Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Walk With Me

I suggested the last thing you would think of when you think of Las Vegas.
I suggested a hike in the desert.

Everybody walks in Vegas, but that's only to get from one fantasyland to another, not the scrubby reality of cacti, a blistering wind and enough rocks to stub your toe with every step. And yet on Facebook for the #WPBT, I said there was a hike I'd like to check out, the Oak Creek Loop in the Red Rock Canyon.

The fact that I would suggest this surprised no one, even if I wouldn't have suggested it a few years ago for fear of not fitting in.
The fact that almost 20 people wanted to tag along shouldn't have surprised me either.
That's just the way it's gone the last year.
• • •
I was just reading over the post from my first #WPBT trip. That was in 2007. In 2007, we had no hash tag, we went by our poker names and we all set the world, or at least the IP, on fire. I went because I loved poker, I wanted to meet a bunch of people whose writing I admired and I thought it would be fun. I also went for a much bigger reason: I wanted to change.

I was not the kind of person who could plop himself in the middle of a group of 100 and feel comfortable. I never had been able to light up a room. I preferred to stay in the shadows. I wanted to let loose a little bit. I even had this weird desire to fit in.
Did it work?

Read on. It's long, I know. But so's the journey.
• • •
When Bad Blood contacted me a couple years ago for some advice on running, I remember feeling excited about the chance to finally get to pay it forward. John Drohan is now a good friend, someone who understands me as well as anyone, but back then, he was just one of my favorites from the WPBT because we shared two common interests besides poker: working out and heavy metal.
I hate the term pay it forward, but it applies here because of my own journey with running.
Here's my backstory (this works better if you start playing Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" in your head):

Back in 2005, I knew nothing about running. I was working on a story, one of my favorite ones ever, about a runner who wanted to continue his streak of running in all the Bolder Boulders despite a rare form of blood cancer. I went to his intervals practice. Some of the runners knew me a little bit from my articles about climbing 14ers — active people are active people in all respects — and they said it was fine if I watched, and it was OK if I talked to them, but to get a true sense of the story, I needed to run with them. I did. I thought it was stupid to run for only, say, six minutes at a time, hard and fast. But by the end of the workout, even though I was climbing 14ers every weekend, I was whipped. I loved the fact that it was hard. I went back the next week.

When the story ran, I came back, shy and unsure, which is always my mojo, and I began to warm up on the track, careful not to talk to anyone, almost hoping they wouldn't notice me. One of the runners pulled up beside me after a bit and asked me if I was now a member of the group. I guess, I answered. Well, she said, it's nice to have you here.

Those same runners waited for me to catch up on our Wednesday night runs around Greeley in the cold winters once intervals were over for the season. They answered my questions about shoes, tempo runs, and whatever the hell a "long" run was (they all seemed long to me).
Running is now a lifestyle for me, in the same way that climbing 14ers was before I finished them and could no longer afford the time away as much because of my kids. My time running outside keeps me sane. Literally, I'm pretty sure. I have those people to thank for it.
• • •
So Bad Blood - I still like to call him that - wrote me about a bet he made, something about running a 10K in 48 minutes or so. I told him what the group told me many years ago. Tempo runs, intervals, and a long run. I was happy to do it, not knowing where it would lead. I found myself enjoying the coaching, such as it was. And because he was a hard worker, I knew my efforts would not go to waste.
My instincts are not always right. They were there.
• • •
This will sound very silly, but back then, for my first WPBT, the one without the hash tag, I thought of some people as rock stars. Silly, yes, but it made sense if you knew who I was. I was, and remain, a professional writer, and some of these people could really write. Some had really successful blogs, like Iggy and Pauly, and many others got paid to write, and yet some wrote for the hell of it and were better than me. And even some others wrote even though they never thought they could write, but they did, on their blogs, and they were STILL better writers than me. I admired all of them.

Plus you heard stories. Their names get bantered around. It sort of reminded me of high school, how some people had status. I was never really one of those people in school. I also guess I never did get over that. I won't go into details, but let's just say, mean people suck.

One of the people who I thought of in that inner circle was Otis. He had the I Am Legend stories of mischief — he once ate Keno crayons on a bet for hundreds of dollars — and he was a terrific writer. I thought he wasn't like me in many ways, but then again, no one at the WPBT was. That's why I liked them.
(Let's be honest: A WPBT with a bunch of people like me wouldn't really be that much fun).
• • •
Bad Blood enjoyed running. I thought he might, and he didn't want to give it up after he killed his 10K. He liked the training and seeing how it paid off. My instincts were right: He was a lot like me. He later decided to try a half marathon, and I sent him a plan and stayed in touch with him when he had questions. He killed the half, too, of course.
As it turns out, his friends, the G-Vegas crew, began to notice.

I can't tell you what possessed them to get the idea to run the Vegas Half Marathon. Maybe they'd all run out of crazy things to do in Vegas, and this was something new. All I know is, Bad Blood and maybe me prodded Otis and later G-Rob and Doc and Marty to give it a shot.
I felt self-conscious when Otis began exchanging e-mails with Blood and I. That sounds silly, as I said, but it's the truth. As it turns out, I was wrong about him. Otis was a lot like me in a lot of ways too.
He had doubts. He had many, in fact, about wanting to do the half marathon, even after a successful mud run with Blood and the crew. He wasn't sure he could do the training, if he had time for it or if his body would hold up.

When you get down to it, aren't all doubts the same? I knew all about doubts. We exchanged many e-mails, but I didn't offer as much advice as I did the reassurance that he could do it. I knew how much that meant too. I needed to reassured many times in my life. As much as I hate to admit it, I still do.
• • •
I remember walking through the Aria with Otis walking beside me. Part of me was wishing on a good race for him and the rest of the crew, but I was also getting ready to feel pain and even some misery, and more importantly, getting ready to enjoy it. And then I saw a group of WPBT folks waiting to cheer us on.

I find running fascinating, but let's face it, many people aren't me. It can be pretty boring. People can appreciate the pure, electric power it takes to sprint 100 meters, but rarely do they have the patience to watch a marathon.
So I was a little stunned that people who came to party in Vegas were ready to watch us race. I can't honestly think of anything more boring than watching a race, and in Vegas there's about a billion things that are more fun to do. And yet these people were coming to watch us.

I knew they weren't there to see me, not really. They were there to celebrate Otis' transformation and see this new sport that Blood had fully embraced. But it still felt good.
When Blood, after the race at a private poker game, told me, "You're one of us now," I agreed with him.

It took far more for me to agree with him, because of who I am, than for him to say it. I felt like I was stepping out of a shadow, and the light felt pretty good.
• • •
I honestly thought that would be the end of it. I figured Blood and I would continue to talk about running, and in fact I already knew that he was planning to run his first full marathon, something only I knew at first. I figured maybe Otis would run another race or two.

I didn't understand what was happening until I made plans to come out to South Carolina in October for Mastodon weekend, and I didn't truly grasp it until I got there. I knew that a couple people were running the half marathon, but these were people who had run before (Grange) or were such good athletes that they'd handle it with ease (Drizz).
Many of my old favorites from the WPBT were there. Only they were running. Huh? Yep.
Some ran the 5K, and some ran the half marathon. I was running the marathon. I initially entered it because it was a cheap marathon, and it was time to do another. But part of me wanted to be there for Blood, as this would be that first marathon for him. And part of me wanted to show all these beginners what was possible.

The whole weekend, rather than talk about how many shots they'd done the night before or what craps game they'd played, many talked about running. Yes, we played poker until 3 a.m. the first night, and yes, some drank heavily. Things hadn't changed completely. But come Saturday, they all lined up to run their events. The night before, Otis cut things off at a party at his house at 9 P.M. 9 p.m.!
It was a wonderful and yet odd weekend for me in many ways.
Many times I heard thanks that weekend for inspiring them. I usually just said your welcome, but that's because I honestly didn't know what else to say. Otis gave a generous speech thanking me, in part, for teaching him how to run.

You could take this whole post as a big, bloated humblebrag, and if you do, you are rolling your eyes into your cerebrum at this point. As I said, this is a personal journey. But I hope this doesn't sound like false modesty. It was wonderful to hear those words from Otis. And it was even better to hear it individually from so many others. By the end of the weekend, it was as if I was some guru, and I tried like hell to not let it go to my head. My ego, to be blunt, did not need the extra calories.
But I don't think I'm the one who inspired them. I'm certain that Blood's initial hard work inspired G-Vegas to get involved, and then Otis' pull with the WPBT, and his successful first half marathon, is what inspired 25 or so to try something new, exciting and difficult.

