Monday, December 26, 2011

The joy of treks

Oh, how I looked forward to the week off.
Every year I take a week off from running. It's my bye week. It's a week to heal chronic aches, like that barking hamstring you've been reading about,  and that's how I justify it to myself. But really, it's as much as a break from my mind as it is my body. Probably more so.
I don't do anything halfway. Rather than just climb some of the more interesting 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado, I had to climb them all. Rather than just play Angry Birds, I have to get three stars on every level. I have never not finished a book, even when I hated it halfway through. I don't just play cards. I play poker.
I know. It sounds like bragging, doesn't it? But I'm also obsessed about goals. That's a blessing and also a curse. Because many times I forget to do something just for fun. I'm almost incapable of it.
I think it's pretty obvious now that I love running. I think anyone who reads this blog has seen it. I'll miss it terribly when I can't do it any longer. But again, it's not something I can do just for fun.
There's a whole industry built on people like me. Hell, Garmin makes a living off us. The company manufactures GPS devices that tell us, down to the second, what pace we're running and just how far we're running, too, down to the foot.

Races market themselves on courses where you have a good chance to achieve a "PR." A PR, which, by the way, is what I did in Vegas, is the serious runner's ultimate goal. It means you've improved. It means all that work is paying off. It means you've justified it!
There's also a reason races give out medals.*
*On a side note, there are certain things you just don't do, unless you want to be known as a goob, knob or, honestly, complete dork. You don't wear the race shirt to the race, and you DEFINITELY don't wear the finisher's medal the next day. I saw a couple wearing their medals around the Aria the day after the Vegas race, and they looked like complete douchebags, even the female, and it's rare when females achieve that status. It's like calling trips a "set" in poker.
Magazines like Runner's World and gurus like Hal Higdon teach us that every run should have a PURPOSE. A serious intent. A reason. You do tempo runs and speed workouts and long runs.

You don't just go out for a run when you're a serious runner. Well, that's not exactly true. But when you do, we call those "easy" runs.
That's right. Marathon plans, or plans for any race, really, have "easy" runs built into them. Fun runs, in other words, scheduled out with your 20-milers. Does anyone else see the irony in that?
Races are fun, really fun. But I always have one bought and paid for, staring me down on the calendar, to keep me motivated. I've got a half marathon signed up for late SEPTEMBER.
You're getting the idea, right? Rather than just run, I follow a plan and stick to it with the regimen of a general.
Well, usually.
The thing is, I learned something about myself when I took that week off.
Those first four days, I felt great. I slept in before work. My hamstring didn't ache when I sat at my desk. I got a lot of things done around the house. I read a book in just a few days. I took long, hot showers. I pussyfooted. I read the whole newspaper. When you stop working out, you discover your body doesn't hurt and all this extra free time. It's tempting to quit for good.
It was tempting until day five. That's when the blahs came along.
I don't have another word for it. I felt sluggish. Crappy. I didn't sleep well. I felt wound up and tired at the same time. My back started to hurt. I was edgy, even cranky. I wanted to eat a lot of bad food. I craved sugar and salt and chips. It was almost as if...yeah, almost as if I was feeling my 40 years. I felt old, dammit.
I was almost downright thrilled to be lacing up my shoes that Monday, even if it was 6:30 a.m. and I didn't get to bed until 11:15 p.m. When I went out, it was 15 degrees, and my fingers hurt from the cold, and I felt as if I had a tractor tire roped to me. I couldn't run anywhere near my normal pace, and when I did, I was panting like a unshaved sheepdog in summer.
That sucked, I thought that morning, as I tore off my clothes, in a hurry once again, to get a quick shower before work. Why do I do it? Why did I feel so badly that I needed to do it?
A couple hours later, I had my answer. The blahs were gone.
Yes, my hamstring ached a bit, and I was yawning a bit, but I also suddenly had a lot more energy. I wanted to sing at my body electric. I felt myself again.
Now before you think running comes naturally to me, like I'm some sort of gazelle or something who just needs to move, trust me, it doesn't. It took three weeks, thanks to the half marathon and that week break, before a run felt good again. Most of the time during a run I felt like shit (sorry but there's no other word for it), and sometimes I whined my sorry ass, waaa waaa waaa all the way home.
Running can be a struggle, but it gives me something that nothing else can. It gives me life in my old bones. I really DO need it.
I still wear my Garmin most of the time, and even when I don't, during those "easy" runs, I could probably tell you how fast I'm going. I'm still following a schedule in my head. I'm planning on going for a tempo run tomorrow. Most runs still have a purpose.
But not always. I'm trying to change that, and after that week off, I'm more determined than ever.
Christmas Day, I got up with the kids, early of course, which was fine, and opened presents and played with them and assembled their toys, which was great. Then I had an hour. I don't normally run Sundays. It's my scheduled day off. But I gave Kate that look, and she asked how far I was going to go.
It turned out to be five through my favorite park in Greeley. The sun was out, the air was cold and warm at the same time, and the snow crunching beneath my feet accompanied the music through my ears.
It was nice to be outside. Even more than that, it was fun.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Bright Lights, Big Post

Warning: This post is long. I won't apologize for it, but I don't expect you to read it. If you want, you could divide it up to before race day and after, though I think you'll miss the theme if you do. I don't even have it in the headline.
Enjoy. I guess.

