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

F*&% Breakfast: Running, Fueling and Fat Burning

Mainstream nutrition is slowly starting to catch up to what most intelligent people (and body builders, ha!) have known for years now.  You shouldn’t be eating breakfast.  The whole “breakfast is the most important meal of the day…even though you’re not hungry at all and could likely go three or four hours before you get hungry, you need to force feed yourself a bagel and a bowl of cereal” thing is finally starting to be debunked. 

It makes absolutely no sense from an evolutionary standpoint.  Our ancestors were hunter-gathers; they didn’t wake up and grab a granola bar.  They didn’t grow food.  They didn’t keep animals.  They woke up and they had to go find, hunt, kill and cook their food.  Or, they had to scavenge or dig for veggies and tubers.  Then cook those.  In all likelihood, they didn’t eat until the late afternoon or evening most days.

Why do you think you’re not hungry in the morning?  You’ve been fasting all night.  So, if breakfast is really the most important meal of the day, why aren’t you ravenous for a six egg omelet the second you wake up?  Because that’s how our biochemistry was designed by evolution.  When we wake up, we’re technically already eating breakfast: we’re burning fat.  Fat is the best, most readily available fuel source we have, and something I’m sure all of us would like to be better at utilizing.  On top of that, we get a heavy dose of cortisol upon waking that triggers our liver to start producing and mobilizing glucose to be burned as fuel.  Our bodies know that there’s a chance we won’t be eating for a while and possibly until after vigorous physical activity.

No one with a real life who doesn’t have a live-in chef wakes up and cooks a healthy breakfast.  Most people who regularly consume breakfast are literally eating candy in the form of breakfast cereal or granola bars or Eggo waffles or fruit smoothies.  It makes complete sense that the most popular and widely-consumed breakfast foods in the US are sugary garbage:  We have no appetite because we’re burning fat and so it’s the only thing we can stomach… similar to desert after a big meal. There’s always room for desert, right?  Even in the morning. 

Still, with all of the science pointing toward skipping breakfast, nine out of ten nutritionists will still give you some garbage about how important it is and how you need to “kick start your metabolism”.  If someone is about to go running, it’s basically blasphemy to tell them to skip their morning sugar fix beforehand.   To anyone with half a brain, it should be clear that you DO NOT need breakfast to go sit in front of a computer for four hours before you eat lunch.  With exercise involved, it seems less clear.  I’m here to tell you that not only should you skip breakfast, but that skipping breakfast will make you a better runner as well. 

Burning fat is like anything else, you need to train in order to be good at it.  You need to develop fat burning enzymes.  You need your body to become efficient at accessing your fat stores for fuel.  We’ve all heard people talking about how even the leanest among us—people with less than 10% body fat—still have tens of thousands of calories stored on our bodies.  We’ve all got it.  The more we burn this fat, the better our bodies become at it. These calories become available to us more quickly.  Upon waking up, your body is already burning fat.  This is a good thing.  As soon as you shove a couple spoonfuls of that “healthy” cereal in your mouth, it all stops. 

Just like Dr. Phil Maffetone has made abundantly clear through his research performed on high-level endurance athletes, eating carbohydrates—especially any type of refined carb—has a devastating effect on our ability to burn fat.  As soon as we eat carbs, we lose access to our fat stores. 

So, if I’m about to go running at 10am and I wake up 7am and start eating a bunch of crap to “fuel” for my run, there will be no fat burning going on during my run, I’m not developing my ability to burn fat and I’m stuck being dependent on the glucose in my bloodstream for fuel throughout the run.  If I hold out until after the run, I’ll feel much better during because I don’t have to contend with the food I recently consumed moving through my GI tract, I’ll burn fat as my primary fuel source and I’ll become a better fat burner along the way. 

Then, after the run, when my muscles and liver have been depleted of their glycogen, essentially making them giant sponges to soak up calories, I eat a big meal and replenish.  Breakfast is by no means the most important meal of the day.  The meal after your workout is the most important meal of the day.  And if you can get to that workout before eating (and especially before eating any carbs), you’ll have more energy all the time, never becoming a slave to your blood sugar swings, always utilizing fat as fuel.  

If you’re not going running until 7pm and you’ve got a long day ahead of you, I would still skip breakfast and don’t think about eating until you start to develop an appetite later in the day, but then pay close attention to what you’re eating.  You should primarily be eating good fats: coconut oil, grass-fed butter, almonds, avocado, etc.  Eating good fats not only keeps you satiated for a long period of time (no blood sugar spikes and subsequent crashes) but they also help you burn the fat you’ve already got stored. 

