd, hot on Jeff’s tail.  

I broke my stride and fell into a power hike for the first time on the super steep pitch behind Topanga Elementary.  The conversation and basically just the presence of Jeff Browning had pulled me out of myself a bit.  I hadn’t been drinking nearly enough water, I wasn’t checking in with my stride, and I hadn’t even thought about nutrition at this point.  

This was my big concern.  It seems to always come down to nutrition for me.  I just hate eating when I run.   I can easily go 50k in a training run without eating anything (before or during).  As soon as I eat, I feel like everything goes to shit.  All of the sudden, I have to content with the food in my stomach as well as the miles in front of me.  It seems like more stress than relief.  

My plan in this race was to wait until I got hungry and then eat what looked good off the aid tables.  Not exactly the dialed-in nutrition plan of someone like Jeff Browning  (whom I had witnessed pulling a pill bottle out of his Strider Pros and popping a small capsule about 45 minutes into the race) but I was hoping for the best.  

The three-mile climb through the canopied Hondo Canyon went surprisingly well.  I was cooling off a bit in the shade, trying to drink water and still climbing strong. It’s almost 2,000 feet in a 3.5 miles and I was able to keep my pace solid and my cadence high.  As I turned onto the Fossil Ridge Trail, about a mile from the second aid station (at 20k) I left the shade of Hondo Canyon and started climbing along the exposed ridgeline.  The sunlight felt heavy beating down on my back as I drained my second 20oz bottle.  I immediately slowed in the heat.  Luckily, I was starting to feel hungry just in time for the aid station.

I bombed into the Lois Ewen Overlook– an exposed intersection with a small parking lot at what is essentially the top of Topanga, tossed my water bottles to my crew for refilling and started perusing the table for food.  I slammed a couple dixie cups full of coke and then started eating an almond butter sandwich. There were some rolled up tortillas stuffed full of avocado that looked tasty so I shoved two in my waist belt and was off down the trail, mouth full of almond butter and Wonder bread, looking forward to the first extended descent after 18 miles of non-stop climbing.  

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Poor choices being made at the Lois Ewen Overlook (mile 18.3)… Photo: Mom 

I knew I was dehydrated.  I started to think that I was more dehydrated that I thought when I literally could not swallow the second half of my almond butter sandwich.  It was just stretching around my mouth in a dry mess.  When I exhaled, little bits of bread were wheezing their way out.  It felt like I had sand glued to the inside of mouth.  It took me a full 20oz bottle to get it swallowed.  I felt like Ron Burgundy; it was a bad choice on a hot day.    

As soon as I started to push the pace on the descent, my abs started to cramp.  My abs usually start to cramp when I get pretty dehydrated. They’re fucking weak.  Another thing I need to work on.  I HATE walking descents.  It kills me.  For me, mentally, it’s on par with sitting in a massive traffic jam on the 405.  There’s all this free speed available, I can run fast without exerting effort.  I can’t handle it if I’m forced to walk.  I should probably work on that, too.  

I flexed my abs as hard as I could and decided to push through.  They kept getting worse. I continued pounding down the switchbacks toward the Piuma Trailhead.  The cramps spread across both sides.  I kept pounding.  Two minutes later, I was bent over the side of the trail vomiting. Violently.  My entire abdominal cavity felt like it was stuck in a twisted mess that could never be untangled.  I had to walk now.  I was already dehydrated and I just threw up all my water.  I walked it in to the aid station at mile 25.8, exactly four hours elapsed.  

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Descending to Piuma. Pretending to run for the camera. Photo: Howie Stern

By 4:35 elapsed, just as the runner in third place was coming through the aid station, I still couldn’t keep anything down.  I was cramping all over my body.  My quads were twitching up and down with little cramps in every muscle.  I was done. My faith in my ability to bounce back is significantly diminished when I can no longer eat or drink.  When I start throwing up, I sink to a very dark place mentally.  I kept telling myself that I would get to the aid station and replenish and feel better… it wasn’t happening.  

I need to figure my shit out.  I’ve DNF’d my last two races.  I put together the best training block of my life, including three consecutive 100 mile weeks, only to have it derailed by poor decision making and a complete failure to stay on top of my hydration early in the race.  All that time and effort.  Countless hours.  Then I don’t do the one thing I know I need to do because I’m so engrossed in a conversation with Jeff Browning?  I suck.  I’m weak and stupid.  And drop-sick.  