My life feels like it began after I had kids.
This is a cliche turned on its head (you see what I did there?) because it's not meant to be a caption for "The Family Circus." My life feels that way because of the way it seems to be rushing by without me getting so much as a glimpse of it. Time flies when you're having fun. It flies even more when you're too busy to have it.
When Jayden was born six years ago, I began to notice that whole chunks out of the year just seemed to vanish. I distinctly remember three things. Finishing the 14ers, the first time I played online poker for money and Jayden's birth. The rest, even when Kate told me she was pregnant, is a smear. And then life seemed to get smooshed into globs of seasons without any kind of a calendar to mark it. It was hot, then cold, only we were inside most of the time, changing diapers and collapsing into bed. Vacations were the same every year, a trip to Kansas to see Kate's grandmother and my parents. We'd put the tree up at Christmas. Then we would take it down.
The girls were born a couple years later, and I'll be damned if I can recall much of anything in that first year. I remember being tired.
Time, by then, was indistinguishable. Songs I loved felt like they were released just weeks ago, and someone had to tell me it was a couple years ago. Metallica's "Death Magnetic," my favorite recent album, came out in 2008. That's a high school career ago.
My high school career, those four years in high school, still feel like 20 to me. I can tell you what albums came out then and what I was doing every month in my life. I can point out the grocery store that let us buy beer and the other that almost had us arrested. I know all the movies.
I was busy then, too, almost as busy as I am now. But I marked my life with moments. There were so many moments. There were moments in my life that I'll remember forever.
I love my kids dearly, but when you're a parent, at least in the first six years I've done it, I've found myself so bent on surviving them, and life, and all the crap that comes in between, that it's easy to forget to have moments.
There are a ton of milestones, but most of them are your kids', not your own, other than their births. And if you don't have anything to write down anything significant on the calendar, how do you know when it's time to turn the page?
Which is the longest lede you'll ever read from me, in perhaps the longest blog post I'll ever write.
Other than a few times in my life, say, Jayden's first day of Kindergarten or my first marathon, I had run out of moments. The #wpbt started to feel that way as well. Even those special trips sort of blurred together. And then I decided to run the Vegas Half Marathon.
Well, we did.
That's kind of the point.
• • • 
It's hard to explain what the #wpbt is to people, and so I treat it like Fight Club. You know the first rule of Fight Club, right? I followed it.
My life is so different back home. I don't drink much, play poker much or even stay up past 10 p.m. much. When I had a 40th birthday surprise party, I didn't get drunk, to the crushing disappointment of one of my best friends.
I also find it hard to explain to people why running has taken over my life. I hated it for so many years. I always thought it was because I had to shave my mountain climbing down to a nub after the kids were born, and I needed something to keep me motivated to stay active. But I've thought about this trip a lot the last few days, and I've come to two conclusions why both things mean a lot to me.
The first is the milestones.
The second is the people.
• • •
Sure, the roads were snowpacked Thursday morning, even icy in spots, but the thought of my plane being cancelled never occurred to me until I heard it announced over the loudspeaker in the small airport in Fort Collins.
Running's taught me more than anything else how to deal with adversity. Climbing laid the groundwork, but when you're running, adversity is only a few steps behind. Cramps, side stitches, unplanned trips to the bathroom, hunger, thirst, cold, heat, dogs, wild animals, your balance, your sense of direction, nausea, black ice, injuries, 5 a.m. wake-ups, bad food, your GPS, a leaky Gatorade bottle, other runners and even your very breath (really, especially that) all conspire to screw you over, probably when you least expect it.
Whatever running hasn't taught me how to handle, being a parent takes care of the rest, like dealing with puke and poop or a bad night's sleep.
So I can handle just about any situation, and I was handling it. I was handling it like a motherfucker as I shuffled back to my car, until I heard the message that another flight wouldn't be available until Friday evening.
I was going to miss half the fun after not being at #wpbt last year.
I was instantly, totally crushed.
I said so on Twitter.
Then I started getting tweets back.
I had to pull over my car to read and respond to all of them.
They were offers to get me on another one-way flight using their miles.
I can think on my feet when I'm a reporter, a runner or a climber, but in the rest of my life, I'm a planner. 
It took me a moment to gather my thoughts.
I didn't know how I'd get home, and I wasn't sure if I'd get a refund from this flight, and if I didn't, I'd have to suck it up and go Friday night. My head was swimming. Did I have time to get to Denver's airport? Could I still make it that Thursday night? Was it worth it? How much more money would it cost me?
A small voice whispered to me. This is like the race you are about to run.
I was home maybe five minutes. I called the airline and (woot!) and got a refund. I was packed, my bag was in the car, and I was ready to go.
April's offer was the best. With her 25,000 miles, she could get me off the ground at 3 p.m. 
Book it! I Tweeted, as I was on my way to the airport, in the car, with Christmas music blasting through the speakers. 
She did. 
First Class.
For $75.
It wasn't lost on me that this reminded me of two other times when people did something completely selfless and unexpected that required a sacrifice, and both those other times involved the same sense of community I got from climbing and get now from running. Once was just after the time a decade ago when I got trapped in a rock avalanche and barely escaped with my life. I was beaten up, bloodied and a bit broken, and I had a long way to go. Eight miles. A quarter-mile into the hike, someone offered me his hiking poles. I turned them down at first, until my Dad chased the guy down after I stumbled down the trail a couple times. I could not have made it without them. We returned them a week later.
The second was during my first marathon, and I was at mile 20 when I got hit by severe cramps. People gave me their bananas, pretzels and drinks. I made it across.
In both cases, these were adventures that people planned far in advance, and they brought that food and drink (and the poles) in case something bad happened to them. Instead, they risked their own well being to give them to me.
April took time out of her day and gave me a shitload of airline miles just so I could get there Thursday night and have dinner with some bloggers.
I bought her meal that night.
• • •
By now you're wondering why I decided to run the race. Or, most likely, you no longer care and have moved on to Angry Birds. I don't blame you.
Still with me? Wow.
A couple years ago (oh man, I'm REALLY trying your patience now, aren't I, I mean, how much exposition can one blog have), John, aka Bad Blood, wrote me, wondering how he could run a 10K in 48 minutes. It was for a bet. Rob, aka Gordon, aka um, G-Rob, was losing a bunch of weight, and Blood bet him some pounds against his time. 
I knew Blood a bit, mostly because we both liked music that scared most people, but I was happy to help because, well, I love talking about running, probably way too much. So I put him on a plan, taught him how to run speed work and tempo runs, and he crushed the race. It was really fun. So when he wanted to do a half marathon, I helped him with that, too, and it turned out to be really, really fun. He got hooked on the running, and I got hooked on the help. We stayed in touch throughout the years.
When Rock and Roll sent me an e-mail stating that the race would be held that night, I registered, not knowing, or caring, how it would work with #wpbt. I had a feeling John would want to do it too. He did.
Only he had a surprise. Others were interested too.
They were only interested at first. Brad, aka Otis, seemed especially nervous about it. I knew Brad a bit, too, as I had met him during a trip two years ago, while Steel Panther blasted in the background, and he was kind of a legend among the #wpbt, and he was a pretty darn good writer and was really supportive of my own writing, which, of course, meant a lot because I tend to write long, rambling sentences with a lot of commas.
So, OK. I wrote him an email, explaining that a half marathon really, truly, honestly wasn't as hard as it sounded. At least the training wasn't. You didn't have to run all day, every day, while whipping yourself like a monk. Really, for what you get out of the race, it's a pretty good deal.
John just told Brad to pull his head out of his ass and sign up.
I'm not sure what worked more.
G-Rob, fresh off losing 100 pounds, which would leave me weighing about as much as my 6-year-old, and Doc signed up as well. We had a group.
I volunteered to help right away just like I helped John. Part of me likes being the guru. But mostly I do it because I remembered when I first started running, and so many great runners, people who were destroying me in races, turning in times I never thought I'd run, helped me. They waited for me on group runs, talked to me about different ways to run and introduced me to the concept of runs having a purpose, not just strapping on shoes and getting out there. I remembered that, and I thought it was time to pay them back by (sigh, I hate this expression) paying it forward to others.
The e-mails among our group started back in the summer. They didn't stop until it was time for the race. They meant far more than I thought they would when they started.
• • •
No, I'm not breaking this into parts. Deal with it.
• • •
As excited as I was for the race, I felt conflicted when I got there Thursday night. I was eating with Astin, Heather, April, Dawn, Ryan and later Michelle.
(By the way, I liked how we sort of ditched the nicknames for the most part this year and called each other by our real names. I occasionally referred to them if I needed them or wanted them, aka Bad Blood is such a badass name that it fit before we headed out to the race. But for the most part people went by their actual names. It was time).
The food was fantastic, but I chose not to drink, and I worried about eating too much greasy or fried pickings. It was like that most of the weekend. Vegas is usually the one place I don't have to be on guard all the time, and yet I had to be. I focused on eating rice, pasta, breads, pancakes and fruit and not drinking, in addition to drinking a lot of water.
The race doesn't happen until you hit the starting line, but really, it begins a few days before, when you load your body with carbs, try not to eat anything that will screw with your stomach on race day and try to get rest. You also probably shouldn't drink a lot.
What helped was not only were my running partners following the same program, but many of the rest of us bloggers were too. This time seemed far mellower than any other. I even saw AlCan'tHang sober a few times. I preferred it that way. We're all older now, and it's nice to act like it a little bit. There were no wheelchair stories, and as disappointing as that was, acting like adults does mean sacrificing a little fun.
So Thursday and Friday were fun, but they involved poker (with Jordan and Carol, mostly, which was awesome). Then Otis came to town Friday afternoon. You all know the story by now. I'll let him tell the bulk of it. But his father died suddenly earlier that week.
I'd already written him off for the most part, though a part of me, selfishly, really wanted him there. We all did.
Otis/Brad had really embraced running, and I got as much joy out of coaching him than anyone I've ever helped. He was thankful, of course, but more than that, I could see what it did for him spiritually. I told him for weeks as he got on the program that running really would become enjoyable, and one day, after those many weeks, I got an email from him, explaining how he'd finally had that day. Running, the outdoors and mountain climbing are much more to me than a way to exercise, and finally Brad felt that way too.
I hoped he was going to go, but our group let him make that decision.
He sent us an email that he was coming when I was on my way to the airport.
We spent Friday night, after an appearance at the mellow blogger mixed game, at the Monte Carlo poker room. It's a run-down place, close to the opposite of the Aria poker room.
It was exactly what we needed.
John arrived late that night.
It was good to have our group together.
• • •
You won't find many details of the nights here. I"m not afraid to share them, of course, as they were fairly tame, especially by Vegas standards, but this post is long enough, and there were some special times that don't need to make the Internet. We had a wonderful pasta dinner Saturday, the night before the race, picked by Brad, where we reflected on our training and the guys surprised me by buying me dinner. I was so touched I forgot to say no.
The place was located next to the Palms, and we played a wild game (one of several that weekend, and those wild games meant me picking my spots while they splashed around a lot of chips), and I'll just say two words: Jose Canseco (the guy's kinda a whiner at the table).
That Saturday was especially mellow: We picked up our number for the race, played the tournament and cheered Brad's min-cash before we went to the runner's Expo that night and then dinner.
We got in fairly late but slept until 10 a.m. Sunday. After a pancake breakfast, we decided the best thing to do was play a little poker to take our mind off what we were facing.
I'd never run a night race before, especially not something as ardrous as a half. I grabbed a large Gatorade to drink over the afternoon with Brad. At the last second, he picked up a couple black pens.
