Scatter my ashes here...

Scatter my ashes here...
scatter my ashes in the desert...

Saturday, September 27, 2008

"Don't you have anything better to do?"


It occurred to me on my run the other morning that I'm coming up on my 25th anniversary of being a runner. I consider my starting date to be January 1984. It deserves some sort of celebration. More on that in a future blogpost.

I've been meaning to write a post to explain the ongoing evolution of my own personal philosophy of running, somewhat grounded in theory and spirituality but mostly based on time and experience, that has brought me to where I am now in my own approach to running ever longer distances, and my current state of feeling and thought about what running means to my life.

"Why do you do it?"
I could try to explain until I turn blue to those skeptics who think running for days at a time is not only insane, but a big waste of time that could be better spent on other so-called productive things.

That wouldn't be productive.

What I can do is attempt to explain it to anyone interested enough in the why of ultrarunning, to read this blog. Most people who hear about what I do are mildly curious but have no interest in doing that sort of thing themselves. A few might be secretly envious of whatever it takes to do it, but consider their lives so far removed from the freedom to have the level of motivation, dedication, and fitness it takes, that they never attempt it. People do ask me a lot of questions about what drives me, what I think about, and how I feel when I'm doing these runs.

I'll explain from a few key theoretical, spiritual, and psychological approaches without going too deeply into any of them, and then integrate it into a holistic, balanced model that I think is where I've arrived at this point in my life, but is always evolving.

People often ask me, "What do you get for finishing a race? Is there money, or sponsorship?"

That's a perfect place to start. They want to know about an end product. Money, sponsorship, status, recognition, and other things are tangible rewards to which we are so accustomed in our culture when we see the media attention focused on big money sports like golf, football, and baseball. These rewards are extrinsic factors, they come from outside the individual athlete and can often play a role in motivating talented athletes to continue in a sport to professional status. The athlete might be originally coming from a state of intrinsic motivation, but these extrinsic motivators can't be ignored.

Every four years we are reminded of the other sports that normally receive little attention, when the Olympics roll around and we are treated to two weeks of spectatorship. A gold medal and all the sponsorships, commercial advertising contracts, and opportunities to benefit from celebrity status are also extrinsic factors that are available to the few athletes who reach this level.

Ultrarunning, and even more so, multiday running, is even less visible. It's not in the Olympics, it's rarely on TV, and most people have never even heard of it. For most ultrarunners, if the race offers a belt buckle to finishers, that might be the only extrinisic, tangible reward they receive. After all, it takes time and effort to train for an event, time and money to prepare for and go to the event, hard physical effort and time to run it and time to recover from it. And in our culture, time is money.

"For a belt buckle????!!!"

Yes, and sometimes no. Sometimes there isn't even a belt buckle. Sometimes there isn't even a listing of the runner's name in some obscure running magazine that they finished or even won the Frozen Fat Ass 50K in 6 hours and 35 minutes in below zero temperatures with a 20 mph headwind. Meanwhile the front page of the sports section of the Denver Post shows a photograph of the winner of a local 5K getting a check for $1000 and it only took them 15 minutes in perfect conditions on flat city streets, and they didn't even pay an entry fee because the race director was generous enough to comp them in and put them up in a hotel the night before.

No wonder non-runners are confused by this diverse sport lumped under the label "running". They see pictures of an all-out sprint for the finish line in a 5K road race and then when they hear of ultrarunners who spend half their time walking in a 100 mile trail race, they think, "That's not running. I could do that!"

The public is so accustomed to seeing the tangible extrinsic motivators paired with a sweaty, skinny, straining, sprinting racehorse, that they don't know what to think of the slightly overweight middle-aged guy walking up a rocky hill on a trail eating a granola bar and chasing a packet of energy gel with a bottle of water with a big fat pack on his butt, 42 miles into a 50 mile trail race, he's smiling and taking his time, but he's moving forward and will cross the finish line no less sweaty but at a lot slower pace. And he might get a belt buckle if he finishes under the 12 hour time cutoff, but he's more likely to take 14 hours.

Intrinsic motivation comes from within the individual. Examples of intrinsic rewards are pride, self-satisfaction, or a feeling of personal achievement.

This has been explored by cognitive psychologists who study motivation, like Mihalyi Czikszentmihalyi. His concept of flow can be applied to any activity where a person becomes "completely involved in an activity for it's own sake." (Czikszentmihalyi, 1990, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience) Flow exists where challenge and skill are perfectly matched, and the person is in a state of focused attention and intrinsic motivation.