Beyond that, I think the sport inspired them. I think their own will inspired them. I think we are getting older, and at our age, you begin to look for new adventures, and I think that inspired them as well.
I also know, most of all, they all inspired each other because I was inspired by them. I always run for my family, and my inner circle of friends here who I've trained with for thousands of miles. But at mile 21, when the first cramps hit, and I knew my body, worn out from all those hills, not only wasn't going to match the pace I had hoped to achieve, I was going to be lucky to get in without walking. I thought about all those people who had pushed themselves beyond what they thought was possible. I knew they were waiting for me. I even felt them rooting for me. That's why I continued to run and just prayed my legs wouldn't explode, even if they felt like that was a real possibility.

I wish I could have seen them finish. Instead, I'm left with two images. The first is obvious, and that's my first pupil, Bad Blood, the one who really started it all, finishing his first marathon, with his son running him in. Awesome.
The second was hearing the cheer as they announced my name as I entered the stadium, and then running by the lot of them and giving them more than a few dorky fist pumps.
It was, aside from my wife surprising me at the end of my first marathon, the best greeting I'll ever get at the finish line. I was glad I had a good walk back to reach them once I crossed the line.
I didn't want anyone to see me tearing up.
• • •
The wonderful weekend at Mastodon came with a price, and one of them was a much more mellow WPBT than we've ever seen. There were more noteables not there than those who did attend. Pauly wasn't there. StB wasn't there. Speaker wasn't there. Iggy. Falstaff. Al. Change100. Betty. My G-Vegas crew from last year, save for Marty, who I saw for all of five minutes before the tournament. Dawn Summers. Heather. Kat. The list goes on.

And yet, Mastodon stuck with me in so many ways, even if most of the participants weren't there. I played poker with a sense of aggression I hadn't found before. As a result, I took fifth in the tournament. Getting premium hands most of the afternoon and evening helped (let's be honest, it's a big reason why I went deep), but I also absorbed three horrible beats near the end that probably cost me from winning the whole thing. Yes, I actually had a shot to win, which still boggles my mind. I paid for my hotel room and my flight with my winnings from the four days. I'm even itching to play online again (that won't last).

I also misplaced the aggression. I ran the race, rather poorly, as it turns out, despite some sign wavers that saved my tired butt at the end. I PRd my 10K and my 10-mile split was better than last year's huge PR, but then some fierce winds and my weakened spirit from going out too fast made me run a 30-minute 5K, and I finished in 1:44. I was disappointed at the end even if I did finish 600 or so out of 22,000 runners.
As always, I had a great time with some constant, close friends. I don't like naming people because they know who they are, and I inevitably leave some people out. This isn't really meant to be a trip report. No one wants to read those any longer.

What this is, instead, is an ode to a hike, and how 20 or so people wanted to spend some precious Vegas time with me in the wilderness. When I posted the hike on Facebook, it seemed like a crazy idea. Then again, having a bunch of initial degenerates buy into the idea that running a 5K, a half marathon or, hell, a full marathon was a good idea seems crazy too. What's even crazier is almost everyone on the hike weren't the ones who ran at Mastodon.
I came to my first WPBT event with the idea of maybe being a different person, at least for a weekend. That's why everyone goes to Vegas, right? But I wanted it to carry over. I wanted to change who I was, at least a bit.

And yet, it seems to me, this group of people who I've come to know over the years responded to me the most when I shared what was most important to me. When I showed them exactly who I really was, well, some could not relate to it, but all of them not only respected it, they seemed to like it.
I can't really inspire anyone to climb a mountain, hike a trail in the desert or run a race. You have to do that yourself. But maybe you can read my story, and I can inspire you to show the world your true self. It's hard to do that. It's even painful. I'm still learning. But lace up your tattered sneakers, and we can walk the rocky path together.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Music Marathon

Here's the music I'm listening to during the marathon.
I'll explain a little bit more later, but generally, I put in healthy doses of heavy metal. I like it because it's my favorite music, and ultimately your music race mix should simply have your favorites. But it's also hard-driving, inspirational music that keeps my energy flowing. I find it almost impossible to lack energy when there's a fast, hard song crashing through my ears.
I also like music that carries a memory with it, to give my mind a break from the journey I'm on, and even if I am a fan of heavy metal, I like to mix it up with the occasional softer song. Not only does that give me some time away from someone yelling at me, it makes the good stuff sound that much harder when the assault begins again.
So here's a little explanation of a few of my songs:
• "Lose Yourself" is a tradition. I like the beginning…"If you had one shot, one opportunity…would you capture it, or let it slip?" I see every race as an opportunity, and it's up to me to capture it. This song gets me into that mindset.
• Tim Coons is a friend, and this song will help calm me because this race scares the shit out of me. It'll be the first time I push it hard on a marathon, my third. Also, you may notice that I've got a few calmer songs in the beginning. This will help slow me down, which is crucial at the beginning of a race, when all I want to do is run hard and fast. The beginning of a race is not the time to run hard and fast.
• I heard "The Crazy Ones" right before I went to sleep before my 22-miler and thought it was perfect. 
Check it out.
• Arch Enemy makes the most appearances on this mix, I believe. That band packs a punch, and I'll need that.
• "Under and Over It" is a suggestion, a great one, from Bad Blood. So is "Spiral."
• "Where the Streets Have No Name" was the opening song to a movie I made about the twins' first year. So even something simple like that can bring back a good memory of when we found out we were having twins. It's no accident that this is song 36, when I think the pain will be at the worst. The finish line is still far away, and yet you've also ran even longer. Two songs down is "Soar," which is a song I used for my son's ending song in his movie.
• I'll blast out the last couple miles with the help of As I Lay Dying, a metal band who put out easily one of my favorite albums this year.

If you want any of these songs for your mix, come find me. I'm still waiting for a couple songs from Bad Blood myself. 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Hungry for Heaven

As I was swimming through mile 16, I looked up into the trees, desperate for anything to take my mind off the agony of de feet, and I saw a bird.
It was a big bird, and it peered down at us, with an expression that was hard to read. I glanced at my dog and looked back at the bird. For a moment, I thought it was sizing up my companion. But I decided against that after a bit. The bird wasn't looking at my dog. It was looking at me.
Well, that was appropriate, I thought. My face was probably red, and I was moving like a wounded coyote and moaning like a kicked cat. The energy chew in my cheek had turned to sandpaper.
As I got closer, preparing to shuffle underneath the branches where it perched, I still couldn't tell if it was an eagle or a hawk. As the sun baked my pride, my thoughts turned darker. I guessed it was a vulture.
It knew, as they always do, that it probably wouldn't be long now.
• • •
I had the day off, and I figured it was the perfect time to get my 21-mile run out of the way. That's honestly how I approached it. Let's just get this little training run out of the way, I thought, like it was an errand.
I knew it would be a little warmer than usual, as I had to drop off my son at school before I started, which would force me to start at 9 a.m., about three hours after my usual time. Which is why I filled an extra two 8-ounce bottles. For my dog. I'd be fine, I thought. I was a lot more worried about her. She didn't do well in warm weather.
When I started, I didn't expect to feel great. It was my sixth day of running, and I'd pushed it hard on many of them. There was a 12-miler in there, a couple aggressive pace runs, an 800s interval workout and a tempo run. This would be my biggest week, as I'd planned on running nearly 60 miles. Training for a marathon is never easy, and I had some special goals planned for this one.
Even so, I'd yet to have a bad training run. They're fairly common, but I felt great throughout this whole  cycle. Two weeks ago, my last mile on my 21-miler was fast. So, sure, I thought of this 21-miler as just another run, something I needed to do before I'd come home and enjoy the rest of the day.
I still don't know if I got cocky, or if the fact that all my other runs had gone well simply tricked me into thinking that all I needed to do was strap on my shoes and the magic would happen.
I didn't even consider that 9 a.m. was considerably different than 6 a.m. I didn't consider that maybe I should make sure I drank before I left. I had a cup of coffee, my usual, and a couple swallows of Gatorade before I headed out. When it's 6 a.m., and the temperature was 45 degrees, where 90 percent of my runs took place, you can do that. When it's 9 a.m. and already 75 degrees?
I knew I was in trouble before mile 6.
I didn't want to acknowledge it. There are dark periods in many runs. But this time it felt different.
It felt like I was swimming. Treading water is more like it.
I knew a water fountain was waiting for me at mile 14, and so, I kept going. I needed the miles. You can't cheat your long run and hope to do well in a marathon. I decided to suck it up. It'll pass, I thought.
I'd be miserable for more than two hours, and at one point, underneath that bird, I honestly did wonder if I'd make it home. If I start shivering, I thought, I'll call 9-1-1.
• • •
I lined up Saturday at the starting line of the Rock and Roll Half Marathon in Denver with a plan that'd I'd never had before in a race: To back off when it hurt too much.
I don't want to sound like a hard-nosed, egotistical badass, but almost always, when it hurts in a race, I know I'm doing my job. Races are really fun, but they are supposed to be hard, too. Races are times when you blow out your engine. It's a chance to look under the hood and see what you can do.
But the schedule, the advanced plan by Hal Higdon, called for a pace run. A pace run is a run at your planned marathon pace. They're supposed to be hard, but not too hard. They're not tempo runs, intervals or fartleks, and they're certainly not races.
Thursday left me warn out. But truth be told, I was a little shaken by it too. It took me four hours to finish those 21 miles, and I had to walk several times, and I was grateful to be home, almost to the point of crying. I guzzled a large cup of chocolate milk and went to bed for an hour, uncaring that my sheets were sticking to my skin, and then I rose, like a vampire at midnight, and drank many cups of water. Despite the almost constant intake, I didn't pee until 7 p.m. that night.
The run made me feel like a rookie and an old man at the same time.
So at the urging of my running partners, I decided to run a little easier. I'd pace it, sure, but when it got a little too hard - race hard - I would back off.
The race went quickly, and I felt great most of the time. I ran a Colorado PR (altitude), at 1:39, with plenty left in the tank.
There are times even a veteran like me will doubt the training, your body and your will to do great things.
The little pick-me-ups like Saturday's race are a good reminder of that. I'll try to remember those gifts every time I have a good run. Those dark times are always lurking if you don't recognize them, respect them and, sometimes, run a little faster under their shadows as they gaze down upon you and wonder when you'll give up for good.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The edge