When I sat at the poker table, I instantly pulled off two huge bluffs and was betting like a maniac. In other words, I was playing exactly like I usually DON'T play. What was going on? I didn't even realize what I was doing until someone whispered, "I'm gonna get this wild guy." I laughed to myself and snapped out of it.
I'm an aggressive runner, and just a few hours before the race, I was ready to tear it up. I was in running mode.
I switched that off for the moment and settled into my usual careful play, and soon enough, I looked over at Bad Blood, and he nodded at me. I smiled and my mind began to travel down a darkening tunnel. I love it when my brain does that on its own and I don't have to force it. It usually means I'm going to have a good race. Pain, nausea and weariness can't penetrate that zone.
We got up to go to our rooms. It was time to get ready.
• • •
Before the race almost makes racing worth it on its own. The anticipation is incredible if you let it be that way. If you don't let the nerves and doubts take over. Your stomach rumbles, your tapered legs tingle and your lips snarl.
I told the guys during our incredible dinner the night before that I go over in my head what Kansas' coach Bill Self said to his troops the night before the Final Four, when we eventually went on to win the title in 2008. It sounds cheesy, but when you're going through something like a long race, cheesy works. In this case it's a pretty simple statement, not a Gipper cheer.
"You can't hope good things happen tonight," he said. "You expect them to."
There are always things in a race you can't train for. Maybe there's stomach problems, weather, injuries, other runners and the crappy unknown, like a small piece of broken pavement that's just big enough to trip you. But what I've found, and really love, about running is if you do the training, it pays off in a race. It really rewards you with the time you put into it. Many sports aren't necessarily like that. Football and baseball rely too much on the circumstances. Even mountain climbing, my first love, isn't that way because the weather and the altitude play such huge roles in whether you make your goal or not.
So if you do the training, it's foolish to hope good things happen during a race. You should expect them to.
You may want to skip this next part. It's a race report and will include my thoughts on my time during the run. You may find this the most interesting part of the blog. But I doubt it.
• • • 
Brad and I were silent as we got dressed for the race, which I took as a good sign. It meant he was sure of what he was wearing, carrying and using for the race. That's the first step to keeping your nerves under control.
I was most worried about Brad. G-Rob seemed to be as self-assured about the race as he is about everything else in his life, including his hair. He wasn't cocky by any stretch, but he seemed to know he would run relatively slow but also that he would finish. Bad Blood looked sharp and was going to run well and fast, and I knew he knew how to focus (in fact, there was an outside chance he would beat me, I thought). Doc was exactly like G-Rob and had already run a half earlier that year.
But I not only expected Brad to be emotional before the race, I thought he might push it a little hard and let the moment overtake him. I was hoping he'd run an even, fun race where he didn't have to walk. Running an even race is harder than it sounds. I've rarely done it.
I had concerns about myself, too, namely whether my bitchy hamstring would hold up. I expected it to hurt. I just didn't want it to prevent me from running. I didn't know if the crowds would hold me back a bit. And I really wanted to PR, but a lot has to go right. We'd been up late every night even if we got a good night's sleep.
The bloggers wished us well, and OhCaptain took over photo, which was sweet, but I was already in a zone. I allowed one smile for Iggy, who shouted my old blogger name as we left. 
After the promised shuttles didn't deliver, we started walking to the starting line. I tried to look out for my runners as best I could, but I failed miserably as a coach in this spot. We were rushed, as were 25,000 other runners, it seemed, and so it was crowded, and I would like to blame the race officials for that, and I can and will, but ultimately it's up to you to get to the race in enough time. I barely got us there before the start, and Blood didn't even get to check his bag. 
All this robbed us somewhat of the electricity before a big race. It was still there, but a good portion of it went to worry and concern of us reaching the starting line. It's the one thing I still regret about the way things went.
I had planned a small speech for them for days, but I also had to pee, bad, and I saw some bushes to the side. It would be my only chance among the crowds. I pulled in my runners and said to them to not start too fast, have fun and remind themselves how thankful they should be before the start of the race to be there. Then I gave them a hug. It was too fast of a goodbye.
I dashed off to the bushes, hoping an officer wouldn't see me. 
I was now on my own. 
I entered corral 2 and was immediately thankful for it. Even the runners corral 3 were bunched together like cattle in the pens, but they let us spread out, and there weren't very many runners. I knew right away that I wouldn't get trapped behind a crowd, and that thought relaxed me.
I'll admit that I was annoyed at first when Mike McCready from Pearl Jam began to play our national anthem. I use the song as a final way to get focused before what's facing me. It helps remind ME how lucky I am to be at the line. But I shook off the irritation after the first few notes. I mean, look at where I was. I was in VEGAS, about to run the strip at NIGHT, and the guitarist from PEARL JAM, one of my favorite bands, was there, tearing it up. If I have one flaw, it's that sometimes, I forget to have fun. I told myself this, above all other things, would be really, really fun.
So when I crossed the line, and my chip beeped, and I was off, I held back that first mile, running at a conservative pace of 7:45. It would be the only mile that I didn't run by feel. I held back and held back, almost to frustration, because that's when I have my best races, when I let my body ease into it. 
I was pleasantly surprised at how amazing it was, even better than I thought, to run the strip. Seeing the lights of Vegas in the middle of the strip makes you realize how overwhelming, and, yeah, beautiful in an obnoxious way, it all is. And the PEOPLE. There were so many people watching us and cheering for us like we were athletes, like we mattered. I've never had half that many spectators. Many people called for my Colorado shirt, and I loved it.
Iron Maiden wrote about the loneliness of the long distance runner because it IS lonely. You are there, in your head, with your doubts and your courage. Sometimes a little cheer goes a long way to quieting those fears, even from people you don't know.
And yet, a lot of people I DO know who where there.
I was silently thrilled, even flabbergasted, at how the #wpbt embraced the race. Not only did they volunteer to talk to us about it (which is dangerous since I might keep you for a while), they seemed generally interested in what we had to say. A good chunk of the group showed up for it, and though I didn't see them, I looked for them as the miles got tougher, and knowing they were probably out there helped in ways I can't explain. I love running, but I also know it's not a spectator sport. I would imagine watching a bunch of runners stream by is probably about as exciting as watching someone play live poker without the hole cards. But they showed up, shook our hands after, and Pauly even told me he had fun being out there. I wonder what he was on. I may want it next year. Drizz packed us beers! Beers!
Anyway, once I got to mile two and saw the Bellagio on my left, I threw off the shackles and decided to let my body tell me what I could run. I was looking for a pace that was just beyond comfortably hard. A half marathon is a long way, so I couldn't run completely balls out, like I do many times in a 5K, and yet it's still a race. I settled on a pace that left me breathing hard, but not gasping, and that got my legs moving, not straining. It would hurt, bad, to trip, but the motions felt relaxed yet quick. It's probably the same pace I would use if I were dashing away from a pack of zombies.
I looked at my watch. That pace was 7:15 per mile.
That's over 8 miles an hour if you're scoring at home.
Shit. Really?
I knew I'd run faster. The elevation in Vegas isn't sea level, but it's not 5,000 feet, either. And it's the flattest course I'll run, so I knew I wouldn't bonk on a hill. Still. It was a little scary to see that pace. I have run races too fast at first, and by the end, you're so miserable, you want to burn your shoes. My 10K split was the second-fastest 10K I've ever run. Even in this year, by far the greatest I've had running, I ran two 10Ks that weren't as fast.
Fuck it, I thought. I know I can finish. I know I can run below 1:45 (I ran 1:40 a month ago in Denver, which was a PR). I know that if I get back to mile 10, I"ll have the Vegas lights to lead me home.
I took a deep breath. And then I ran.
• • • 
By mile 7 and 8, as we darted through the darker areas of downtown Vegas, both in lighting and in humanity, I felt tired, and my chest tightened a bit, but I felt all right, mostly thanks to the incredible, 40-degree weather most of the night. The pace, regardless, was torrid for me and would put me close to a crash. I resolved to do what I could to avoid it. I ripped open a Powerbar gel and gulped it down and hoped for an aid station to take away the taste. I took a salt pill. I did find a station, got pissed when they didn't seem to have any sports drink and tried to focus on the next step. I needed that dark tunnel in my mind back. Arch Enemy came over the iPod. That's what I needed. "Battery low," it chirped at me. Oh please don't give out, I said to it.
I got caught up in a group as we swerved the corners, and I fought for space with some dude who refused to move over an inch so I wouldn't have to hop the curb. He gashed my wrist with an elbow and got an elbow in the ribs in return. I can be a polite runner, but if someone tries to cut me off, it's Braveheart time. I would never shove a runner - that's like ramming a car on the highway - but I will throw elbows. He got the message and backed off. 
It turns out I ran a 6:59 mile at this point. It would be my fastest. Things got harder after that. I managed to stay around 7:20 or so, which makes me happy, but probably the toughest thing about a half marathon is also the most obvious: You have to keep running, hard, after you've put on some serious miles. Even at mile 11, when I had the strip back and the bright lights, I knew I was fading. I also knew at this point that I had a shot at 1:37 and didn't want to blow it, and even a pace of, say, 8:30, an aggressive pace for two-thirds of the runners out there, would blow it. I was straining, and my legs felt like a stuffed animal being pulled in a fight between a brother and sister. The only good news was my hamstring wasn't bothering me any longer, which probably was because I was too tired to care.
I apologize I didn't see the bloggers cheering on the sideline. I was trying so hard not to see anything but the lights and the finish line. I was hurting by that point, just trying to hard to seal away 1:37 and knowing I could crash at any moment. I was floating around a 7:35-7:40 pace and was afraid I could not hold even that much longer.
And then I saw the finish line.
I stepped across.
I didn't celebrate when I finished. I bent over and slowly walked over to grab a foil wrap. I grabbed a water and a drink and tried to breathe. Everyone around me was dead, too, barely able to walk or breathe. It felt good to me to be with them. We WORKED. We nodded at each other or patted each other's shoulder on the way to the exit out of the chute. We'd worked against, and with, each other most of the way. I spent a little time at the trash can, with a coin flip's chance of puking, and then the nausea went away and then I felt a tap on my back. He was the guy I fought at the corner. 
Good run, he said. You too, I said.
I waited, far too long, for Blood but knew I'd missed him, and then later Otis and the others. I looked for the bloggers. I finally shivered so hard someone came over and asked me if I needed a doctor, and so I went inside Mandalay to warm up and catch the shuttle. I waited inside there, too, for a long time, but I finally rode the bus home.
I pressed my nose against the glass when I saw an In and Out Burger.
• • • 
I made it up to my room without seeing anyone, which was the plan since I needed to decompress, stretch and become myself again. After touching base via my phone with Blood and Brad, knowing the others wouldn't be far behind, I stripped off my sticky clothes and took a shower. The warm water felt like heaven. 
I was just about to leave the room, texting my running friends back home anxious to hear my time, when I heard the door open and Brad came through.
We hugged each other, unabashedly, and then Brad talked like one of my kids for 10 minutes straight. I knew exactly what he was feeling, but it was so rewarding to see it from someone else and know that I helped him get there. It's that crack-like, addicting feeling of accomplishment. Ultimately it's why we run. It was an emotional run for him, as I thought, but it also seemed to be a great, fun experience too.
And he ran the whole way.
I came back down and got warm greetings from Blood, who crushed the race, and many other bloggers, which felt great. I was almost embarrassed at how much everyone cared. 
We had to eat in the food court, and plans didn't exactly go like we had hoped, but they never do. We ate, played some table games (I broke my Pai Gow cherry; that game is fun) and then, finally, had a private poker game at the Monte Carlo. 
Brad called it an epilogue in an email to us. As usual, he found a great word for it. Though I like to think of that game, the race, really the whole weekend, as something else.
I think, for once, I've got an even better word than Brad for it.
I'm calling it a moment.