In our culture we are so focused on the external rewards, and money and other tangibles are of such great importance, that it's hard for people to focus away from that. It's hard for them to remember that there are other great and valuable sources of reward out there that don't have a dollar value on them. An economist might argue that anything can be measured in terms of dollars, but I'll let them chase after me and catch up to me in a 100 mile race to argue that.

To some schools of thought it really is almost a subversive act to pursue anything that doesn't lead to money or those extrinsic rewards. So I understand when people have a hard time wrapping their minds around why anyone would put so much effort into something that doesn't "pan out".

But I know I feel my best while running, I can lose myself and totally escape if I want to, or I can emerge from my run with a mental list of fresh ideas and problems solved. I feel good after a run. I feel good remembering my last run and anticipating my next. Running leads me anywhere I want to go, and I always come back to myself, better off.

"Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God." -Leon Bloy

When I think of spirituality, I don't associate it with religion. Religion is nearly a foreign concept to me. With a few brief and unwelcome exceptions, I had a highly secular upbringing and this has extended to my adult life. I rejected any religious views held by extended family members and my own parents never forced it on me. The most formal exposure I've ever had to learning about religion, that I care to remember as palatable, was while attending a Quaker School as a child in Pennsylvania in the 1970s, and that was about as low-key as you can get in a school with any religious affiliation.

What I didn't realize was the impression this left on me. I've been studying a bit on my own and somehow things keep circling back in serendipitous ways, and I've discovered that the values espoused by Friends (e.g. integrity, equality, simplicity, peace) align most closely with my own personal and political values.

For me simplicity has always been about having few things, about not getting caught up in the dominant culture that is so materialistic. As I've gotten older I find myself with more things than I used to have, but I do try to keep my accumulation to a bare minimum of what I really use. Running is a great sport for simplicity, when it comes down to it, all you really need is a pair of running shoes.

I try to keep simplicity within my life, to keep things uncluttered, to minimize the number of things to which I devote my energy. It's hard for me because I am a creative person but I need intellectual challenge and sometimes those two (left- brained, right-brained) are in direct conflict with each other. I have to make dissatisfying choices sometimes, mostly with neglecting my painting, but I find other ways to meet my need for creative expression.

I find that the most important thing is keeping "work" in perspective. If you can find ways to make whatever work you do seem like it's not "work", then it's a lot easier.

When I discovered the Take Back Your Time movement and connected with that, it made me look at my life's work in a whole different perspective. Though I'm not gainfully employed in it now, I studied natural resources recreation in graduate school and my dissertation research focused on the psychophysiological components of outdoor recreational pursuits in restorative settings. I later moved away from the cognitive psychology-oriented natural resources end of the recreation spectrum and toward the exercise physiology end.

The Take Back Your Time movement advocates for simplicity, among other things. It is all connected to peace, as far as I'm concerned. It's about quality of life. It's highly spiritual from my point of view. Spirituality could be defined as a sense of being connected, and a sense of being part of something greater than yourself.

At the same time as experiencing connectedness to something greater, there is the matter of being an individual. Running is rarely viewed as a team sport, but the individual nature of ultrarunning has much appeal in being yourself as pure and unmodified as you can possibly be in this culture that values conformity and complicates our lives so much when we allow it to.

I'm not going to explore the other values except to mention this about peace and running and a bit about equality below. Running promotes and nurtures peace within the runner, which is the first step to having peace in your life, once you have peace in yourself, you extend that into the world around you.

I have met many of my friends through running, and many of my favorite people are runners. As big a part of my life that running is, at the same time I strive to interact socially and meaningfully with non-runners, non-athletes, and runners of different abilities because it's so important to have that balance. Every one of us has a gift to offer each other. It's important to not get so caught up in one thing that we forget to recognize what other people can offer, and because one person has a gift, they are no more special than any other human being. No one needs to be elevated above anyone else. I guess that's part of the testimony of equality that I so long ago incorporated into my own value system.