It was a beautiful spot. The east ridge of Pacific Peak touched the edge of the Earth, the lush tundra called to us below and we were surrounded by giants, including the 14er Quandary, whose summit was dotted with dozens of tiny climbers.
I have always loved the beauty of the mountains. I'll never tire of it. I've seen things many others haven't.
But this time, I wasn't taking any of it in. I was scrambling up the side of Pacific, in full escape mode, hoping and, yes, praying, that the darkening clouds above us held off.
Just a half hour ago, my climbing partner made a good, smart decision. She looked at the time, 9:45 a.m., did some quick calculations, and realized we still had a couple hours to go before we'd be done with the jagged ridge before us. She suggested we stop there given the way the weather felt. And then she made a bad one: The side of that hill looks pretty good, she said. Let's do it. And then I made the worst decision of all: I agreed. Even though I could not see the bottom of the hill, I agreed. 
Sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes the hill runs out all the way to the soft, green tundra, to safety, and you get to climb another day. This day, on a summer day in early August near Breckenridge, the ski resort, we were not lucky. Instead, we got what climbers call "cliffed." The way down looked like a broken leg. The way back up looked only slightly better. The rocks were loose and sharp, and our legs were heavy. But we had no choice. We went back up. 
Then I took a look around and realized that even if we hurried, we'd find ourselves near the crest of a ridge just as the clouds would gather themselves into a storm. Or not. If, you know, we were lucky.
As we scrambled hard to the ridge, our breathing decaying into ragged gasps, I paused to remind my partner that the odds of a lighting strike, however frightening, were small. Many more times, people panic, I said, and then they take a tumble. 
So relax, I told her. We'll get through this.
And then I started swearing and tried to believe it.
• • •
Two days before, I had led a group up Longs Peak. Longs is one of Colorado's most iconic mountains, in a state stuffed with them, a peak underrated in its difficulty only because of the number of people who climb it every year. 
And yet I had a great day up mountain. The years I'd put into running, to the point where I'd sacrificed a good portion of my days on the peaks, were paying off, and if I allowed myself to become cocky, I'd call the trip up easy. It wasn't, of course, because the last time I got cocky on a peak, years ago, I tripped and was less than three feet from falling to a messy death. Really, the day wasn't easy by any stretch, with 12 hours of climbing and hiking, many of them above 13,000 feet. But it was easier than ever before. The group I led up was prepared, responsive and calm, and at age 40, I was in the best shape in my life.
That feeling was short-lived.
When I woke up the next morning, my knee hurt. I shrugged it off, but it did worry me a bit because of the source of the pain. Many years ago, my worst climbing accident by far snagged me in the middle of a avalanche of car-sized boulders. I got lucky. I not only survived but didn't get nearly as messed up as I should have. But I DID get beat up, and part of the injuries was an ever-so-slight tear of my ACL. 
Doctors said as long as I kept my legs strong, it should be OK.
I kept my legs strong, and it was OK. But now, more than a decade later, the pain in my knee was a reminder that I was getting older, and it was possible I wasn't going to be able to push it as hard as I once did. I once climbed seven peaks in a week. Pacific was two days away. If I could do seven in a week, surely I could do two, even if that was eight years ago.
• • • 
Once I finished the 14ers, I knew the days of climbing 10-20 peaks a year were behind me. That was in 2005, and that's also the year Jayden was born. He would cut into the time it took to climb. The twins, born two years later, would reduce it to a pittance. This wasn't something that was done to me, however. It was a choice, and I was OK with it. 
I didn't want to be away that much, and climbing a mountain takes at least a full day and usually the edges of the morning and the night. Not only that, climbing was dangerous. I didn't want to leave my kids without a father. So I compromised. I told myself that at least one tough, exposed peak a year was OK. In fact I made myself do it. I didn't want to lose sight of who I was. But I would leave many for a day when the kids were on their own.
The transition was easier than I thought because ironically, in 2005, I discovered running.
Almost every story of someone who became a runner later in his life starts with "I hated running." And yeah, I hated running, but not as much as others do at the start. I was fit when I started with an intervals group. I was a climber. I was out practically every weekend. I worked out all the time. So I didn't hate running. I just didn't see the point.
But there was a point. Running was a way for me to stay active and stay competitive, to set goals and achieve them, to wear me out and enjoy the feeling of accomplishment, only I didn't have to be away from my family for so long to do it. 
• • • 
I was supposed to do my second gnarly peak of the year, this time up Ice Mountain, a peak I'd wanted to climb for years. I was really looking forward to it. It was exposed, with some tough climbing, in a beautiful spot.
Even so, I thought hard about it as we tried to escape Pawnee's east ridge. My knee hurt again, and this time it wasn't just a dull ache, as I needed a couple Advil to calm it down. I didn't know if we were getting down, and my kids went through my head. Plus I had this marathon coming up.
Now I wondered what the point was of mountaineering. 
We scrambled to just below the ridge on a diagonal line,  out of breath, and I glanced down at the slope again. This time it looked much friendlier. I could see more of the route, and it looked like it might go all the way down to the tundra. We couldn't see a trail, but I could see a big lake, and guessed that the trail home would probably circle the lake.
The sky was dark, and we decided to go for it.
As we approached the bottom of the slope, my sense of dread got fainter, and sure enough, not only did the slope drop into the tundra, we found the trail by the lake.
We got lucky.
I thought that thoughts of canceling Ice Mountain would fade, too, with every step on the much safer trail. But they didn't. 
What's more important to you, I thought. 
I chose the marathon. I called her a couple weeks later and canceled. 
I'd done this unofficially for years, but it hit me when I finished the conversation that I was choosing running over mountaineering.
For now.
• • •
One thing that's made that stark choice easier is the fact that I've actually hiked more than I have in years. Only many the hikes have been with my kids. So I've traveled a lot of paths that I used to scoff at. For many years, these smaller hikes were not the destination. They were a place to have breakfast on my way to greater things.  
So? So I've really enjoyed these hikes too. Saturday's hike was to one of my favorite spots in all of Colorado, Isabelle Lake. It's really beautiful. Sometimes I forgot to notice that.
In fairness to the mountains, I haven't raced a ton this summer either. The marathon's taken a priority over everything, not just mountaineering. It should. It's a marathon, and running about 50 miles a week is tough to squeeze on your and in a life schedule that includes kids and work. Philosophically this eases my mind. I'm not just a runner. I'm still a mountaineer.
The mountains were such a part of my life for many years that I can't, and won't, let them go completely.
Yet here's what I've discovered. Running is giving me some gifts that I didn't know it could. In fact, more of the same gifts that mountaineering always gave me.
I'm seeing things many others haven't.
Sunday, on a 10-miler with my dog, at 6:30 a.m., I was on a trail shrouded by early-morning fog. It was crisp. Smoke curled from the river 100 yards away. And on that river, a great blue heron took off into the sky, climbing until it touched the edge of the Earth.
I took it all in for just a moment. And then I went on down the path. 