Tuesday, November 08, 2011

40 minutes to 40

"You Get What You Give" - New Radicals

Just before I opened the door, my lips twisted into a curve. I turned on the iPod for inspiration, and the New Radicals went first. 
I dread, and enjoy, the tempo runs more than any other except a race. They are short but intense runs that resemble races in many ways except in the most extremes of discomfort. They are weekly. They are on Mondays, two days after a long run of a dozen miles or more, and like Mondays in many other ways, the body rejects the fact that the weekend is over, and it's time to go back to work.
Complicating things was, of course, Colorado. Colorado is a wonderful state to live in, until we start to turn away from the sun. Then it's still lovely, but it's also unpredictable and, at times, a nasty son of a bitch. A few days before Halloween, we got 14 inches of snow. And then, because Mother Nature apparently has a mischievous or cruel sense of humor, depending on who you are, we got another 10 a week later, just as the last snowflake had melted from our previous fluke storm.
Snow means cold, of course, and this was about as jarring a transition as you can get from Colorado's beautiful, even erotic, fall weather. Just a few weeks ago I raced in crisp, cool air, with just enough of a nip, like a really good bowl of ice cream. Sorry, beach lovers, but fall in Colorado is paradise. And then, just like that, it was the Gulag.
My first breath goes down wrong, and I start to cough in jagged spurts, my lungs rejecting the icy air in pissed-off disbelief. The tips of my fingers are narcotic. My cheeks are anything but rosy. My eyelashes start to frost.
Look, I tell my body. I don't like this either. But we've got a job to do. The New Radicals said so. You Get What You Give.
I begin my run up my neighborhood road. I've been up it probably 500 times. Many times I'd thought about what I had to do that day. Since it was probably a Monday, I'd also think about what I'd have to write. Today, I had to concentrate. Today I'd be looking for ice.

"Virus" - Bjork

OK, a song about need. If there's any run I need, it's probably the tempo run. The easy runs are for recovery and reflection, and the long runs give me endurance, and the speed work gives me, um, speed. But the tempo runs give me everything. My mile splits, if I didn't slip on a patch of ice, would probably read 8:15 (warm up), 7:20, 7:15, 7:25 (damn hill), 7:13. Or something like that. But not too far from that something. Tempo runs are about holding an uncomfortable, but not brutal (i.e. racing) speed. You could speed up, but you'd like to slow down.
As always, my legs, still a little grumpy from the miles I'd piled on it two days before, aren't ever really excited to be cutting through the air so aggressively. Aging does that to you. After so long, and I've been active, if not always a runner, for two decades, the will to give in starts to fade.
Doesn't it? 
I crack into my first mile at 7:10. My breath jumps out of my mouth. I can see the cloud before it scurries away to make room for the next. This is why I need tempo runs. As a weekly reminder that I can still do this. And the work it takes to stay there.

"Steppin' Out" - Joe Jackson

An oldie but a goodie, this song found its way into my weekly running mix for this line:
"We are young but getting old before our time; we'll leave the TV and the radio behind."
This line is so appropriate this week.
I wonder if Jackson wrote the song today, he'd include a smartphone?

"Dancing Queen" - ABBA

Note to self: "Dancing Queen" is probably not a good song to include in a running mix. It's definitely not a good song to listen to as I start to head up The Hill. 

"Embrace The Gutter" - The Autumn Offering
Ah, that's better.
Embrace the nasty in your life, then make it your ally. Make it make you better. This is what I think about as the steepest part of the run looms before me, and my breathing starts to hurt.
Breathe, dammit, breathe. 

"My Will Be Done" - Unearth
Someone asked me once why I listen to heavy metal. How can you run with someone yelling at you like that, she asked.
"Now I strive to find my own way
My Will be Done
Work these hands until they bleed
My Will be Done"
They aren't yelling at me. They're yelling with me.
I've just crested the hill. I'll recover. I'm pretty sure.