One of my favorite things to do if I’m not running soon after waking is to put a teaspoon of coconut oil in my coffee.  That small amount of coconut oil can usually get me to two or three o’clock before I even start to think about food if I haven’t worked out.  I’m just burning fat. 

It’s time to stop being brainwashed.  Forget about breakfast.  It will make you healthier, leaner and a more efficient endurance athlete. 

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.

Chasing the Elusive 100-Mile Week

A lot goes into running 100 miles in a week. I’ve done it a couple times, a little over two years ago when I first stumbled across Tony Krupicka’s blog (he’s since changed his format and stopped logging all his runs).  I probably spent about three hours reading his posts on that first visit—my head (figuratively) exploding the entire time as all my previously held beliefs about running we’re being splattered all over my computer screen.  I didn’t think it was possible for anyone to consistently run 200+ miles a week.  I didn’t even know that people were running two or three times a day.  I was still under the erroneous impression that you should only run once a day.  Needless to say, Krupicka greatly expanded my running consciousness. 

After browsing a through a few of his entries and finally wrapping my head around the astronomical numbers that he was purporting, I decided it was time for me to hang a couple triple digit weeks of my own.  I started running twice and three times a day, and finally built to the point where I could handle the 100-mile load.  It was a solid accomplishment.  I could do it.  The only problem was, I wasn’t having any fun. 

I had managed to take this thing that I loved, that had literally changed my life in the way that few things can, and turned it into an obsessively quantified workload.  Before, I was just getting up in the mountains, ripping up and down gorgeous single-track trails, escaping the artificial, constructed monotony of my everyday life. 

When I started chasing 100 in a week, it became a lot more like work.  I was obsessing over miles, trading a chance to escape into the mountains for a quick, flat 15 miles on the road or the boardwalk  (because I could only get 10 miles in the same amount of time in the mountains).  I was sore all the time; I ignored little nagging injuries that could have used an easy day—or a day off all together.  The miles became the most important thing.  They trumped common sense. I started to lose the passion. 

Running suddenly became a lot less fun.  But I was hanging 100-mile weeks.  I had reached this arbitrary goal that I had imposed upon myself, but it didn’t feel as good as I thought.  Sure, it was fun looking at my Movescount profile and seeing that big number on there.  It was fun to say things like, “I can eat whatever I want tonight, I ran 102 miles this week.”  But that type of fun is fleeting.  It felt wrong.  I realized that what I had done wasn’t a legitimate 100-mile week.  It didn’t happen organically.  It was forced.  I wasn’t Tony Krupicka.  I had to be me. 

So I went back to enjoying myself on my runs.  Sure they were still hard.  I was still sore.  I still ignored nagging injuries (a lot less though) and I still banged out a quick 10k on the roads a couple times a month, but it was because I felt like a needed a shakeout run to dial in my form—not because I just wanted to tack more miles on to my weekly total. 

Now, over a year later, I’m finally honing in on the elusive, legitimate 100-mile week.  All on the trail and in the mountains.  Without running for the sake of mileage.  Just running because it feels right.  Running to have fun.  Running to push my personal limits.  Running to escape. 

Last week, I ran 87 miles with almost 20,000 ft of vertical gain.  It felt great.  I explored new terrain, ran twice a day four times, had two great long runs and never felt like I was doing too much or pushing too hard.  I stayed within myself.  Sure, I could have banged out a half-marathon on Sunday night just to hit the century mark… but it wasn’t about that. 

This week, I’m well on pace to eclipse 100 miles.  And it’s going to be legit.  I’m doing it right.  I’m not worrying about it, just letting it happen.  Organically.  Because it’s time.  

Running – The Cure for Everything

Yesterday I was having a shitty day.  I woke up with all the makings of a head cold—feeling stuffed up, congested and extra drowsy.  My eyes were refusing to open.  Then I went running.  I got up in the mountains, sucked my lungs full of that clean mountain air, blew a couple hundred snot-rockets into the dirt and watched the first few rays of sunlight trickle down onto the Pacific Ocean.  Head cold averted.  Things were looking up. 

Then I got to work and my boss started bitching.  Why was I thirty minutes late?  Did I have a chance to do all that work that he asked me to do even though it was way outside the scope of my job description and he wasn’t paying me for it?  When was I going to cut my hair?  Any chance I could stay late today?  Was I really wearing sweat shorts at work?  I started getting a headache.  My stress levels were rising.  Cortisol began coursing through my veins.  I could literally feel the muscle fibers on the right side of my neck binding themselves together into a gnarly cramp. 