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Into The Fire

We lined up, all of us, shuffling around in our brightly colored racing flats a few feet from the white line. No one wanted to be the first to toe it.
No one wanted to be the first one to jump into the fire.
It was July 4, at 6:50 a.m., minutes before the Lenexa Freedom Run. I've run this race for the last three years. You have an option of doing a 10K or a 5K. I've avoided the 5K in the past. This would be the first time I planned to go for it.
Though 5Ks should be a part of any runner's racing plan, I generally avoid them. If you do them right, running a 5K is akin to bathing in the flames of hell. 10Ks are less painful. I actually prefer half marathons. 
This year, it would feel like hell for another reason as well. A heat wave had swallowed my home state of Colorado for much of June, torching what seemed like half of it, and decided to follow us across to my homeland of Kansas for my annual summer trip. As soon as we arrived on June 29, temperatures hit triple digits every day, and coupled with the humidity, made it downright dangerous to be outside for too long. 
As I stepped outside Dad's porch at 5:45 a.m. on July 4 to make the drive to the start, I honestly wished the race was scheduled to go off at 6 a.m., which shows how much running has changed me but also shows the power of the heat. The sun was just beginning to peak over the horizon and would need at least an hour to gather enough muscle to start frying the landscape again. It was the only respite I'd get, and I knew it. Even then, the temperature was almost 80 degrees.
In Colorado, even on our 100-degree days, it's cool enough in the morning to make our runs pleasant, or at least not miserable. But Kansas, like the rest of the country hampered by humidity, cooler morning temperatures are a luxury.
As I finally toed the line, along with my fellow racers, lining up at slot marked for 6:30-pace runners (which would give me a PR), beads of sweat already started to pool on my forehead.
I read in Runner's World earlier that week about an interesting study that suggests the heat really is in your head. Bikers who cycled on stationary bikes in 78 degrees outperformed bikers who were forced to work in 89 degrees in a controlled gym. But when scientists tricked the bikers through a faulty temperature gauge that made them believe it was 78, rather than 89, there was no drop off in performance.
A 5K is painful, but I could probably pretend it wasn't as bad as it felt, especially for just 20 minutes.
It wouldn't kill me. It wouldn't even injure me.
It would just hurt.
The gun went off. The crowd of runner moved me forward, almost pushing me into the flames.
• • • 
It's miserable when it's 100 degrees, humidity or no humidity, until you hit up a swimming pool. Then it's the most awesome temperature in the world. The water feels like a bath, and when you get out, your balls don't hide in your stomach. The pavement burns a bit (like fire), but that only makes the water sweeter.
So we didn't go to the zoo, or a park with a bunch of rides, or even a lake in Kansas this year. We went swimming. Every day.
When we visited Salina, which is not only where Kate's grandmother lives but where I worked for my first job, I was flabbergasted at the city's new pool. It's not really a pool. It's many pools. With five slides, including one called the "toilet bowl" that tosses you around a huge whirlpool that, well, kinda makes you feel like a large turd being flushed into the pipes. There was a high dive, a lazy river that led into a wave pool and a kiddie pool. 
Oh, yeah, there was a place to swim too.
I hate "back in my day" posts, but back in my day, we had a neighborhood pool, and it was really cool because it had a diving board AND a small slide. They also played music over some loudspeakers. Fancy. We were lucky.
So take a peek inside the mind of a human being, or maybe just an American, as we left Salina's pool. Mom's neighborhood pool seemed weak by comparison. No diving board. No slide even. In fact, later that week at my Dad's, in one of the well-off neighborhood pools, I found myself feeling disappointed because that pool "only" had two monster slides and a smaller lazy river. 
• • • 
I kept peeking at my GPS, which I've told myself not to do during races. I now believe it's better to run by feel, by effort, rather than by pace because that way you aren't limiting yourself. There's no way I run 1:37 in the Vegas half marathon if I stared at my GPS because I would have held back.
But I was at sea level and didn't want to start too fast. When my breathing was labored enough for a 5K and I saw my pace was 6:30 after a half mile, I was disappointed and reassured at the same time.
I was disappointed because I thought I had a shot at a 19-minute 5K. My pace would need to be around 6:15-6:20 for that. But a slight headwind, which felt great even if it slowed me down, just wasn't going to allow that. This was not going to be the perfect day I'd need. I probably should have known that. It WAS 80 degrees at the start.
But I was also reassured because my 5K PR is 20:40, and that's a 6:40 pace. Keep it here, I told myself as I started to pass groups of runners, and you'll be really happy with your race.
A half-mile later, I was already waist-deep in the fire, and I reminded myself to relax.
I kept shaking my hands out, telling myself not to clinch them. I smiled. I tried to steal deeper breaths every fifth breath so it didn't feel like I was gasping for air all the time. The more I relaxed against the pain, the more I could stave off the panic and the vice that always seems to creep over my chest, as if I'm wearing a corset. 
I'm in another place during the most intense races. The music I carefully selected to help me run faster — in this case, fast, hard heavy metal — floated through my ears, as if I could hear it in an elevator (which would be funny actually). I didn't really see my other runners, just felt them, through elbows or their ragged breath. I tried to hitch a ride with them, but I usually wound up passing them or, near the end, they found another gear that I didn't have.
About a half-mile to the end was the hardest, as it always is because it's supposed to be. But I had to claw up two steep hills, and the sun had started its dirty work, roasting the pavement even at 7:15. My legs had no bounce. Hold on, I told myself. Just hold on. Somewhere from space, "Spiral" from Nightrage told me to run faster as I saw the finish. 
The finish line is always more relief than jubilation, but that's especially true in a 5K. And as I crossed it, my face felt like boiling water, and I tried not to collapse, walking in stumbles away from the line so other runners could get through. Easing yourself from the fire is almost as hard as throwing yourself into it, and I walked around in small shuffles, desperately trying to calm my breathing and my scorched throat. I grabbed a bottle of water, though I had no plans to drink it yet, and wiped puddles of sweat from my eyes.
I thought my time was 20:40, which matched my PR, so I was somewhat pleased as I waited in line for a computerized printout of my results and where I'd placed. I talked with a guy who passed me at the very end who I'd pegged at 50. Turns out he was 65. Sigh. Then I got my printout and looked at my time.
20:29. I had a new PR. Turns out the clock was the gun, not my chip time. Sweet. I smiled a bit but only a bit. I had survived the fire. This time, I even seemed to welcome it.
• • •
The rain fell hard a few days later, like we were stuck under a waterfall, from outside our Goodland, KS hotel window at 3:30 a.m. Temperatures had dipped into the 70s, bringing storms and cool air.
I ran a couple days later after the race on a trail that winds through woods and across fields and wetlands. It's one of my favorite things to do in Kansas, and yet it was 91 degrees by the time I finished, and I felt at the end like a flank steak. 
We drove home in clouds. The air conditioning isn't even on in our house tonight.
It feels like such a relief. 
I need a break from the fire. It's the only way to get strong enough to go back in one day.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Mount Evans Ascent