I recently heard a quote from Jim Walmsley talking about ending suffering in a  race.  It was something to the effect of: “Only covering the distance ends the suffering.” A week after my race and I can tell you that he’s right.  I dropped out and I’m still suffering.  I didn’t end when I ripped the race bib off my shorts and got in the car.

I need to learn from this and move on.  I need a nutrition plan.  I need to learn to hydrate better on all my runs, not just my races.  I need to get more in touch with my body.  I need to get better at running slower sometimes or walking if I need to.   I need a more optimistic mentality when things go wrong. As my wife pointed out later in the day, I didn’t even mention dropping at the aid station, despite how poor my condition may have been, until that third place runner came through and passed me.  I need confidence in myself.  Confidence that if something goes wrong, I can bounce back and push through.

Going forward, I’m ready to embrace the low points.  Instead of fighting against them, I’m going to welcome them wholeheartedly, like an old friend.  Even in my training, I’m going to relish each and every attempt I have to truly suffer.  It takes a lot of work and a lot of effort to get to those places.  I’m going to be looking forward to it next time it happens.  It will be another opportunity to test myself, to find out who I really am.  Let’s just hope I can show up next time.

An Inconvenient Truth

“Ha ha. 6k? That’s like four miles. Four miles is a joke.”

I was wheezing so heavily through my nose that I thought my left nostril might rip.  It, meaning my nostril, was beginning to feel like loose skin flapping in the wind each time I was fortunate enough to begin exhaling the oxygen–nay, CO2– that was trapped in my lungs, stretching the shit out of my diaphragm and forcing the aforementioned wheeze out of my flapping left nostril.  I refused to breathe through my mouth.  This was a training run.  This was way below my (self)prescribed distance. I’m an ultra runner. I run 100 miles a week.  Four miles is a joke.

I was never a cross country runner.  I didn’t come from this background.  I began running largely as an escape, an attempt to get away from the bullshit.  I needed to get away from my phone, away from my boss and away from anyone who wanted to contact me.  I ran from people and for myself.  Then, a time came in my running career where performance started to become a bit more important.

Running was now a habit.  I had run everyday for three years.  I was enamored with the simplicity, the solitude and the brain chemistry.  In fact, I was addicted to all three.  A couple of my more scientifically inclined friends started referring to me as a junkie.  I was after the brain chemistry, they said. I needed the dopamine to function like a normal human being, they said.  I couldn’t be trusted to control my reactions in everyday situations unless I had run for at least three or four hours, they said.

As I had ascended to this level of junkie, I was clearly ready to have more performance-based aspirations.  So what to do?  I felt like my running had plateaued a bit.  I was running consistently and I was maintaining a solid weekly mileage, yet I still felt like there was something missing… an unexplored side of my craft.

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“Fuck that shit!”

Was my initial response to my wife’s inquiry of whether or not I’d like to run a 6k race for her work.

“You realize I’m currently training to run a 100k, right?  And you furthermore realize what a big fucking deal I am, right?  I mean, I might have a good– if not relatively good– chance of finishing in the top 20 of a trail race in which 99.99999% of people have no idea exists and if they did realize it existed would (somehow) care less about it?”

Long story short, I lost my argument and I was toeing the line with a few hundred other runners on a balmy September morning in the Santa Monica Mountains at the Heroes in Recovery 6k.  I’m not exactly one to make excuses *cough cough* but I had like 65 miles on my legs already that week and I was entering this race with far less knowledge of the distance than was ideal.  My shortest race to date was a marathon and I only had one of those tacked to a 15-race resume.

The crowd around Paramount Ranch wiggled, the gun went off, and the participants of the Heroes in Recovery 6k danced their ways down the trail.  I stayed with the first group, probably six or seven guys, for the first kilometer of so, until the first mildly sustained climb, at which point I looked down at my watch and saw that I was pushing a 5:40/pace.  Way too slow.

I dug into the hill and passed a couple runners on the ascent, sucking wind heavily as we crested the small peak, grateful to fall into the descent down into the tiny valley below.  I did my best Scott Jurek impressions and kept the wheels turning, owning the transition, and started my climb out of the low valley when I glanced at my watch.  I had only run for .86 of a mile.  And I was about ready to puke.  I certainly wanted to stop.  It was reminiscent of the latter stages of an ultra for me.