So I went running.  I ran away from everything and everybody.  I charged up the trail listening to the pace of my stride increase with every step.  My heart began pumping, sending large quantities of blood surging into my muscles.  They loosened.  My cramp was gone.   As a topped out on the summit, thoroughly exhausted from the effort, I glanced back down at the city street I had left far behind.  It seemed my problems had stayed down there too.  They couldn’t chase me up the mountain.  Unnecessary stress averted.   Things were looking up again.   

I won’t bore you with all the mundane details of the rest of my day, but by about five o’clock I had accumulated a little IT band tightness, some dry skin, an allergy-induced sniffle and what seemed to be a mild case of constipation.  I needed to go running. 

When I did, it fixed everything (especially the constipation, that was fixed with a vengeance).  And it came with the added bonus of allowing me to witness the sunset from about 2,000 feet higher than anyone else around.  Running had singlehandedly turned my no-good, very bad day into a pretty damn good one. 

Ok, so running may not be the cure for everything.  It’s probably not going to fix a broken toe or help much with a rattlesnake bite, but roughly 99.6% of the time, I choose to prescribe myself a good long run for whatever seems to ail me.  And I’m rarely disappointed. 

Rolled my ankle playing hoops?  If I go running for an hour after the game, the next day I won’t even be able to tell it happened. 

Fighting with my significant other?  After a run I’m ready to admit I was wrong, even if I wasn’t (but let’s face it, I probably was). 

Hung-over?  Just gotta get on the trail and sweat it out.   

The Lakers lost again?  Hill repeats. 

Feeling fat?  Time for a long one. 

Tired?  The mountains have an energizing effect. 

Depressed? Anxious? Broke?  Horny?  You get the picture.  Running; it’s good for… well, everything. 

Chasing Flow

Dr. Angela Garcia, a Cultural Anthropologist at Stanford University, has coined the term “moment of incomprehensibility”.  In my rudimentary understanding of the subject, this is basically a moment where what is in front of you becomes utterly incomprehensible.  You can’t explain it.  You can’t find words to describe it.  All you can do is just be there.  Absorb it.  Try to take it all in. 

These moments don’t come around very often.  For most people, they don’t come around at all.  Most of the time, you have to be pretty far outside of your comfort zone to stumble across a true moment of incomprehensibility.  I’m not talking about being unable to fathom why the dude in front of you is going 15 mph under the speed limit or being baffled by the garbage spewing from the mouths of the Kardashians.  The moments that Dr. Garcia and I are talking about are beyond written description.  These are the moments I am chasing.  These are the moments that allow me to experience flow at it’s fullest. 

Standing atop Mt. Whitney, my first 14er, and experiencing the sheer, undeniable magnitude of it’s vast beauty.  Running through the early morning mist in the Santa Monica Mountains, climbing above the marine layer just in time to glimpse the first rays of the sunrise.  Scrambling between the switchbacks through the talus on the way up Mt. Timpanogos, stopping to suck wind, entirely exhausted, and glancing up at the seemingly unconquerable, gorgeous mass still waiting for me above.  Bombing down an underused single track, racing the setting sun, watching it slowly descend into the Pacific Ocean, increasing my pace as it disappears beneath the shimmering, purple water in a subtle, yet perfect flash. 

All of these experiences included a moment of incomprehensibility for me.  I have not described these moments here; to do so would be impossible. I have simply set the stage in which these moments took place.  My sense of awe was unmatched.  I was exactly where I was supposed to be in that moment.  The stars were aligned and I was absorbed by an overwhelming sense of rightness.  I melted into the landscape.  I became one with the mountain.  My soul was nourished.  Flow was realized. 

For me, Bobby Geronimo, this is what flow is all about.  Every time my foot falls on the trail, I’m chasing these elusive moments.  These moments don’t happen running through the city streets or staring at the screen of your iPhone.  These moments have to be earned.  These moments take blood and sweat, experience and knowledge, miles and miles, sacrifice.  These moments take an understanding of your own insignificance.  An understanding of your true place in the world.  These moments make me who I am. 

I want flow.  And I want it to be utterly incomprehensible. 

The 2015 Mt. Disappointment 50k

“I can’t believe we’re going to be late!” I mumbled, half to myself and half to my wife, as she pushed our Prius C up the windy road toward the summit of Mt. Wilson. On our right was a sheer rock face, to our left the San Gabriel Mountains stretched out toward the horizon, undulating across the vastness. 

I glanced at the clock on the dashboard, then at my watch. Yep, it was 6:38am.  Race check-in ended at 6:30am and the Mt. Disappointment 50k started at 7am.  She was giving the Prius just about as much as it could handle on these tight mountain roads (when you’re getting 55 miles to the gallon, you sacrifice a bit of top-end climbing power).  We came careening around a bend, just over a mile from the summit when a boulder the size of a small refrigerator came crashing down 25 feet in front of the car as we skidded to a stop.   