I'll admit it. The Mount Evans Ascent made me nervous.
When I head into races any longer, I'm rarely nervous. I know that if I run well, and I should, it will turn out well. There's always a question as to how I'll feel, like whether my bitchy stomach will act up, but really, there aren't many other variables. There's a few hills, and you wonder about the weather, but it never changes much.
As predictable as those races are, that's how unpredictable Mount Evans would be.
First, Mount Evans is, of course, a mountain, and the weather on mountains is, um, unstable. Generally the mornings are nice, and the race would start at 7:30 a.m. But you just don't know. The wind is always a threat and will come even on nice, sunny days. It's hard not to take it personally. Some of my friends said last year during the race the winds were 50 mph. Steady. And a storm can hit you, literally, out of the blue. I've been in nasty storms that came 15 minutes after a bright, bluebird day.
Second, Mount Evans is, of course, a high mountain, more than 14,250 feet. The air is a tad thinner up there. I had no idea how I'd do that high. I hadn't been that high in at least a year, maybe two. When I did the Pikes Peak Ascent two years ago, I was doing great until I got to 12,000 feet and got sick. It was entirely possible that that would happen again, and there wasn't much I could do to prevent it, other than train at high altitudes, and my family life wouldn't allow that. What's even more frustrating is my vast, past experience meant nothing. Altitude doesn't carry over.
Third, the race was 14.5 miles, and you gain 4,000 feet. I'd thought I'd trained well for the constant barrage of hills that would surely come, but I didn't know. That many hills can not only wear you down, they can be discouraging. I was determined to not let them get me down, but after 11 miles of them, I didn't know how I'd do.
But I needed this race. I really needed it. Kate found something she needed to do every night when I got home from work this week, which meant chaos after a long day. Friday, Jayden's swim meet that was supposed to take two hours took, no shinola, eight, and Kate was volunteering at it, which left me with all three kids all day, on a day I wasn't expecting it, most of it at a pool, which, I know, poor me, but there wasn't much to do, and so the girls were bored and expecting me to entertain them while I kept an eye on Jayden. When I went to bed at 7:30 p.m. that in anticipation of the 3 a.m. alarm, I fell asleep right away.
For the race, I set my goals at a modest 3 hours because some tough runners who I knew had done that before, and that would probably put me in the middle of the pack.
I was fine being in the middle of this pack. When I got to the start of the race, it was pretty apparent this was not a 5K. After a two-hour drive, I arrived at 5:45 a.m., and the woman next to me got out of her car to get her packet. She had on a "Pikes Peak Marathon" finisher's jacket, the other big mountain race in Colorado. The woman who parked to the left of me had an "Ultrarunners do it better" bumper sticker on her window. Sure, there were a few spoiled weekend warriors who had no idea what they were up against — one of them wouldn't use a campground bathroom because "it was too rank for me" — but it looked to me like most of the runners had either run a race much longer than a marathon, finished an Ironman or won their age groups in mountain races. I'm no slouch. But holy hell. My mountaineering experience was about the only thing I had going for me, and I've run up, maybe, three of the more than 200 ascents.
I swallowed hard and reminded myself to enjoy the competition, rather than be afraid of it, when the gun went off, and I started in the back but passed a bunch of people right away and settled in the middle of the pack of 400 runners or so (I think it was 400). I also told myself to go slow and attack the hills as they come, not to look far ahead to see what was waiting for me.
This race is all on the asphalt road that leads to 300 feet of the summit of Evans. Pikes Peak and Evans are the only 14ers that allow you to drive to the top. Pikes Peak even has a gift store at the summit and a train that leads to the top as well. Quick funny story: When I climbed Pikes for the first time, just before I walked into the gift store, sweaty and dirty, a woman looked me over and gasped when I told her what I'd done.
"You know you can drive up, right?" she said. She was serious.
This was the first race in a long time I didn't bring a GPS. Maybe in years. I knew my pace would be far slower than I was used to, and I didn't want that to freak me out. This race was about effort and feel a lot more than sticking to a pace. I did bring a watch, but that was the only way I'd know how long I'd been out there.
Right away, I felt good, which was encouraging, given that we started — started — at 10,600 feet. I was breathing a little hard on my way to the bathroom before the race, let alone running up a steep hill.
Ah, the hills. I knew there would be a lot, but they really never ended. You were never rewarded with a downhill after the uphill. Just more uphill. I somehow managed to run the whole way the first 8 miles and was comfortable. When I was through with mile 9, my attitude was good and I felt really good. My time was 1:30, and I almost allowed myself to dream big. Maybe not only three hours was a possibility, maybe 2:45 was.
It's funny how you forget during a race what's really going on. Sometimes it's OK to forget what you're capable of, as I ran a huge PR in Vegas because I didn't let what I'd done in the past dictate would I could do then. But I laughed at myself as I ran on one of the very few flat stretches into the third aid station. I was hitting probably 8-minute miles at 12,500+ feet, and I felt great. I could do anything!
Um, no, you can't.
The hill after the flat stretch was a long one, steep and unforgiving, almost mean, and I took my first walk break about halfway through it, following the lead of others. It felt wonderful to walk a bit and catch my breath, and I wonder if it was a mistake to dig myself deep out of the pain like that because once you do, it's hard to go back. To be honest, I never did go back as far as I needed to get 2:45.
As I ran up the final section of the hill, someone passed me and said, "13,000 feet baby."
13,000 feet had arrived, and I knew running full-time wasn't going to happen any longer. It wasn't the hills, though my calves were starting to really ache, and I worried they would cramp up on me. It wasn't the distance. It was the thin air. By this time, the oxygen was about half of what you'll get at sea level. Greeley is 5,000 feet, so I was a little ready. A little. But I wasn't going to be able to climb a big hill without walking a bit to catch back my breath.
Breathing in thin air is like eating a magic cheeseburger, one that never really fills you up, only it's not as much as the cheeseburger. You take a big gulp, a desperate gulp sometimes, and you never feel that click in your throat that tells you its time to breathe again. Your body's reaction is, naturally, WTF, so you breathe again, maybe a little more ragged, and your heart works harder to get whatever oxygen you're taking in to the body. It's as painful as it sounds.
I never gave up on the idea of running those last two-three miles, but as I continued to climb, my body wouldn't allow it. By the time I got past 13,600, I'd have to pick a rock and tell myself I would run to the rock about 50 yards away, then I could catch my breath again. I wasn't alone: In fact, by this point, I didn't see anyone running the entire time. Those people, the few they are, were already done and probably collecting their age group medals.
In the last mile, most of it inching to 14,000, I did more walking than running. When I did run more than 25 yards, I would get dizzy, like I'd guzzled a whiskey shot, and I'd have to walk again. It was frustrating, but I knew the altitude would get me eventually without preparing for it more
I did finish strong, charging up the last two switchbacks, probably in the faint hope that I'd finish under 3 hours. I didn't. 3:03. I'll take iSure enough, I finished pretty much in the middle of the pack. Maybe the top third, actually. 173/465 entrants. I ran into an old ultra running friend who finished seconds ahead of me, and we scrambled up to the very top of Evans' summit. We saw dark clouds. Remember what I said about the weather? By the time we ran back down and got in the line for the shuttle, the temperature had dropped 35 degrees, we could hear thunder, and it started to snow. The storm hit in 15 minutes, tops. When another runner said he had room in his car, I jumped at the open seat. I think 75 runners had to drop out or didn't finish.

I'm tired now. I'll sleep well tonight. Physically I'm beat. Friday wore me out mentally, bad, after the tough week. I'm feeling refreshed now. I know it seems sometimes like I'm this motivated runner and climber, but honestly, I really need it or else I'd go insane. Worse, I'd be a terrible father (and yes, you can be insane and be a good parent; in fact I think it's partially required) who would show a lot less patience than I already do. Nothing else renews me like a good, hard effort, and if it's up a mountain, or outside, with some good scenery, even better. Beaches don't even come close.
Sometimes I wish they did.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Exorcist