I turn 40 tomorrow, though it's likely today when you're reading this. And runs like this one give me the confidence to face it. I don't need a sports car, a cheerleader or a gold chain. I have my feet, my fitness and the attitude both give me. As I sprint toward my driveway, "I'm gonna learn how to love you," Susan Tedeschi sings in my ear, and oh, I'm so nearly there.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

The Joy of Racing

The air was a little painful. We Coloradans call it "crisp," but really, it was ice cold, the air in meat lockers. It was far too cold, at the very least, for shorts and a tank top, even with gloves and arm warmers. And yet, as we made our way out into it, with the sun lingering in bed, refusing to help, I smiled.
Hell yes it was cold. We could see our breath and the breath of those around us. Later, after the gun, we'd see the breath of thousands of runners, even if they were as far away as a trip to first base.
But the butterflies were swarming my stomach, and I had an empty bladder, which is far more reassuring than it probably should be, and I felt good. I felt really good. There were no aches, and after a season of racing and running, when aches occupy your morning coffee, that was a gift. I thought back to last night, during my last pee before bed, when a spark shot through my bloodstream. I felt good, and I was ready, and I said on Twitter and Facebook that I was an idling engine just waiting to be gunned.
If this sounds cocky, I won't deny it, except to say that days when you feel like this as a runner are rare, so numbingly, sadly rare. Most of the time I enjoy my training runs, but only after I peel off the scabs of a couple dreary miles and my body creaks itself awake. Not every race feels this good, either, but races bring out the best in you. It's a chance to gun that engine. It's a chance to show yourself what you can do.
I love these chances, and I love those butterflies, and I love the electric anticipation both those elements combine to create. Fit people everywhere are crackling with energy. The corral is full of people who get it. And after a day of rain, sleet and wind, we had a clear sky and cold air, the kind that would feel good, incredible even, like clouds kissing your skin, once we got this underway.
I was warm. It wasn't until I heard the Star Spangled Banner, and I reminded myself how fortunate I was to be there, something I always do before a race, that I noticed something springing up on my arms.
* * *
Races are exciting for their unpredictability. I knew I'd feel good, and I also knew that I'd finish, and I figured I'd probably set a PR. I was shooting for 1:42, which I'd have to run my miles in 7:45 to get. I also knew, though, that that was probably pushing it, given that last year's time was 1:44, and that was also a PR, and that's, honestly, pretty darn good, at least for me.
What I didn't know was how it would go.
A half marathon is a long way, and as much as I love that because a race like that is an adventure, not a short, hurried event that ends before it really begins, well, a lot can happen. So I took it easier at first, settling in my first three miles at a 7:50 pace. We went by Coors Field, home of the Rockies, and through downtown Denver. I said hi to a few friends, looking around and smiled. A cramp hit my side, but I wasn't worried about it, as the pace didn't feel labored. It was almost easy. It passed after a half mile.
My first test came at mile 4, a steep but short hill that gassed me last year. I reminded myself that races were about even effort, not an even pace, and I told myself I didn't want look at my watch as I crept up the incline. It was over and I had my breath with me. Good.
I glanced down at my watch again and noticed I was hitting 7:30. Even a year ago, that was a pace I'd run in 10Ks, which are half as long as a half marathon. But I told myself it felt good, and I also told myself to run on feel, not what my watch was telling me.
In a race, you are constantly assessing how you feel, what you're facing and how far you've got to go. So far, despite an aching hamstring that I prayed would hang with me, I was feeling good. As long as my breathing wasn't too labored, I knew I could stick with it.
* * *
You are running with hundreds of others around you, even at my pace, but racing is also lonely. You're in your head, and no one wants to talk, as they need the air. Me either. Other than a word of encouragement to a girl who wore a ballet outfit that matched a girls' whom I passed at mile 2, telling her her partner looked strong, I said nothing to nobody.
So I was ready, more than I wanted to admit, for mile 8, when you run an out and back. This lets you see all the runners ahead of, and then, later, the runners behind you. Many from my running group were doing this event, and so were my running partners. One clapped at me as he wooshed by. Then I heard my name. And I saw two others. And I yelled a word at them. And I found a running partner and then the other. We slapped hands. By the time I turned the corner and made my way back to mile 9, my heart was full again, and I turned back to my music.
* * *
Around mile 10 is the danger point in half marathons. I think doing a marathon helped with this, but it's around this time when you start to think about the end. And if you think about it too much, you start to crave it. The end, after all, means walking, food, friends, that feeling of accomplishment, cheers and the joy of being done. But even if you're running fast, the end is 24 minutes away. That's an episode of "Phineas and Ferb." That's half of "Breaking Bad" or Van Halen's "1984." It's longer than my 5Ks. It's no time to be thinking about the end. So I told myself not to think about the end.
My timing was perfect. The hills were approaching.
The Denver course is a great one, but near its end, a brutal stretch of long, somewhat steep hills await. The reward is worth it, a downhill finish that begs to be stormtroopered, but those hills aren't easy. Even effort, I told myself, not even pace. Enjoy passing other runners. Don't gas yourself. Do these, and you're done. Do these, and the fun begins.
Well, the hills came and went. I crested them and started running hard, as hard as I would in a 5K. I pointed my nose downhill and enjoyed the ride. I was stunned when I saw the clock right before the finish.
I shivered against the cold not long after I finished. I think it was the cold, but it did remind me of a lab puppy who wiggled with pleasure during a game of fetch, who moved with the kind of electricity that comes from knowing that all is right with the world.

Postscript: I ran 1:40:25, which was a PR by four minutes. I finished 450 or so out of about 9,000 runners.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Surprise, surprise: Social media is ruining the surprise

One reason we watch movies is for the hook. Another is the characters. But let's face it: The most fun is the surprise.
It doesn't happen too often, though, does it? In fact, it hasn't happened at all for me in a few years. I don't know if it ever will again.
There's so much out there to spoil the surprise. Spoilers lurk in Twitter, Facebook and e-mail, let alone the office water cooler. Hell it was hard enough not to hear about any major shock BEFORE social media. Homer Simpson, after all, spoiled one of the best (see below), and that was in 1983, before cell phones were just a twinkle in your eye.
Those who make movies don't seem to care about the surprise. They care about shock value, sure, but that usually translates into getting to see someone's skin peeled off or something equally gruesome or maybe lots of fecal jokes.
Shock = money.
The reason I'm partly blaming social media is because pulling off a surprise is nearly impossible anyway. How many can you remember? I will list five below. I call them the five best, but to be honest they are the only five I recall. It takes brilliant, Breaking-Bad-type writing, sturdy plot building and incredible acting. It has to get an increasingly cynical public because we're mostly fed fast-food remakes and retread "thrillers" (I'm one of them if you couldn't tell) to completely buy into a plot, then shift it and come up with a twist so amazing it blows our minds.
So let's say a movie actually does this, against all odds, the kind Phil Collins sang about. Well, come on. Our hype machines are just begging for some grease given today's entertainment climate. We'd Tweet, Facebook and text it to death. And even if any of us didn't give it away, again, Against All Odds, the rest of us would go to the movie expecting a surprise. And when you're expecting a surprise, you're not nearly as surprised when it happens. Talk to M. Night Shyamalan about that one.

My top five movie surprises of all time. I doubt these will shock you. You see what I did there?
1. "The Empire Strikes Back" — Oh, come on, admit it, you gasped, and gasped HARD, when Darth Vader told Luke he was his father. I still remember the theater recoiling in horror. Even Dad, who could tell us what would happen at the end of a movie within the first five minutes, didn't sniff that one out. That surprise also kind of made every other Star Wars movie sucky, or at least not as good as "Empire," but man was that a fun one. The only problem? No way would it work today. Our cynicism wouldn't let us buy into it, and the surprise would last about five minutes after the movie came out.
2. "The Usual Suspects" — This doesn't come until the very end, but that just makes it one of the best endings, ever, to a movie. And it manages to pull off a fun surprise twice. You actually think someone else is Keyser Soze before you find out someone ELSE is Soze.
3. "The Sixth Sense" — I wonder if M. Night's career would have been better had he NOT made this movie. Granted it's probably one of the best movies ever made in the last 20 years, and wow did that ending throw me. You too. Admit it. No, you did NOT know Bruce Willis was really dead. But this movie haunted him throughout his career. He became the "surprise" guy, and that kind of magic only happens once in a director's life. By the time "The Village" came out the act had grown so tired that he seemed to just give up and made some horrible, horrible pictures after that.
4. "The Crying Game" — Hey, I thought he looked female, too, although I remember my mother whispering to me right before the twist "She doesn't have much of a chest." It's gotta be the only time a non-porno film had a shot of a penis be so central to the plot.
5. "Fight Club" — The thing I loved about this, just like "The Sixth Sense," is the surprise was like a delicious cherry on the sundae. We didn't need the surprise for it to be a terrific movie. Yet you add in the surprise and it's an absolute classic. One of the most underrated films of all the time.