But this wasn’t an ultra.  This was a 20-min race.  I needed to get it together.  I was rolling.  The hills at Paramount Ranch certainly were.  The elevation on my Suunto was.  My stomach felt like one of Kanye’s waves.   Then, I saw a runner ahead of me.  I couldn’t really breathe.  But I felt like I had to go.  There he was.  I had a little climb, my advantage.  Next thing I knew, he was behind me.  My nostril was flapping.  I couldn’t breathe.

Mind numbing pain.  The hysterical sucking for air.  Loss of limb function and general motor control.  Theatrical vomit sensitivity. All things I was taking for granted the first few years of my running career.  It was mostly mountain tops and sunsets and easy mountain mornings over coffee… ridgeline traverses and butterflies floating on descents into lush valleys.  Summits and sunsets.  Now, I tasted pennies and blood in my mouth and I wanted nothing more than to stop running. Immediately.

But I couldn’t.  There’s some asshole ahead of me with his tank top hanging around his neck like it’s a fucking a cape and he thinks he’s the flash and he seems to be slowing down a bit and I really really want to pass him.  I also really don’t want to yack on my shoes.

I kept pushing my legs, looking for my turnover like a fat kid in a Pillsbury factory as we switched back onto a little ridge and dropped steeply into a wide gully that I immediately recognized as the single aid station on the course.  I wondered why it was only a kilometer in as I blew past at an unsustainably fast pace only a few minutes ago but I guess it made sense now as I lollipopped back out with only a kilo to go.

Despite any pain I was feeling, there was no chance I was letting off the gas. I was feeling alive.  Lungs and stomach be damned.  Like I previously made clear, it’s fucking 6k. Less than thirty minutes. Let’s go. This is what I came for.

I slowed a bit to take in the commotion that was mostly the overweight, hiking contingent of race crowded around the oasis, still only a .62 of a mile into the race, refreshing themselves on electrolytes and refined sugar, when I noticed, in my periphery, a runner cresting the lip and plummeting toward me at breakneck speed.  The runner in front of me was just exiting the climb out of the valley and out of sight and I had this sweat-inducing vision of being passed and the two runners in front of me battling it out, gladiator style, sprinting barrell-chested toward the finish line with the requisite scantily clad women cheering them in as I gasp for air and vomited on myself in the dirt a few hundred yards back, just out of sight (and mind).

As that outcome seemed less than ideal, I decided I needed to stop being a pussy.  I had less than four minutes of running left and I was on the verge of passing one runner and about to be eclipsed by another.  I was in the heat of battle like I had never really been in an ultra, at least in such close proximity, where runners are usually spread over vast distances and regularly stop for significant amount of times at aid stations.  No, this was different, and it was fun.

It was a similar adrenaline rush that I feel at the beginning of a race, with all the people around pushing hard, but this was complete with the late race brain chemistry (I had been going for a bit), the simultaneous feeling of being chased and hunting someone else, all coupled with that amazing smell of the barn (I had pushed and I was ready to be done– and it was close).

Despite the sense of stomach bile rising steadily up my throat, I couldn’t help but smile.  I was having fun.  I was running, I was racing, I was testing myself against other people and natural terrain.  It didn’t get much better.  I finished 5th, just out of the money (fucking 4th place got $100) but the experience opened my eyes.  It was great experience, not only running fast on a trail but racing against other people, pushing myself beyond my limits to find that finish line before and (unfortunately) after a few people.

I crossed the finish line, jogged out fifteen or so strides and then bent over with my hands on my knees.  A volunteer ran up to drape my medal around my neck and for a split second I started formulating an apology for yacking on his shoes, but I held it in- even after he walked away, and didn’t puke up my morning coffee.

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In the beginning of my ultrarunning career, I spent too much time running too slowly.  I spent too much time where it felt too good.  Most of the time, it is supposed to feel good.  Like the sunsets and butterflies and shit I was talking about earlier.  But those moments where it feels good are only highlighted even more by the moments of deep suffering.

As an ultrarunner, neglecting the high-end of your own spectrum can come with severly negative consequences.  For one, sprinting is good for your running technique.  Most of us run pretty perfectly when we’re sprinting and it’s always good for our overall mechanics to feel that (especially if you’re like most people and your slower-paced running form sucks balls).