I did not get into running because it looked fun. I know I talk about it a lot now, and the love affair I have with it is stronger than ever, but when I started, back in 2004, it was not out of love.
My son was going to be born soon, and I knew I faced a crossroads in my life. To be blunt, parts of my life would have to change. A lot of parents face this. Thankfully, my choices were the kind I could make myself, rather than something I'd have to change out of necessity. I didn't have any nasty habits to kick. But I'd have to give up some things.
I hate to say it, but music, at least playing it, was easier. After a long career playing it, I was ready to give it up. I could keep my appreciation for it. I could keep writing about it. I could, of course, keep discovering it and listening to it and have it be a big part of my life. But I could no longer play in a band.
I had to give up late nights playing video games. I hate to say this too, but that was a little tougher. In fact I never did give them up completely. Damn you, Angry Birds. 
I also realized that my days of climbing a lot of peaks were over. That hurt. Even knowing that I wouldn't have to give them completely, and that, one day, I'd even share them with my kids, it hurt. But climbing takes a lot of time. There was one summer, an especially dry one, when I was chasing all 54 14ers, and with such a limited window to climb them, say, two months, I worked hard to get as many as I could. I was gone basically every weekend. But for some reason, there was one weekend I stayed home, and as we walked out of a movie, my wife said, "It's nice to spend a Saturday with you." 
Despite that, she didn't care because I was home the rest of the year, but she WOULD care, soon, with a baby around. 
Well, I was willing to not only limit my trips, especially after I climbed all the 14ers, but really chop down the dangerous ones as well. In fact, with a kid around, a dangerous peak didn't feel exhilarating as much any longer. At times, it just felt foolhardy.
The only problem? I'd need a challenge.
I don't know why I need something in my life like running. We introverted, type A people need goals, I guess. This isn't bragging. It's almost a vice. Everyone deals with their shit differently. Some use drugs, some use women, and some use gambling. I was lucky that it was mountains. That it was goals. Believe me, with my obsessive personality, it could have gone to some pretty dark corners.
I was searching a bit, once Jayden was born, for that something. That probably explains how I got into poker. It also probably explains how, when I was working on a story about a runner, I wandered into his intervals group to get a feel for a part of his life that meant so much to him that he was willing to risk his health to run the Bolder/Boulder despite his blood cancer. And as it turns out, I ran intervals that night with people who were a lot like me. And that may explain why I kept coming back, even after the story ran, and when someone asked me if I was in the group for good, I said yes, without really even knowing what I was getting into.
I knew and I didn't know. I knew this was what I was looking for. What I didn't know was the battle I was about to enter. It was a war I would fight within myself. I really wasn't prepared for it either.
• • • 
If there's one race that I have a love/hate relationship with, it's the Bolder/Boulder. The race always falls on Memorial Day, and really it's the race that started my relationship with running. 
It's also the race that exposed my weakness the most.
The Bolder/Boulder is not the longest race I do, but it may be the toughest every year. It's a fun race, with belly dancers and bands and people in costumes and qualified waves of only a few hundred at a time to calm the crowds of 50,000 runners and an awesome finish into CU's stadium. It's also above a mile high with relentless hills, and it's a 10K, which means you have to run hard up those hills for a long time, for six miles. In a half marathon, you have the luxury of taking it easy on the hills because you can make up the time later, but a 10K offers no such freedom if you want a good time. It's always a painful race.
But a lot of these runners do it, and so, so did I. The Bolder/Boulder, after all, represented what kept me coming back to running. Every year, I improved my time there by a minute. That was progress, in black and white, right in front of me. 
And every year, I paid for it dearly.
Years of mountaineering had prepared me for the exhaustion of running, for pushing yourself much farther than you think you can go and for the discipline of it. But it didn't prepare me for the intensity. When you run, you throw yourself into a fire. Your heart feels like it's going to explode, and you can't breathe, and yet you have to keep going or else you wreck your time and your race.
When the gun to my wave popped, I was always filled with a sense of dread. Here we go, I thought. Into the flames. And for the next 50 minutes, give or take a few, it was all I could do to stay in them.
• • •
Mile 1 always went fine. It was downhill. But by the end of Mile 1, because I hadn't learned how to run a race yet, I was a little more spent than I should have been. This is the slow death. By mile 3, it would catch up to me, probably as I was climbing one of those little bastard hills that just keep coming at you, around every corner. 
At this time, the whispers in my head started. It took me a few years to find a word for them. 
I call them the trolls.
They aren't demons. There's some good intentions behind them. Running that hard is painful, and truth be told, I'm not sure it's all that great for you. Recovering from a race takes days or weeks. Hell, after my first marathon, it took me a whole SUMMER to recover. The trolls whisper at you to slow down because they're trying to save you from the fire.
But wait, I would tell them. I can't slow down. I've worked hard for this! I've trained. I've spent hours dipping my toes in the flames. Sure, I'm waist deep now, but...
Yeah, you're over your head, actually, the trolls would answer. I'm not asking for much. Just walk a touch to get your breath back. Just dip your toes in again. 
I'd fight this fight at every race, back and forth, arguing with myself, but the Bolder Boulder was an extended fight, 12 rounds, Ali versus Frazier. To be honest, when I would run in that stadium and cross the line, I'd feel two things: Shocked that I actually PRd, given how painful it was, and pure relief that it was over. 
I never felt elation. That came later, to be sure, but the rest of that day, I honestly wondered if I would ever do it again. In fact, I thought about quitting twice after Bolder/Boulders. 
Running wasn't fun. It was something I was doing because I made some wonderful friends in it, and I needed that challenge in my life. And I was addicted to the progress. Because of who I am. I needed it.
That's why I wasn't bragging earlier. It was something I had to do, like drugs, rather than something I truly enjoyed and wanted. I also felt trapped. I'd worked so hard that quitting would mean losing all that work.
And then I read an article by Kara Goucher, who is now one of my heroes. She talked about the very thing that I battled. She talked about her battle with the trolls during her racing career. Goucher is immensely talented, the kind of runner I'll never be, a gap, in fact, that was equal to Peyton Manning and a high school quarterback. 
And yet she was struggling with the very thing I was battling. 
And not only that, she found a way to beat them.
• • • 
I won't go into the article because that's not really the point here. The point isn't how she beat them. It's that she COULD beat them. Running was a painful thing, and the mental struggles were so embedded in it, I just figured they were a part of it, sort of like the kind of hits Manning has to take from linebackers to throw a touchdown. 
In fact, Goucher's technique, to recite a word over and over that encouraged her, didn't really work for me. I used a word, "Fight," for a while, and it decayed the trolls, but it didn't banish them. 
What I did, instead, was start to question the purpose of them. If they weren't going to help me during a race, why did I keep them around? 
Why didn't I, in other words, go tell them to fuck themselves when they started cropping up? 
So that's what I started to do. I told them, whenever they would whisper in my ear, that they were no longer welcome. 
I exorcised them.
This was harder than I'm making it sound. It took years to find something that worked for me. I'll share a few things that helped me, briefly, knowing that you'll have to find your own:
• I learned to start a race slow, slower, in fact, than my goal pace. I used to start faster than my goal pace, sometimes by 30 seconds per mile, and so inevitably I'd get gassed, and a gassed body is a prime host for trolls. 
• I learned to run a race with an even effort. This doesn't mean an even pace. It means when I was running up those goddam hills of the Bolder/Boulder, my pace was slower. But my effort was the same. When I was rewarded with a downhill, I'd run faster than my goal pace because it was easier. 
• I learned to smile during a race. This really works. If you're smiling, you relax, and when you relax, the pain just isn't as bad. Try it sometime. 
• I also learned to stay positive. As cheesy as this sounds — and believe me, I'm rolling my eyes as I type this, as it sounds SO Mister Rodgers — I tell myself I can do this, good job, see that hill wasn't so bad, etc. I replace the negative trolls with, um, positive angels, I guess. 
• Truth be told, I got a lot better as a runner. So my pain tolerance increased for it, and I got to a point where I could run a long, long way without it hurting. Running is truly rewarding because it gives you back what you put into it. I can't think of anything else like this. Not even your kids. Maybe your dog. 
• I also put LOTS of heavy metal in my race mixes. The trolls, apparently, are afraid of a lot of yelling and loud guitars. Someone asked me once how I can stand to have someone yelling at me during a race. They're not yelling at me. They're yelling with me. The trolls don't stand much of a chance.
• • • 
I write this blog today, another incredibly long, rambling post, because I ran the Bolder/Boulder in 46:06. That's yet another minute PR, and that's more than four minutes faster than when I began running it seriously in 2006. That may not sound like a lot, and I suppose it isn't. But it's a lifetime in the running world. It's a lifetime for me.
But it's not the time that gets me so excited.
The trolls are just a faint whisper now, like a lost child in a deep cave. I barely heard them at all today even as I ran as hard as I ever have. 
This isn't a war that will end. I haven't conquered them completely. I'll be honest. I had a pacer today. I wonder if my trolls were silenced by his encouragement. I don't think so, but I can't say for sure. I still avoid 5Ks, because a 5K is 20 minutes of hell. And I dodged the mile run last Wednesday. I still hate the mile. It's only six minutes or less, and yet the trolls are not only a whisper in those six minutes, they are a chorus.
And when I crossed the line today, I felt relief once again, just like I always do. I even collapsed a bit. But I got up. I smiled, got a drink of water, then met my friends to laugh about our time spent in the fire.
Today's race made me realize something. I don't need the trolls any longer because the fire's been good to me. I don't want to be saved from it any longer. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The disconnect between the movie reviewer and the one review is for