A dense dust cloud— way too thick to see through— plumed up across the road like a mini mushroom cloud.  We both sat back in our seats, mouths agape, processing the scene in front of us, wondering what might have been had we rounded that corner 10 seconds earlier.  When the dust cleared, the exploded pieces of boulder were still to big to drive the Prius over, so I rushed out to move them, hoping there wasn’t a second boulder coming down on top of my head… 

We were a little shook-up as we pulled into the parking lot atop Mt. Wilson (5,712’).  Not exactly the most auspicious beginning to a race day.  It was 6:44am.  Luckily, I was able to get checked-in, get dressed and hit the port-o-potty just in time to hear the awesome Gary Hilliard give his pre-race briefing.  Without much time to think, let alone get anxious, we were off, leaving the Summit of Mt. Wilson, only to return 31 miles later.  

Unbeknownst to me, the race began with a two-and-a-half mile downhill stretch of asphalt road.  There wasn’t a shoulder, but there also wasn’t any traffic so we all just bombed down the middle of the road.  The majority of the Ultras I have run typically begin with climbing and and end on a decent.  The Mt. Disappointment 50k started with a sustained downhill and ended with a three mile, 2,600’ climb up the Kenyon Devore trail back to the Summit of Mt. Wilson and the finish line.  

The course record for this climb on Strava was over 40 mins.  And presumably that person was fresh, not 28 miles into a run.  I could easily see myself getting to this final climb depleted, on the verge of bonking, with the full heat of the day upon me and getting buried, taking 2 hours to make the summit and effectively destroying my time.  I wanted to avoid this result at all costs.  It had been over a year since I finished a race (a couple DNFs and stress fracture had made sure of that) and I wanted to get a good finish under my belt. 

I resigned to go out slow, force myself to get a bunch of calories down and have plenty left in the tank for the final climb.  Looking back at my splits on Strava after the race, I ran my first two miles at 6:45 and 6:30/min pace, respectively.  Not exactly the “slow” pace I was looking for at the beginning of the race and probably the reason why, as I write this four days later, my quads are still sore as hell.  It’s hard to hold back on a downhill section of road, especially right after the gun went off, with a couple hundred runners all around you, everyone’s adrenaline spiking.  

We got off the road soon enough (to never return, thank god) as we arrived at the Eaton Saddle and continued up toward the Markham Saddle.  Leaving the Markham Saddle we were provided with our first of several stunning views, a panoramic shot of a handful of San Gabriel peaks, including Mt. Disappointment herself.  I was continually awed throughout the race and spent a good deal of time chastising myself for not spending more time in this mountain range. It’s too close to my house, I gotta get out there more.  But I think this experience sealed my 100-miler fate. My first attempt at running 100 miles will be the 2016 Angeles Crest 100.  It’s in my backyard and it’s GORGEOUS.  Only makes sense.  

I pulled into the Red Box aid station (mile 5.2) at 44 mins elapsed feeling good. I filled my bottles, drank a couple dixie cups full of coke, said a quick hello to my wife and our dog Frank and I was off. I wasn’t really sure where I was as far as placement at this point but I kept myself from asking any of the volunteers about the runners in front of me.  I was determined to run my own race, listen to my body and not worry about where I finished.  

I headed down the Gabrielino Trail toward the Switzer Falls trailhead, turning and climbing a fireroad a few hundred feet up to Highway 2 and the next aid (mile 10.3).  I arrived here just under 90 minutes and I felt really good, surprised that the weather was staying so mild.  I had fully expected 95-degree temps by 10am, so the breezy 70-degree weather we were now experiencing was most welcome.  I filled my bottles, drank a few cups of coke and stuffed the back pockets of my Patagonia Strider Pro shorts with Cheeze-Its and Pretzels and took off again, munching my way up the 1,500’ climb to the next aid station only a couple miles away (mile 12.8).

From this aid we were looking at a 7.8 mile stretch that circumnavigated Strawberry Peak (6,164’), back down to the Red Box aid station (where I knew my crew was waiting).  I drank a lot of water at this station, filled my bottles, put a handful of ginger snaps in my shorts and decided that if I was going to make a move in this race and improve my position, now was the time.  I bombed the single-track down toward the Josephine Saddle, keeping my pace hovering right around an eight minute mile, picking off a couple of runners here and there, falling in to chat with some before running on by.  