Bonuses: Oh, how I wish I was in the theater when that creature popped out of the guy's stomach in "Alien." My uncle was and he said it was one of the biggest shocks of his life. And "Psycho" practically invented the surprise twist, although I saw it coming because of far too many references to Norman and his mother before I caught it on TV when I was 12.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The ridge

My name is Pokerpeaker. My screen name. Anyway, I'm an addict.
I just can't completely give up ridges.
I have written about the line I walk between being a father and being a mountaineer many times, and quite frankly, you're sick of hearing about it. Hey, me too. But it's on my mind every summer, especially when my friends start talking about their adventures.
One friend who I've taken under my wing started them this year, just like she did last year. If I once pushed her to tackle all the 14ers, she's the one who now pushes me to keep climbing.
I saw this ridge last year, she told me over noodles. You would love it.
I probably would, I said.
It's only Class 3, she said, and my ears perked up. It looked solid. It also looked FUN.
Truth be told, she had me at "ridge."
The conclusion I've reached whenever I ponder something like whether I should be climbing again is that I can still climb. I can't, or I won't, your choice, give up my time in the peaks completely. I've reduced it, sure, no doubt, but even if I get out and do one wild, fun thing, I know I'm still me. It's probably much like the dad who goes out to Vegas with his friends once a year. 
Since I was 15, alpine climbing, not just simple hiking, was what fascinated me. My time spent above treeline was always my favorite part of the day. Those hikes through the forest? Boring. Walking on tundra to a summit? Eh. Scrambling over boulders and exposed terrain on a ridge? Yeah, that's the ticket. 
Just last week, I had the opportunity to climb Ice Mountain with that same friend. It's something I've wanted to do for years. I already attempted it once but the damn lightning got in the way. It's honestly something I WOULD have knocked off years ago if it wasn't for those meddlin' kids.
But I cancelled the trip. Snow came a little early this year to the peaks, although September is always a crapshoot anyway. And I can't climb a Class 3 route with ice and snow on it.
A proper balance means taking educated, necessary and filtered risks to climb a tough route, and not doing it very often. It does not mean being even remotely reckless. I probably could have climbed Ice Mountain anyway, and I probably would have eight years ago. I can't any longer.
So this year I'm left with thoughts of balancing along a ridge to Father Dyer Peak, a high 13er near Breckenridge. We scrambled, walked across ledges where a slip would mean certain death and sniffed the blue sky many times. 
We did it on a clear day, on a clean, solid route, and when it wasn't clear any longer, we went down, forgoing a third peak in the process.
It was safe.
It wasn't reckless.
But I can see why addicts keep doing what they do. Because, man, it was FUN.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Moonlight Sonata

It's been a strange 9/11 for me this year. I've written today about what many others were doing to mark the anniversary. I really had no idea what to do myself.
I found it hard to mark the day because to me it represents everything that's gone wrong since the attacks. Rather than use the opportunity to come together as a country, we're further apart. We are more paranoid, angrier and poorer. We are in two wars that don't look to have any kind of an end. Sept. 11 was a horrible day, and we are far worse as a country as a result. Why would anyone want to mark that?
This resonated with me in many ways, and so I do not want to repeat any of it, even though I already have. I can't help it.
Yet 9/11 IS a big part of our history, like it or not, and I can't forget it. I would have to mark it somehow.
I thought of a way early this evening.
There are so many, many things I do not like about our country. I hate our squirming politics, our selfish health care, our arrogance, our pandering to the rich, our refusal to even look at what needs to be fixed and our overindulgence.
But there is one thing I love, and that is our ability to be ourselves.
Individuality is not only allowed, it's encouraged, even celebrated. Politicians who appear fresh and free-thinking are the ones who are celebrated, at least initially, which explains why the crazier candidates get a foothold before (usually) saner minds prevail. We wear costumes to running races. Innovators like Steve Jobs are treated like Jesus when they are close to death.
You could argue the opposite of course. Airport security makes us take off our clothes before we can board a plane, and the entertainment business prefers movies that are reheated rather than created, and bands and blogs and tweets all seem to run together. But come on. The fact that we HAVE all these things, even the chance to go anywhere we want on a plane, is proof enough.
I'm many things, a writer, a father, a musician and a lover of words, movies, creativity, dogs and cats, music (especially the hard stuff), and most of all, I'm an active person. Climbing, hiking, biking, taking risks and, of course, running are all a big part of my life.
There was a full moon Sunday night.
It was probably risky to run in the park, on a trail, in the dark, with only the silver light of the moon to guide my footsteps. It was also magic.
Five miles about did it. I thought about those who died and those who had died since to protect our country.
I ran tired, a little worn out from my 14-miler the day before. But I also fast. I ran hard. Most of all, I ran free.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau

The way that your heart beats makes all the difference
In learning to live
Here before me is my soul
I'm learning to live
I won't give up
Till I've no more to give

— Dream Theater, "Learning to Live"

I had a free day from the kids. In the summer, that meant a chance at a long mountain run.
But a half hour before I needed to go to bed to make the early wake up that was certain to follow, I still didn't know what I wanted to do.
I had a good idea. I wanted to do Mount Audubon, a 13,223-foot mountain in the Indian Peaks, a gorgeous area less than two hours from my house.
Something held me back. I should say someone. The old me.
I knew my times in the mountains would be cut when I had kids. I was all right with that. After years of climbing 20 peaks every summer, in my chase for the 14ers and nabbing as much as I could in Rocky Mountain National Park and the Indian Peaks, I was ready for a change. It was easy to get burned out by the time fall rolled around. It would be nice to focus on running, a new sport for me, and, hey, I'd still get out there, right?
Well, sure. But to say this has been an adjustment would be a sorry understatement. Jayden is 6 and the girls are 4, and yet my time in the peaks hasn't increased with their ages, as I thought it would, it's decreased.
Therefore, this time was valuable, like poker chips, and the old me didn't like picking Audubon.
The old me was an advanced climber, and boring Audubon, with a trail all the way to the top, a relatively short hike to get to its summit, was not worth my time. I'd done it a few times already too. The old me was a peak snob. The old me COULD be. I could do traverses that took two days. Scrambles. Tough stuff.
Yet I am learning to adjust. The thing is, I had some freelance work to do, and the kids would be home that afternoon, along with my wife, and I wanted to be there for them.
Aubudon would let me run it, for a morning, and it was close. It fits the new me.
So I ran Audubon. The mountain was challenging enough, making the run more difficult than I thought it would be. The weather was gorgeous and so was the mountain. I made the summit. Then I ran back down. It was three hours of bliss.
I listened to Dream Theater on the way up, one of my favorite metal bands. The song "Learning to Live" echoed through my ears as I walked across Aububon's summit and signed the register with my kids' names.

Monday, August 08, 2011

The Funk of a family trip

It only took about an hour for the funk to latch on to our clothes like a leech.
The camping stink.
Our first camping trip as a family was officially underway.
As you might have guessed by now, time in the mountains is important to me. I want it to be important to my kids too. Our efforts seem to be working. The girls, at their tender age, ask to climb mountains. The boy, with Kindergarten approaching, asks to go to the mountains every week.
The mountains, to these young minds, means anything with trees and without a McDonald's within 100 yards, but we're starting small. Still, Friday we'd head up to Rocky Mountain National Park, and that counts as a full-fledged day in the mountains. The thin air made our Kansas friends, silly flatlanders that they are, breathe heavy even during a simple walk.
I bought a six-person tent, a camping bed/air mattress/princess pad and a rechargeable pump to blow it up. I booked a reservation for a campsite in the park with a cushy bathroom, running water, a place to wash your dishes and a large tent pad. There was a picnic bench at each site. And a firepit.
I'm not used to such luxuries. My camping trips were out of necessity, a tent at 11,000 feet to break up a particularly tough 14er or a place to stay when the drive was almost a full day. Car camping, as we called it, was heaven. I usually had to pack in, which meant water pumped from a river, not a faucet I could just turn on, and dinner was boiled water in a pouch with freeze-dried food. A pillow was a tiny thing I could fit into my pack. My clothes were what I had on.
Kate, bless her, did this kind of camping with me as well, though she's moved on. She does agree with me, bless her, that camping should be done in a tent and not a huge vehicle that works off a rumbling generator all night, though she probably agrees because we can't afford anything but a tent. I'm more on principle: You have to rough it a bit in order to rough it.
I camped with Jayden last year, so I knew he was up for anything. We weren't sure about the girls. Last year, when they threw a fit if their milk wasn't topped off the moment they asked for it, we would have laughed, tearfully, at the idea of a camping trip. But they've chilled out. The 4s are much better than the 3s.
So, having no idea if the tent would actually set up (I still like to gamble a bit even if online poker is now akin to selling meth to grade schoolers), we set out, got to the site, sat on the bench and, yes, the tent set up. Our Kansas friends, however, camping veterans they are, had to bail me out for the air beds/princess pads, a necessity for Kate's blanching at most things roughing it. I didn't see the valves in the box. They had extras. Once the pads were plumped, the kids and Kate staked their spots. I was left with my camping mattresses and a sleeping bag. That's OK. At least there was running water and peanut butter pie.
The smell set in soon after.
I can't explain it. I've slept in many tents, sleeping bags and in all kinds of areas, and yet the smell is the same. You can't imitate it. It's not what Kate calls "mountain stink" from a hiking trip or race stink from running. It's not shoe stink or old leather stink or underwear stink. It's sort of like BO wrapped in tarp and smoked in campfire.
Man. Those campfires. That was the only bummer for me. I did, I have to admit, like the bathroom and the running water and the picnic bench and the pie on ice.
But one of my favorite parts of being in the mountains is the sweet smell of pine and clean in the air, and the campground smelled like a campfire. Every spot among the hundreds had to have a campfire going. And here's the thing. Why? We cooked our hot dogs. Fine. We roasted marshmallows with a neighbor. Cool. But you don't need a raging campfire so you can showcase your mediocre guitar skills to your stoned mates, as a guy I named "Jack Johnson" did until the quiet hour crept in at 10 p.m.
After a brief battle for Mommy turf, which was expected, the girls settled down and went right to sleep. They're already veterans. But Jayden, as usual, was a maniac.
"Daddy, can I see if it's darker out now?" he asked me 20 times as 9 p.m. melted into 10 p.m.
Finally, I agreed to it. We walked outside together. The campfire smell had faded into the black of night. We looked at the stars. I agreed they were pretty cool.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Connected in disconnect