I love the following excerpt from the statements of Satyajit Saha. A discussion of multiday running would not be complete without some reference to the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team, but since I have not been involved in any Sri Chinmoy events, I can't speak for it. Anyone interested in further learning about multi day running events should google on Sri Chinmoy and start reading. Satyajit Saha writes,
"Transcendence! Self-transcendence is the essence; the quintessential core of what multiday running is about. During a multiday transcendence event all the trivial nagging minute forces of human frustration and sorrow that dog mundane, habitual living melt away and dissolve in the one-pointed focus and mission of covering at least one more mile before taking pause, or giving in. The struggle of running becomes the sole mission, the all-consuming purpose of the runners' consciousness. The runners' consciousness becomes clear, uncluttered and untrammeled in its singleness of purpose. Just run one more lap. One more lap. One more lap. Nothing else matters. The body aches, the nervous system is taxed to its limit. But the mind is clear. The heart is clear. There is nothing to prove to anyone. No place else to be. No bonds, no cares, no worries. Just run, or walk, and be free. The rest of the world takes care of itself. Just run one more lap.

It seems to me that the other runners feel this and commune with this Spirit which percolates through the struggles of each. It is unspoken, but the runners know, and they know the other runners know. In certain ways they feel connected to each other more than they can possibly express. The only expression of this unexplainable oneness is to push for another lap-run another mile, and another mile. And when it is all over, even before the body and mind have fully recovered, the hints come up from the subconscious; images, memories of something very, very special - the hunger to run another race, the call from inside to return to the Source, to run another mile, one more mile. That's multiday running. And the training becomes a daily celebration of what it truly means to be alive. "

"A spiritual person tries less to be godly than to be deeply human."- Rev. William Sloan Coffin, Jr.

"What do you think about while you're running? Don't you get bored?"

People always ask me this and it used to drive me crazy. My immediate, uppity thought used to be, How could you ever get bored? You must find yourself pretty boring if you can't stand to be with yourself for any period of time without some artificial outside source of stimulation.

I am sure there are plenty of people who do find running to be boring. I rarely find myself bored with anything, it's only when I am restricted by some outside source in what I can do at the moment, and never with running. But then I avoid things that I find to be boring, as those people do with running.

My mind doesn't start out active when I go out for a run. It's sort of a passive thing, I let the ideas and thoughts come to me. I don't force it and I don't try. Things pop into my head, depending on what's been on my mind, if I'm stressed about anything in my life, or where I am running. Sometimes it's enough just to pay attention to your surroundings because of traffic or other hazards.

Generally I try to avoid city streets and I find my eyes looking over the landscape and I find running a huge source for inspired creativity. By creativity I mean anything I'm doing, whether writing, painting, cooking, studying, or solving problems in any aspect of my life.

When I paint so many of my paintings have a common theme, a road through them, with the landscape rising on both sides and out in front, stretching out forever.

I find that on most of my runs I am running through landscapes so I see elements of the landscape from a number of different angles and perspectives, particularly if I'm doing an out and back run and go the opposite direction. I'm going at a slow pace so I notice details, have time to absorb them, and make mental notes.

Someone once told me that you have to love your subject in order to paint it. By the time I've finished painting something I feel like I know it so completely that I don't know where I end and it begins. That wouldn't be healthy if it were a human, there would be no boundaries. But it does create a bridge between you and the subject. When I run in beautiful places those places become a part of me and I feel like I can go there again, I know it so well, that I can almost escape.

Running for me is social, it's spiritual, it has physical rewards, it's restorative, there's an intellectual component to it, it fits with my own values of simplicity, it has minimal impact on the environment most of the time, and it's presented me with so many opportunities to personally learn and grow in ways that reach far beyond myself. I've learned and I am still learning, being consistent, being dedicated, and knowing that short term discomfort can be brushed aside in a way that yields many intrinsic rewards.

In Death Valley this summer, I saw how the heat strips you of any pretense and humbles you. You have to respect this force greater than yourself, you are relying on your good sense, your preparation, the wisdom and commitment of your team of crewmembers to guide you safely through and out of there.

What I learned from Badwater is that I was able to transcend my ability to tolerate discomfort and perservere, in a way that I had never achieved before. People have asked me, "Why would you want to put yourself in pain?"

It was painful, yes, every step of the last 50 miles was painful, but I was able to somehow focus my mind away from the source of pain-my feet-to push through it and come out on the other side of it. I found a huge source of strength that I didn't know about. If that isn't intrinsically rewarding then I don't know what is.

To summarize as simply as possible, I find myself intrinsically motivated to run, running is aligned with my personal values, I find that running helps me feel connected to other people and things which enhance my quality of life.

Talking about self-transcendence is one thing. But in my conscious day-to-day activity and thought, I'm not even actively, consciously thinking about trying to transcend myself or anything. All I know most of the time when I think about running is this, I'm never happier than when I'm running around in circles, which is why I keep going back, year after year to do it.