Secondly, when you run really hard, you’re always out of your comfort zone, and that’s where the growth really happens.  It’s an inconvenient truth, but a truth nonetheless.  The more time you spend outside of where it’s comfortable and sunsets and butterflies, the more you grow and the better you get.  Just look at what guys like Dakota Jones (who placed 2nd and 3rd at Hardrock) and Tim Tollefson (who recently took third at UTMB) have been doing the last couple weeks:

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Running slow and recovering on the move certainly has it’s place, but in your hard workouts, when you try to improve your ability as a runner, it doesn’t belong.  As they say, you gotta have easy and hard workouts, from now on, I challenge you to make sure your hard workouts make you look forward to your easy days. You’ll be a better, faster runner for it.   

In Defense of the Uncomfortable and Inconvenient

My right leg was a mess.  I couldn’t tell if it was originating in my hip or my ankle—my ankle was swollen and wasn’t flexing properly and my entire right hip felt like it was stuck in a vice. No range of motion.  The cold wind kicking up off the ocean was blowing hard now, the sun had fully retreated behind a cluster of dense clouds and my shirt was about six miles away, hidden halfway up a tree.  I was also still trying to dig some debris out of my palm after catching a toe at the beginning of the run. Needless to say, I wasn’t having a very good day. 

I came bombing down a covered section of single track and was kicked out onto a completely exposed fire road, offering me a view of the trail ahead.  Directly in front of me was a steep section of loose talus (one of the few areas where I get any real scrambling done in the Santa Monica Mountains) that climbs 450 feet in roughly 200 yards.  Directly to the right of that, the fire road continued to meander it’s way up and around toward the summit, maintaining a nice even grade, never too steep to cause problems for a truck. 

The inner dialogue between the two opposing ideas that had just cropped up in my head began:  “You’re all beat up right now, your right hip flexor is about to permanently seize up, you’ve got a quarter-sized piece of rock protruding from your hand, it’s cold and you’re tired.  This time—just this one time—you should take it easy and follow the fire road up the switchbacks to the summit. No one else will ever know.”

“What?!? Fuck that!! You don’t run on fire roads!! You’re telling me that you’re going to pass on a rare opportunity to scramble because of a few minor aches and pains?!?  You’re cold?!! It’s Southern California!! You wanna unpack your trekking poles for that fire road too?!? Maybe you should just lie down in the fetal position on the side of the trail until the next person comes along and you can borrow their iPhone to call in the search and rescue team.” 

It suddenly dawned on me that the decision lying in front of me was a microcosm of what has happened to our culture.  We’ve evolved (or devolved, depending on how you’d prefer to look at it) to the point where nothing necessarily has to be difficult.  Comfort and convenience has become the only thing that matters.  People literally waste 90 percent of their hard earned money on things that they certainly don’t need, but make life a little bit more comfortable or make something they already do a little bit more convenient. 

Sure, you’ve got a perfectly good bicycle and you only live 4 miles from where you work, but you should probably take on a $300/month car payment because that way you get to sleep in 15 minutes longer and sit, completely un-exerted, in a climate controlled environment, never worrying pesky things like sweat or rain. 

Sure, you’ve got a computer that works great but it can be so big and cumbersome at times.  A tablet just fits in your hand so nicely, you don’t even need to put it down to wipe your ass. 

Unfortunately for us and our ceaseless technological expansion, comfort, ease and convenience aren’t the pinnacle of our existence.  Not a lot of growth happens when you’re comfortable.  In fact, most of the time, it’s just the opposite.  Comfort and convenience cause you to shrink.  Just think about your life for a second… think about the times you’re most proud of or the times when you’ve really grown as a person.  I seriously doubt that comfort played a large role. 

When you’re surrounded by or presented with things that are difficult (like, for instance, mountains and nature), you’re forced to adapt, change, grow.  When you are forced to overcome a demanding, inconvenient problem, you’re usually a better, smarter person for it.

Running 50 or 100 miles, climbing a 14,000 foot peak—these are the things that help us understand who we really are.  These are the situations that force us to look at ourselves without the filters, stripped down to our essence.  You can’t lie to yourself 75 miles into a 100 miler. These are the situations that effect change.  

If you download an app so you can lay on the couch and push a few buttons and have your dinner delivered to your door—not only are you forfeiting a chance at personal expansion, you’re also perpetuating the cycle of fat, lazy convenience which with we’ve all become so obsessed. 

My hip ached, my energy was low, I was cold.  I wanted to go up the fire road.  I wanted to take the easiest possible way out.  As I took my first few steps up the steep talus slab, beginning my uncomfortable, inconvenient scramble toward the summit, I couldn’t help but smile.  Leaving the fire road far below me in the distance, I knew—without a shred of doubt—I had made the right decision.