I just watched "The Tree of Life." I think I was supposed to really like it. That's what the movie reviewers say. I wanted to like it. It had artists shots of nature and lots of classical music and Brad Pitt, and I'm a Brad Pitt fan, who is, strangely, an underrated actor because of his looks and ability to date the world's most beautiful women.
But I have a confession. I didn't get "The Tree of Life." In fact, I think I hated it.
I was supposed to like it because movie reviewers told me I should. If you go by Rotten Tomatoes, 85 percent of the critics liked it. It was on the Top 10 lists of many critics I trust, including my favorite, Peter Travers of Rolling Stone. He even makes fun of people like me, apparently, who want silly things like some semblance of a story or dialogue that isn't whispered like I'm engaged in some sort of creepy pillow talk with the actors.
"Artistic ambition is a bitch," Travers writes in his three-and-a-half-stars review of the movie. "Mainstream audiences yawn you off."
OK, so reviewers liked a movie and I didn't. It happens. But then I watched "The Future" yesterday. This movie wasn't as highly praised as "The Tree of Life." I don't think it made many top-10 lists. Yet more than 70 percent liked it. Many top critics liked it too. And that movie SUCKED. It was bizzare for all the wrong reasons, and by the end, I hated the characters so much, I was rooting for zombies to attack them, and that reminded me of the second season of "The Walking Dead," and then I became angry and folded laundry. Folding laundry when you're angry is never a good idea. You get a little too pissed off when you can't find a matching sock.
And it hit me that movie reviewers never seem to review movies for their readers. They seem to review them for other reviewers.
I believe I can say this because I am a movie snob. I'm not, as Travers seems to think, "the mainstream audience." In fact, I think I probably watch movies in the same way reviewers watch them. I look for depth of story, originality, real characters, great dialogue and writing and artistic, inventive direction. I try to watch all the movies on reviewers' top-10 lists. I usually like them.
I hate the Twilight movies without even watching them and any Michael Bay movie. My soul weeps when Transformers makes trillions of dollars. I, like most critics, believe a lot of mainstream movies suck.
I watch well-reviewed movies almost exclusively and prefer deep, thought-provoking ones the most.
I've had this conversation with my wife many times:
"Hey, do you want to watch this movie with me?"
"Is it one of your weird movies?"
So why am I writing this screed because I didn't like a couple of experimental films? Isn't that a bit much? No. It's actually a symptom of a much larger problem.
I rely on movie reviewers to tell me what's good. I have three small kids. I have lots of other things to do. I run. I work. Sometimes I play with the kids and the dog. I can't just "go to a movie" most of the time. So when I see something like "The Future," I've not only seen a bad movie, I've lost two, precious, jewel-encrusted hours of free time.
I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one who has a busy life. I'm pretty sure, in fact, others get angry too when they see a lousy movie.
Now I don't always need reviewers to pick my movies for me. I knew I'd love "The Descendants." Alexander Payne? Sold. I'll watch anything by Pixar. The new Batman movie? I'm there. I'll see "The Artist" because it won Best Picture, and if I hate it, I can blame the Academy, which is cool by me.
And in fairness to reviewers, my trust in them is well put. I put "Take Shelter" in my Netflix cue because it got great ratings, and I loved it. I saw "Phoebe in Wonderland" and wound up buying it as an all-time favorite. I discovered Payne this way. I doubt I would have heard of any of those movies otherwise.
Lately, though, my trust seems misplaced. I was on the fence about "Tree of Life." I'm not a Terrence Malick fan after the disaster that was "The Thin Red Line." But so many critics raved about it. Travers, for instance. So, OK. I rented it.
Movie reviewers, in other words, are getting it wrong perhaps more than they should, at least this year and last. And I think I know why.
It's their job to sit through movies all week, every week. They don't get to avoid the Twilight films like I do. They have to see them. They have to see Transformers. They have to watch all those horrible romances and torture-porn flicks and reboots and remakes and mindless children's crap like "Happy Feet Two."
Last year, sequels made up one-fifth of the nationwide releases, according to Box Office Mojo. That doesn't include reboots, remakes or swill like "Jack and Jill." Not all sequels are bad. But even Pixar made "Cars II," and that was Pixar's only bad movie ever. When Pixar can't deliver, you know you're having a bad year.
Eddie Murphy once joked about sex and how a woman controls our minds with it. She will make us wait forever, he said, until she finally gives in, and you think it's the best ever.
If you're starving, Murphy said, in a paraphrase here, and someone gives you a Saltine, you're going to think it's a Ritz.
If I were a movie critic, in other words, I'd like "The Tree of Life" too. In fact, I'd LOVE it. A movie with its own artistic vision? One that doesn't have vampires that look like GQ cover models who just gave a pint too much of blood? One that has some semblance of originality? Something different from most of the crap being shoveled my way? And it isn't a sequel, and it's ambitious? Sold. Three-and-a-half stars.
I'd probably even somehow like "The Future." The movie was awful, but at least it was an attempt to be original.
I probably wouldn't even care that those movies were difficult to watch, weren't enjoyable or actually kind of sucked too. They were different, didn't feature aliens blowing something up and had some decent acting. They were original. They were ambitious, even if those ambitions fell short. Sold.
So why don't I follow the same theory? I don't have to sit through movies all day. I don't have the time for it either. I get to watch what I consider the good stuff. When a movie sucks, then, it stands out even more. Critics are far too used to sitting through swill, and it's clouding their vision for the rest of us.
I kind wanted to be a movie critic, but lately I've reconsidered that job. Wesley Morris of the Boston Globe just won a Pulitzer for his movie reviews. In one of his essays that won, he reviewed "The Tree of Life." He wrote that the vision was lovely but not easy to understand. He sort of liked it for its originality but also seemed to wonder if it really was a good movie.
Morris earned that damned prize.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Operation Tonsils

Hospitals still give me the creeps, the kind that raise goosebumps on your arms, and that, like many things, can be traced to my childhood.
Every year for a number of years, since I was small, I had to have tubes put in my ears so they would drain properly. It was a 10-minute procedure. I had this done five times. I always got sick from the anesthetic.
But the reason I think I'm still afraid of hospitals isn't because of the tubes. Not one of those operations traumatized me nearly as much as the time I got my tonsils out.
I was 5, and I think the gas mask was the worst of it. They strapped me down to the bed, which was really a cage with sheets, and held the mask over my face as they wheeled me into a room filled with stern faces, alien-bright lights and a lot of cold steel. Now, remember, I was 5, and as far as I knew, they were going to do all kinds of horrible experiments on me, the kind I did to one of my teddy bears a couple months ago, because no one had told me any different. No one explained anything to me, in fact. That book I got explaining the surgery and how I was going to get to eat dump trucks full of ice cream after it was over? LIES. So I fought. Nurses, back then, were all sized to be NFL linebackers, and they were about as mean, and they sat on me and held me down, scowling at my tears. Then they put the mask over my face, again, and a thorny python wrapped a dizzy body around me. 
"I feel funny!" I screamed, and one of the doctors laughed, which sounded evil at the time, and this horrible blackness swept over my eyes, as if I was being thrown into a pit.
When I woke up, kicking and hollering, because, remember, I was being tortured when I fell asleep, I cried for Mommy, and one of the linebackers came over, grabbed my legs and strapped my arms to the bars on the side of the bed. Then I noticed my throat felt as if it had been torn out. 
Then I threw up blood that night.
Needless to say, when we learned Jayden's tonsils looked to doctors like the size of beach balls - some of the biggest ones he's ever seen, one told us later - I was dreading the day they would have to come out.
That day was last week.
Jayden was in tears as I pulled in the garage from an eight-mile run with our new dog. I told him I would meet him there. I needed to shower. I also didn't need him to see me. I would pull it together in the shower, I told myself, and put on a brave face for him. But now wasn't a good time.
• • • 
When I walked into his waiting room a half-hour later, he was dressed in blue spaceman scrubs, which looked cozy, and watching Elmo on a TV that came with the bed, which looked like a bed, not a cage with sheets.
And yet his emotions were the same as mine 35 years ago.
"Daddy," he said. "I'm scared."
Well, I'm glad you can tell them that, I said. It's OK to be scared.
Three times, a nurse, a doctor and the guy putting Jayden to sleep came in and explained what was going to happen. Apparently medical people have figured out that most kids, just like most adults, do better when they know what's going to happen to them.
They've also figured out Elmo helps as well.
Sleepytime Doc came in later, heard that Jayden was nervous, as he told everyone, and said he could give Jayden something for that. Jayden said sure. Doc brought back a cherry-flavored liquid. Jayden gulped it down because, hey, it looked good, and it WAS good, and five minutes later, he was loopy, like he'd had a few too many shots. Jayden, apparently, is a happy drunk.
The doc wouldn't tell me what it was. I don't blame him. I could make a killing on the street. Give me that before a marathon, and I'm qualifying for Boston.
Then a nurse came in two minutes later and had Jayden try on the mask. Ah, the dreaded mask, I thought to myself. There's no sugarcoating this. 
Jayden took a sniff.
"Yum," he said.
"Yeah," the nurse said. "The gas smells like Skittles."
Are you kidding me?
I turned to Jayden and used a cliche. I rarely use them. But this time it was appropriate.
"Jayden," I said, as I hopped off the bed, right before they wheeled him away, "this is not your father's tonsil operation."
• • •
They called me in a half-hour later, one of the very few times that Jayden's wanted me over Mommy, and Jayden was in bed with an orange popsicle in his mouth. It was his second one already. He was not strapped down. His nurse didn't look like an NFL linebacker. She looked a little plump, a little cute and very sweet.
"You'll see some blood on his hands or face. Don't let that worry you," a nurse said.
"Cool," I said.
I'm big on battle scars. I always liked to bring home a small gash after climbing a mountain. We called them souvenirs. Besides, there had to be something from this operation that made me squirm.
After his third popsicle, the nurse told Jayden she could move him to another room. There was a TV in there. He could watch a movie. They had "The Incredibles." She offered him a slushy. Blue.
"I have a secret recipe," she said.
Of course she did.
• • • 
Lest you think I was hoping my son would suffer, of course I didn't want that. But HOLY COW I couldn't help but feel a little, well, jealous of how much better the experience was. It made me feel proud that our country actually has evolved in some areas. We CAN make improvements on procedures and things other than cell phones. Technology does have a purpose beyond Angry Birds. But it also made me feel old. My operation seemed like from another time, like it was back during World War II or something.
That was, until we brought him home.
We've been up every night at least a couple times since that night. The third night, when we moved him back to his room from our bed, he woke up screaming and shaking the pain was so bad. We haven't been up this consistently in the middle of the night since the girls had their first birthday.
Just the last couple of nights have been better. When he does get up, it's briefly, and after some medicine, he goes back to sleep. He doesn't demand slushees around the clock now. His scabs appear to be healing a bit. But if I ever did get tired of his whining and was tempted to tell him to suck it up a bit, all I had to do was look at the gaping holes in the back of his throat.
• • •
Technology has helped us as well as Jayden. We have a ice treats machine that I relentlessly teased my wife for buying a year ago — it seemed to me to be like a salad shooter, an appliance invented just because our basic needs were so met that we think we need something that can fire a radish across the kitchen — that's now, I think, the best thing we've ever bought. It makes one of those slushys in two minutes, and when it's 2:30 a.m. and your boy is hollering from the pain upstairs, it's a lifesaver. I wish they had one for breast milk about five years ago. It would have saved us a lot of sleep.
He's spent a lot of time on his Nintendo DS. Super Mario, like Coedine, tends to numb the pain.
I don't remember much beyond the hospital after my tonsil operation, but I do remember that first night. Dad stayed up with me most of the night as I tried to cry my pain and sickness away.
Despite the cushy parts, this hasn't been easy. We've made about a billion of those slushees now. Jayden is so sensitive that he wants one of us to sit next to him at night at all times, especially when it's time for him to go to bed. He's been nasty and sad and sometimes he's still been our first baby despite the fact that he's 6.
He needs us now.
Technology will never replace parenting. At least I hope not. If Jayden doesn't have to go through these rough patches with his own kids I'll be jealous again. Only I'll also be a little sad for him.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The canine line