The next section of the race was amazing.  We began to round Strawberry Peak on a exposed stretch of single track with huge granite faces— at least 1,000’—on one side and 5,000’ drop down to the valley on the other.  The whole Northwest side of the peak was amazing, as I ran on this little silver of winding trail carved into the side of the mountain, beautiful views all around as I ticked off the ridges wrapping Strawberry.  Not really that hungry, I forced myself to get a couple Justin’s Maple Almond Butter packets into my system (I’ve never been one for gels or GUs, my stomach doesn’t seem to handle them well) and continued to feel really good. 

It started to get a little hot during this section and with my slightly increased pace, I drained both my 20oz bottles of water with about three miles still to go to the next aid station.  Luckily the views kept my mind off both the heat and my burgeoning dehydration as we ran right past Mt. Lawlor and dropped back into the Red Box aid station at mile 20.6 (3:42 elapsed).  From this point, I was looking at five downhill miles to West Fork, the final aid, before beginning the roughly five mile, 3,500’ climb back to the finish, including the final push up the Kenyon Devore trail to the summit of Mt. Wilson.  

I handed a bottle to my wife (who, as an ultra vet by now, was savvily posted in the shade in her comfy chair, next to the cooler, reading a book) and asked for coke and ice before I made my way over to the table and started eating potato chips.  I knew if I was going to leave this aid station with only one bottle of water and the other full of coke (I wanted calories for the final climb) I had to get a lot of water in me here.  I slammed six or seven cups before my wife made me slam a couple more and I left the aid with a full stomach, feeling good, ready to attack the last 10 miles.  

The five miles down to West Fork went by quickly.  I was able to keep my pace sub-8/min for the majority of this section and drank almost my whole bottle of coke.  I passed one more person on this section, chatting for a moment about the climb looming ahead, before I pushed on and arrived at the West Fork aid station alone (4:18 elapsed).  

It took a lot for me not to ask the volunteers about the runners ahead.  I knew I was somewhere in the top ten, but I had no idea how close I was to the people in front of me.  I still didn’t want to know.  I kept telling myself I was running my own race. They didn’t matter.  How I felt was what mattered.  I filled my bottles, stuffed my pockets with pretzels and, for the first time all day, dumped a cold cup of water on my head.  I had been holding off dumping water onto myself up until this point— we’re in one of the worst drought cycles in history in the state of California— but I figured one cup could be justified at this point, so I stood over some plants and emptied a dixie cup onto my head.  It felt awesome.  

The final climb ended up being somewhat anti-climactic.  I had been thinking about it for almost five hours, effectively scaring myself into sticking with my race strategy. When I finally hit it, I was feeling good, had plenty of energy and was able to stick the Strava section in under an hour (58:44).  Despite maintaining a running cadence and a decent pace, I never saw the runner in front of me, and looking back down the switchbacks at least 1,000’ below me, no one was in sight.  My position was pretty much locked in.  I just kept moving, pushing as hard as a could, hoping I would miraculously catch someone in front of me.  It didn’t happen.  

When I finally hit the parking lot and thought I was done, I realized I still had to run up the observation deck to the finish line.  It was probably only 50’ of elevation gain but it seemed like about 500.  Running through the finish line I couldn’t help but feel slightly disappointed (5:38 elapsed).  I finished in 7th place, nothing short of respectable, and from a management standpoint, I did a great job: I was never on the verge of bonking, I consumed a proper number of calories and kept myself decently hydrated.  

The problem was that maybe I didn’t suffer enough.  If there was never a point where I considered quitting, does that mean I wasn’t pushing myself hard enough?  Part of the reason I run these races is to go to those dark places, find out a little something about myself, and then push through to the other side, becoming a stronger person in the process.  I didn’t feel like that happened here. Did I hold too much back?  Did I really give my best effort? 

At the end of the day, I think it was a good thing.  My last few races I’ve been way on the other side of the whole bonking spectrum (i.e. trying to drag my cramping ass through the dirt because my quads are so completely locked up that I can’t flex my knee), so I think this was a great learning experience.  I’m starting to learn how to execute a race properly.  I’m learning to listen to my body and give it what it needs.  I’m beginning to become less reactive and starting to stay on top of things.  I’m growing as an ultrarunner.  

All in all, it was a great day and a great race.  Gary Hilliard and his wife did a great job.  There were awesome volunteers all over the course, the race was well marked, the course is gorgeous and the atmosphere was perfect.  High energy and fun all around.  I highly recommend this race.  

One day, it’s all going to come together for me.  I’m going to find the perfect balance of calorie consumption, hydration and race effort.  I’m going to deftly toe the line between redlining and bonking and come out victorious.  It’ll probably only take me 40 or 50 more races to get it all figured out.