Jayden was only 6, but he was already showing signs of addiction.
We thought about "Intervention." Instead, Kate had him color three strips of paper.
They were his tickets.
They were tickets to anything electronic.
He needed them.
Before the tickets, his morning could be full of cartoons, or sometimes I'd have to pry my cell phone from his warm, sweaty hands.
NO! ANGRY BIRDS! he'd yell, as if I'd yanked the needle from his arm just before the heroin was delivered. When I got home, rather than a hug, I'd be greeted with, "Can I do your phone?"
In between, maybe he'd do the computer, such as a NickJr. website or a site.
We knew it was bad. But here's the sad part. The dangerous part. I thought it was also nice.
It kept him occupied, and a quiet, occupied young kid = quiet, occupied parent actually doing something for himself or herself.
Like, you know, playing with my iPhone.
Still, the girls keep themselves occupied by using their imaginations. They play with each other, with themselves, with toys.
Jayden relied on us for his entertainment. It was like he had forgotten how to play. To be a kid. To go outside and run around and poke bugs.

What was worse was we are not freaky parents who wondered why our babies weren't crawling at three months, but we had contemplated looking into ADHD for Jayden. He could not hold still, even telling us, at one point, "I want to but I can't." Kate had to ask him 10 times to put on his shoes.
When we instituted the rule, meaning a half hour plugged into something electronic, he gave us a ticket. And we noticed something almost right away.

He was focused.
Now he would sit with us and do homework. He wanted to read more books. He wanted to go outside more (even if the weenie does come right back in because of mosquitoes and 95-degree air).
He is in our face more.
A focused Jayden means I have to be Dad more. He makes me put my iPhone away. The iPhone is one of the best things that's happened to me in the last few months. It's also one of the worst.
I'm not alone. CNN just did a story on people who obsessively check their smart phones. The study said, on average, people checked their smartphones an average of 34 times a day. That's 34 times a day! A day!
My nose was in my smartphone so often that my kids sometimes would say, "Daddy!" to pull my attention away from it. When I wasn't checking it, I was playing Angry Birds or Tiny Wings or Words With Friends.
Jayden comes by it rightly. A diversion like that is like a trough of queso and chips to someone on a diet.
Disconnect is my biggest problem as a father and a husband. It's a serious weakness.
I need people for my job, and yet people drain me, and when I get home, I'm desperate for a recharge (much like my iPhone at the end of the day). Burying my face in my phone is a recharge. My family bears the brunt of that.
So I've tried to be better about it. I talk to the girls, play with the kids and wrestle with them at nights now. I still play my phone too. I wish it weren't an effort to interact. But it's the way I am.
Jayden really needed those tickets.
Turns out I did too.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The longest mile

"How much can you know about yourself, you've never been in a fight?"
— Tyler Durden, "Fight Club."

How much do you really know about yourself, after all, if you've never fought something? It seems like an arrogant question because the person asking it surely DOES know the struggle and wants nothing more than to tell you about it. But the reason I'm asking it is it's the exact question I asked myself three minutes before the start of the mile. And I am going to tell you about my own struggle, at the risk of sounding like that arrogant bastard, because you need to hear it.
You need to hear it because many times the person wielding the question is NOT arrogant. At least he or she is not nearly as arrogant as you might think when they ask that question. And the reason they want to tell you about the struggle is because they are proud, and because they want to possibly inspire you, but mostly, they want you to relate to them because everyone struggles, in relationships, at your job, at parenting. 
And I know all this because I am that person.
• • • 
I have blogged about my running quite a bit. You've read about half marathons, trail runs, runs up mountains, tough 10Ks, 5Ks and even a couple marathons. And I will tell you, right now, nothing tells me more about myself than the mile.
It's the mile, just a mile, that challenges me the most. It's by far the hardest thing I do during a season. When I tell people I'd rather run a half marathon, they don't believe me. Seriously. I'm not kidding. Because an hour and 45 minutes of mild suffering is far more agreeable to me than four minutes of pure hell.
If you do them right*, races don't get easier as they go down in distance. They get harder. 
* When I say "right," I mean as a runner who trains hard and takes it fairly seriously, like me. I would never do anything but encourage anyone who enters a race, even if you do a 5K twice a year because you want to ease the guilt of overeating before the 4th of July or Thanksgiving. I want everyone to lead active lives, and, to be blunt, I can't talk down to you anyway because there are runners out there who make me look like a squeaking mouse. 
Those races get harder, at least they do for me, because there's no reason to hold back in a 5K. It's three miles. That means running hard, really hard, in fact. Some people find this fun. I do. Now. But when I started, the intensity of running was the hardest adjustment for me. I'd climbed more than 150 peaks and repeated more than a few, but I'd never felt the lung-burning misery I do during a 5K. It took me years to banish the trolls, the ones constantly telling me to slow down, from my brain. One reason I've improved so much this year is because the trolls are quieter.
I'd mostly gotten over my secret hatred of intense races that made me miserable.
The mile was my last hurdle.
• • • 
I texted one of my running partners two hours before the race.
"I'm trying to look forward to this tonight," I said, "and not dread it. Failing!"
Dread will kill you before a race. If you already believe it will hurt, how can you banish the trolls when it's actually hurting? You can't. And yet I couldn't shake the dread. I KNEW how much the mile would hurt. 
The mile, as you've probably guessed, is as close to a sprint as you can manage for a mile. If 5Ks hurt, the mile REALLY hurts. In the last half mile, you can barely breathe, your legs turn to lead, and your heart booms like a bass drum. Your throat burns. I went to the doctor a few years ago and discovered I had a touch of exercise-induced asthma and acid reflux. I use an inhaler only before a tough race, and I take a mild form of medication for the reflux. Both have helped immensely. But the burn, the fire, really, still visits me for the mile. Only for the mile.
• • •
Positive, I told myself. Think positive. Smile during your run. Think positive. My goal was to go under 6 minutes. I'd only done it once, two years ago, and by the skin of my teeth, at 5:58. Still, I'd run well this year. If I didn't go under 6, it would be a disappointment. Positive. Positive. Positive! 
"30 seconds," our coach said.
The first minute, when I would still be able to think clearly, was crucial this time, I thought. I told myself to stay with one of my running partners. She's smart and won't go out too fast.
I've gotten much better about gassing myself before the finish line. It's one reason why I enjoy the races more. But in the mile, it's hard not to go out too fast because it's balls out from the start, and seconds count. There's no room for a bad quarter. So I tried to hold back and run hard at the same time. It's harder than it sounds.
As we turned the first corner, a steep downhill awaited me, and I was already panting and fighting the trolls.
The trolls really come from deep inside your brain, and what your brain says to you is, "You sure?" You sure you want to do this? After all, it IS hard, and the risk for injury is pretty high, as even a slip would probably mean some serious road rash, and you are maxing your heart rate, which isn't good for you for long. I tried to think of excuses for me to quit. I couldn't think of any. So I relied on bargains to quiet the trolls.
I know this hurts, I said to myself. But this is downhill, so let your legs carry you and relax. I have long legs. It's my only athletic gift. I tried to use it as I ran downhill, but I started really breathing hard, and this is when the dread starts to settle in, because you know it's not getting any better, and probably it will get worse.
The third quarter is always the toughest. You aren't close to being done, and yet the furnace is really burning at this point. It was all I could do to breathe. It's actually kind of scary at this point because your heart feels like it might explode and the air scalds your lungs. I once got an EKG during a physical because I was worried about the pain I felt during the hardest runs. The inhaler helped with that. But that's also just the way it is. I also began to see tiny pink stars, which would be cool if I was at a Pink Floyd concert and not killing myself.
I slowed a bit on this quarter, I know I did, and so I started searching for people to pace me. Pretend you've got a rope attaching you to the person, I told myself. It's a neat trick because it works.
The third quarter ended, thankfully, and it was time for the stretch home. At this point I was so miserable that I made another bargain with myself. I told myself I would dog it if my time was just OK.
I glanced at my wrist. 4:15. 
Do NOT slow down, I told myself. You're going to PR if you keep it up. 
It helped, but I needed something more. I began to listen to the others around me.
• • •
The collective breathing sounded like the wind that rattled my windows the night during an angry thunderstorm, and I recalled a talk I had with others before the start.
Some runners close to me in ability asked me if I was going to run the first wave of faster runners or the wave of runners that were just over a 6-minute mile. I was going to run the first, I said, because I thought I could go under 6. 
And it was then that I was honest. I wanted to get it out of the way, I said. I didn't want to go second because I didn't want to dread it any longer.
Yeah, they said. Me too.
Others were going through exactly what I was going through, I told myself. They were hurting, barely able to breathe, even probably fighting their own trolls. Everyone was going through a period of discovery, about how much they could suffer and still fight to the end. That seems obvious, and yet, when you're suffering, you really do feel as if you're on an island. No one could possibly be as miserable as me right now, you think. It's not true. There are many out there. And that's why it's not an arrogant question to ask how much you really know of yourself if you've never been in a fight because those who DO fight are scared before it. We are nervous. We don't want to feel the pain and the misery and we don't relish the battle. In fact, as soon as it starts, we really just want it to be over.
I dug deep, way deep, even as I wished for it to end, and ran as hard as I could. It was not as fast as some. It was faster than others. At that point, it didn't matter. I heard my time, "5:48," as I approached the line. I knew something about myself. This was my own fight. And finally, I was winning.