Here's what I wrote about New Year's Eve, at last year's Across the Years 48 hour run:
It's a miracle and a blessing that we meet here, this same group, year after year, to be together in this single pursuit of the same thing, while each individual runner brings their own meaning, their own philosophy and reason for doing feels like we're dancing around the track for days on end together, some to music, some to the night sky, some to their own creator.

Therefore to wrap up this long-winded discussion, I'm going to quote myself.
"If you see me running around in circles, leave me alone. I'm happy."

Photo credits: Across the Years race pictures by Nathan Nitzky

Monday, September 22, 2008

Blue Sky

Today is my last day off before I go back to work and I thought I'd go out on the Blue Sky trail starting from Devil's Backbone on the Loveland side. I didn't feel too ambitious but I'm sticking to running, not walking, so I took enough water for a 3 hour run and the digital camera, of course.

Going north I saw a few hikers and mountain bikers. No runners. I ran as far as the turnoff to Coyote Ridge and up to the top of that saddle, and then I turned around and headed south. There wasn't much blue sky, it was a warm, cloudy day, and the foliage in the low spots is starting to change colors but there wasn't anything in blazing fall color yet. Maybe another week.
On my way back, I thought about going up to Estes after the run to find some aspen. I might have to wait until Wednesday when I'm not working, I was too tired today. I can't wait too much longer or the colors will be gone up there.

Not a bad run. About 12 miles of solid running on rocky trails, 2 1/2 hours. I think it might be possible to become a runner again.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Climbing Higher...

I finally feel like I'm climbing out of a hole, after the past few weeks. I don't know how it happened so suddenly but I had one miserable week at work, it seemed like I couldn't please anyone and all these negative thoughts and self-talk appeared in my head. It felt like the floor caved in under me and I fell into a deep, dark hole. My brain must have temporarily run out of serotonin. Quoting Jean-Paul Sartre, "Hell is other people." That's how I felt.

It dawned on me one day at work when I was trying to change out some tubing and I stood there and looked at these two pieces of plastic tubing that simply needed to be untangled and it was entirely too much for my brain to handle. I stood there for the longest time staring at this plastic knot, unable to figure out what to do with it and where to start.

I'm sure it's all sleep deprivation. Along with being slightly hyperthyroid, I wasn't sleeping through the night at all. I think I did that once in an entire month, and usually I'd be up for two or three hours during the night. It's one thing to be able to sleep in and recover some of that sleep, but on my work days, there's no way.

I haven't been running a lot or riding a lot these past few weeks, maybe one good workout a week and then a few sanity saver runs, 30 to 60 minutes when I can fit it in. Last weekend we took The Buffaloes on a Rock Repeat, just one, and then Sunday I went with Dennis to Estes Park without the girls and we did an easy hike to Storm Pass.

The snow was down to 11,000 feet. The trees weren't changing color much but I bet they are this week. It was gorgeous in Estes Park but I bought this basket of flowers to cheer myself up because I was feeling so bad.

I knew I was in a bad place when we were driving up the canyon and I felt so sad, I started crying and continued to cry off and on throughout the whole day, on the hike and everything. But the next day I had the energy to go for a bike ride and did the Boyd Lake/Carter Lake Rd./Masonville loop from Ft. Collins, about 43 miles with hills that weren't too bad.
Just when I was feeling as bad as I've ever felt, I slept through the night and actually had three good days at work the past week. My spirits lifted and I started to feel human again.

I called my friend Keith in Grand Junction and talked to her for a long time, that helped a ton, and e-mailed with another ultra friend from Arizona, Laura, whom I haven't seen since this time last year. I felt so much better after connecting with them.

So now, just a week later, I'm starting to feel consistently better. I ran 2 hours today, solid running, and I had no problem with that. I'm going ahead with my running plans for the rest of the year.

I looked at my training log from last year leading up to Across the Years, and I've figured out that I don't have to train very hard for the 48 hour race. I do need to get some serious running in, but not a lot of long stuff. I'm going to work on actually running, and doing that at a decent pace. My legs still feel heavy and slow.

It's funny that the thought of a 3 hour workout now seems so easy, after spending 8 or more hours a day between running and sauna training for Badwater for all those months. I plan to do as much cycling as I can before the weather gets cold and icy.

And the big news...we FINALLY got a digital camera. It took forever, but now it will be so much easier to do my blog pictures. I am sooooo NOT a techno-geek. I always say my computer has an 8 track drive in it and I have to shovel coal into it to fire it up.