Monday, July 11, 2011


I started obsessing about the barbecue a good three weeks before I made the trip out to Kansas.
I don't think I'm alone in missing the little things when I think about home. Home, for me, is Kansas. It's where I grew up. It's where I went to school. It's where I worked my first job. It's where I said I would always stay, until I left.
I always come home for a week every year. My excuse is so my parents can see the grandkids. That is true. But the real reason is much simpler. I need my fix.
That means barbecue, Tippin's French Silk pie, running on a trail through the woods, catching lightning bugs and even sort of liking the strange stuff, like that film of humidity that stays on your skin at the end of the day.
Part of that comes from the fact that my parents are divorced. It is what it is. It was better for the both of them. I love seeing them, and they are great to my kids. That still leaves me visiting semi-strange neighborhoods rather than the one I lived in as a kid. I rarely get to see it anymore. I didn't this year.
I got lost, for instance, on one of my runs at Dad's. I took a wrong turn, and that turn forced me to run eight miles a day after a PR in a 10K.
(Quick brag: That 10K was a PR by two minutes. Sea level is really nice, but I think the stifling humidity cuts that advantage in half by the end of the race. The base training I've enjoying from the marathon just keeps paying off).
So, with my childhood home gone — something that isn't uncommon among us almost-40-year-olds — I have to hang onto the little things.
That means flying insects that flash like traffic lights when it gets dark.
Lightning bugs are fascinating to me, even if, really, all they are doing is saying LOOK AT MY BUTT! NO LOOK AT MY BUTT! I'LL DOUBLE BLINK YOUR BUTT TO THE GROUND! The kids had a ball snatching them up and putting them in a jar.
I watched them for hours in Kansas, but we don't have them in Colorado, at least not in Greeley. I miss the calls of the cicadas, but I miss the lightning bugs a lot more. I let them go once the kids went to bed. I can't keep beauty like that locked up.
I went to Kansas determined not to overeat. One thing that struck me on this trip was how easy it is to eat too much every day. I'm hardly overweight, and I'm not on a diet. But I have to watch what I eat every day, just like all of you.
It was a constant battle. And part of that reason is the French Silk.
When you order French Silk anywhere else, you get a mushy, pudding pie, which is sort of like comparing Schlitz to a Fat Tire. Tippin's French Silk is a buttery, milk chocolate masterpiece. There's nothing else like it. I don't really even like pie all that much.
Tippins was a restaurant with several locations, but it eventually went out of business, as the market for fancier versions of truck-stop food wasn't strong, and the pies were't enough to keep it going. Now Tippins sells pies out of a grocery store chain (or the chain bought it, I'm not really sure) for $12 a pop.
I had a piece of French Silk every night after dinner, and obviously, if I did that every night, I'd probably be at least ten pounds past my racing weight. I'd have a ponch, even with all the miles I run. And then I'd probably want a snack every night, like I had at my parents, and I'd eat more candied walnuts and much extra-large lunches and....
And I found myself having to really balance all that out with breakfasts of grapefruit and little else and other lunches of salads and fruits. It's SO easy to go overboard. I can see why this country is so fat. Calories are accessible, and most people don't run them off.
I don't think I overate on this trip, but I did gain a couple pounds, and I ran 30 miles that week in a sauna. So easy.
But then again, I may have gained all that weight Friday. Friday was Gates day. In my completely professional and totally unbiased opinion, Kansas City and the surrounding area serves the best barbecue in the world.
You have to pick your alliances early on. There are four or five major brands here. I used to be a KC Masterpiece guy, but in the last few years, I've turned to Gates. It's spicier than I want, but the meat is So Fucking Good. Smokey good. Imagine tender, smoked meat drenched in sugar, spice and molasses. You get the idea.
I ran 12 that day through that trail through the trees, and I ate a small bran muffin for breakfast and three servings of fruit for lunch, and then we went to a big pool all day. My body was ready for calories.
I ate most of a short end of ribs, probably 20oz of beans, most of an order of burnt ends, a serving of sausage, a few fries and probably something else. It's by far the most food I've eaten since, well, probably since the last time I had Gates, a year ago. If I could have injected it into my veins, I would have.
Alas, eventually, the meal has to end.
My body, or the stomach, anyway, seemed to realize how special this was, as I got away with this bender. No issues (I do not need to elaborate, I'm pretty sure) and just some mild heartburn that I extinguished with some Tums. Perhaps the humidity helped me sweat it through my pores.
Ah, the humidity. I said I may have missed it. I did miss it for a few minutes. Then my next thought was, "OMGOMGOMG HOW DO YOU STAND IT?" I felt like a hot dog dunked in water and then thrown into the Joey Chestnut furnace. At my race I dumped two cups of water over my head and ran through a sprinkler. On my "lost" run my shirt was soaked through. After I ran 12 through the trees I believe I lost five pounds in water weight. And every time it started before 7 a.m. Brutal.
On our last day, when we stayed at a cheap hotel in Goodland, KS, dark clouds loomed in the distance, and a kid at the hotel's pool from Minnesota kept staring at them in worry. They're nothing, I told him. Don't worry.
A couple hours later, a thick mass of green-tinted, pissed-off vapor gathered over our hotel roof and spit out lightning like raindrops. Then the sirens went off.
I even miss the thunderstorms, the ragers that we just don't get back home. But the kids freaked on us, despite me telling them I'd been through dozens, if not hundreds, of tornado warnings with nary a scratch. This storm wasn't even that bad, with some driving rain, strong winds and a lot of thunder but no hail, really strong winds or, you know, a funnel. I'm not sure why the sirens went off. Maybe for old times' sake.
I stared out the window as the rain settled down, and, even if I miss it, I was grateful this was a fun event, an unusual thing, something we do once a year, like eat BBQ or catch lightning bugs.
The things you miss, I've found, seem to lead you back to the places we are lucky enough to now call home.