I'm sure that for the next few months, when I'm not running, or even when I am running, I'll be playing with my new toy. I'll be subjecting all the readers of this blog to my nonexistent photography skills. Enjoy!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Runs with Buffaloes and other wildlife

Last week was my first real training week, I got 55 miles in, I felt like a runner again. I am still struggling with slow heavy legs and feeling like a snail compared to where I was this time last year, but I will get there. The Buffaloes are happy that their mom is back to running, which means more running for them.

Steph and I had a long conversation on the phone, talking about things we did right and wrong at Badwater, and starting to plan for a future Badwater run. We also talked about some trail runs we both want to do in the coming year, which got me psyched up again. We got on the topic of scorpions, she said she would have felt better if I had a cot that was off the ground. While we were all resting, she was awake worrying about sidewinders and hallucinating about coyotes.

On my days off last week I did some trail running, Pineridge Reservoir and Horsetooth Mountain Park, doing a loop of the Spring Creek-Stout-Towers-Westridge trails instead of the old Rock Repeat route. I've been taking the Buffaloes to Riverbend Ponds and we keep seeing herons and sunflowers. The temperature has finally dipped into the 40s at night and that has wiped out much of the bug population, and the girls love all the good smells when we run around the ponds. Every week there's a little more color in the foliage. I can't wait for the trees to start changing in town.

Sunday I went to the annual running club picnic which was held after the monthly Tortoise and Hare 5K. I decided to try the 5K and not to push too hard, but I was curious to see what I could do. I ran this same course back in February in just over 24 minutes. This time I ran it 21 seconds faster, 23:40! Who would have ever thought you could improve your speed by training to walk 135 miles in the desert, but that's what happened!

One thing is for sure, there was no way I could have gone fast enough to do any damage. My legs have zero turnover. I can run 7 1/2 minute miles for a long time, but I couldn't push the pace faster than that for a short sprint. I was chasing Chris who was only 25 seconds ahead of me but I don't have that extra gear to pick it up.

After the run we had a breakfast with delicious food from club members and we had a drawing for Olympic souvenirs. Ping went to the Olympics in Beijing, that's where she's from originally, and she brought back a load of gifts for the running club from her trip. We had a drawing for prizes and I got this cool bookmark with the Great Wall on it. Thanks for thinking of us, Ping!

The thing that has kept me laughing all week is "Caribou Barbie". I'm not going to get into politics in this blog but ever since I heard the new name for John McCain's running mate Sarah Palin, I can't help myself. I was out running in the park the day after I first heard about it and I saw some deer, and it reminded me of Caribou Barbie and I started laughing so hard I had to stop and catch my breath. The deer probably thought I was a rabid human.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008


After months of hot weather, cool air finally arrived in Fort Collins with the changing of the calendar. Perfect timing. This morning I took the Buffaloes to Riverbend Ponds for a walk and there is a chill in the air, some of the foliage is changing colors, and it smells different outside in the morning. Today we saw a golden eagle, pelicans, and some ducks.

Cool air and dirt are the things I've missed. I finally hit double digits in running miles again, I did 12 yesterday and 10 this morning. I'm tempted to go up to Estes and run to the Boulderfield tomorrow. Thought about it for today but the weather is supposed to be cold and wet. There are clouds over the mountains to the south but here in the Fort it is perfect. I'll see how tomorrow looks.

Some of the cottonwoods and other foliage are changing colors. After our walk I took the girls home and went out to Pineridge Reservoir for 10 miles. It feels so good to RUN again! I'm slow as a snail, but I know my leg turnover will improve after a few weeks.

September and October are my favorite months in Colorado. I love the cool air and crunching through the leaves when I'm running trails. And the next time I wear gloves and tights again, I'll need them to stay warm, not for trying to bake myself.

Everyone keeps asking me the same questions so I'll post a short FAQ here:

1. How are your feet? My feet are good, you can still see where the blisters were but the skin is completely healed. They don't hurt anymore.

2. Are you recovered from Badwater? Yes.

3. When is your next race? My next big race is December 30-January 1, 2009 in Litchfield Park, Arizona, the 48 hour race at Across the Years. I will be doing a long training run sometime this fall, possibly at 24 Hours of Boulder in mid-October, but I haven't signed up yet. I will be doing the Across the Years event as another fundraiser for the PVH Foundation Cancer Care Fund. Check back here at the blog for more information.