I had to wait until I was in junior high school to get my first dog. I guess I had shamed my parents enough by then.
He was worth the long wait.
He had the name of millions. Sparky. But — and I say this unabashedly, even when I know how corny it sounds — he really was one of a kind.
I did have a dog when I was much younger, two, actually, but both wound up not working out too well. I don't remember the first, a beagle that, my parents told me later, jumped all over me ruthlessly. That dog was built for the field, not a home with a toddler, and he was gone a year later. The second was Max, and Max was great to me, but as it turns out, too great, as he bit a few other children to protect me or his ball. I do remember that. We gave him away too.
So looking back, I can't blame my parents for making me settle for a hamster.
As it turns out, my parents probably congratulated themselves on their brilliant coup, for the hamster was a good pet. The first one anyway. I named him George, and save for two "Escape From Alcatraz"-like jailbreaks —he'd learned how to do pull-ups on the cage and yank himself over the top, so if you left the lid open, you were screwed —he was Hamster of the Year two years in a row. He loved to be held, ate carrots in my lap and rarely peed on my leg, despite the fact that I had him out most of the day. I don't think you can ask much more of a hamster than that. My brother had similar luck with his first. I think her name was Sadie.
Those were high standards, I'll admit, and rather than even attempt to try to match them, the next few hamsters owned by me and my brother failed miserably. One passed the pet store test, but when we brought her home, liked to crawl in my hand and bite me like my palm was a piece of steak. Another HISSED at us. And a few just died of some strange disease the pet stores called "wet-tail."
I remember the last time, on my third replacement for George, when it died, when my parents finally gave into my tears as I pleaded for a dog. I was going through a bad stretch in my life, perhaps my worst. Junior high school was no joke. I was teased and needed therapy for depression. Seriously. Rather than put me on medication, they gave in and got us a dog.
That's all I needed.
• • •
It wasn't just us. Everyone loved Sparky.
He was a beautiful dog, for one thing, a miniature version of Lassie, and in our society, beauty always helps. But just as there are sweet supermodels, sometimes personality is not only a bonus, it's the reason you love. Sparky lived in a world where most of us, including me, aren't allowed. It was a world where everyone was someone to be trusted and enjoyed rather than feared. That was unusual for a sheltie, but his past was clean, and since we got him as a puppy, we kept it that way.
We had next-door neighbors with a lifelong friend of mine who loved shelties, and if one ever came over, Sparky barked until he or she took them over to their house for a visit. Later, when I brought him to Greeley after I grew up (sorta), he wandered from apartment to apartment on his good days. He loved playing tug-o-war with his sock, and I'm already going too long about it. You can read more about him in this column I wrote for the Greeley Tribune, but don't click on it just yet. Sparky is only kind of the point, and the subject of the column may jar you a bit.
He lived 15 years, and when I finally had to let him go after his kidneys shut down, I waited a long time to get another dog. That wasn't necessarily by design. I had a cat, a wonderful stray I called GK who was like a dog that meowed.
(On a side note, cats may have to rethink their position on this planet because as much as I love them —GK saw to that —the best compliment I can give a cat is that it's like a dog).
When I met Kate, she had cruel allergies that would not let her have a cat, and she tried her heart out, but in a close call, right down to inches on the tape, I had to give GK up to a great home.
(On another side note, I knew I made the right choice when they contacted me just recently to tell me about her death after what we think was her 17 years of life. They acted as I did with Sparky, waiting until her pain was too much, which told me all I needed to know. She had cat buddies and a constant lap, which was all she needed).
At this point I knew myself. Another hamster wasn't going to cut it. We went to the shelter looking for a husky.
And what we got was Denali.
• • •
Sometimes you find a dog, and sometimes, dogs find you. That's how we got Denali. He was a golden retriever mix with raggy, yellow fur, but he nabbed us with his tail. It wouldn't stop wagging. Later it was his eyes and sweet, needy personality. He was the dog who taught us to be parents.
Now you can click on the column.
I know now why there are a dozen ghost shows on TV, and why many of them are popular. I swear I can still hear his tags around the house. The habits have stayed with me, too. I reach for his snout when I open the door after work. I wait by the back door and call his name before I leave for the day. I hear a jingle and wonder what he's getting into.
Kate told me she wanted to wait to get another dog, probably past July, and I agreed with her.
But sometimes you find a dog, and sometimes, dogs find you.
After the column ran to a predictable cascade of letters and messages, one caught my eye. It was from a recent but trusted friend telling me about her dog. She was fighting, being attacked really, by their other, older dog. They got her in November.
Everything about her sounded great. She was an Australian shepherd mix, calm and loving but active, which meant I could both run and snuggle with her. She was great with small kids, scrawny but a good size, a chewer but only on her own toys. She was good on a leash. She was well trained. She liked other dogs and did well at the dog park. She would need exercise, but anyone who knows me - and I know you do if you've made it this far - knows that isn't a problem.
I'm a firm believer in shelter dogs. I will always adopt. They got her from the shelter. But I also know, from our experience with Denali, that many of those dogs are unpredictable at first, with unknown histories, and with our family, that was not only a bit dangerous, it was foolhardy.
Here was a chance we may not have again for a while.
Kate, at first, didn't want anything to do with it, and I didn't blame her. I felt guilty for asking so soon after Denali. How could we replace him? But I went to see her, and she was everything we thought.
I knew Kate had softened her thoughts after she asked for a picture. Then she asked if we could change the name.
We picked her up today.
Say hi to Ranae.

It may take a while before we feel the same love for her that we did for Denali or I did for Sparky. But that's OK. Sometimes a dog finds you if you let it happen. Maybe something else was guiding this. The hand of Dog, if you will.
On that note, despite my belief in some sort of higher power, I'm honestly not sure if there's a heaven. But I'm open to the idea because where else would Sparky and Denali be now? Just before we put Denali down, before I told him I loved him and thanked him for 11 incredible years, I told him about Sparky.
Sparky loved everyone, I told him, and he'll love you. You two need to find each other and play. Maybe one day, Ranae and I will see you both again.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Livin Long After Midnight

My longtime running partner canceled on me. I was a runner without a weekend run.
I knew of one other group going out on a Saturday morning. When I thought about joining, I laughed it off.
There wasn't one in the group who wasn't a friend. I'd run with all of them before. I liked all of them. But many of the rest of my running peeps, including me, looked at them with a combination of bewilderment, awe and a little fear, the same way frat boys might look at the guy who can bong five beers in a minute. They were my friends, yes, but these peeps were hardcore. They were all kinds of crazy. They partied.
They were fast. They started their runs at 4:30 a.m. They wouldn't let anything in the weather stop them.
I could match them on the weather — I have not run on the treadmill once this winter, despite many single-digit or snowy days — but I wasn't sure about the pace, and 4:30 a.m.??? I'd get up that early for a trip up a  mountain, a baby or maybe a race.
And yet, I couldn't shake the thought. It was early, but it's fun to run different routes, with different people. And, to be honest, I wanted to see if I could do it.
So that's why I turned off my alarm clock at 3:55 a.m. I was already up, in anticipation of the extra-early wake-up that was going to jolt me out of happyland. I left the pillow and the warm sheets and my sleeping wife, and I looked out the bedroom window just before I started getting dressed.
Snow fell in chunks. The streets were white. Our clock inside the house said it was barely 10 degrees.
Last night, the wind was howling. I wasn't thrilled about the morning snow, the frost in the air or the fact that the sun wouldn't come up until we were done, but I'd take all that over a gusty gale.
I flipped on the coffee, spread peanut butter and honey over my toast and grabbed a couple Gatorades. I breathed deep. Time to go.
* * *
After the race in Vegas, I fell into a slump. It took almost as long to recover from the half as it did my full this year. I felt sluggish and shitty and not even remotely excited about running. My ass hurt on every run. I got the flu and after felt as if I was running with a knife in my chest thanks to an acid reflux flare-up. I skipped the traditional Super Bowl 5K.
I kept running because I am loathe to stop an activity for fear of losing what I've worked so hard to gain. And it was the only real way to see many of my closest peeps. And I still enjoyed it, even if it sucked. I'd been through bad stretches before, and I was encouraged because this snap started because I ran hard in Vegas, maybe harder than I'd ever ran before, and the result was proof: Seven minutes faster than last year's PR half in Denver.
But out of nowhere, almost, this week I felt great. I had a good tempo run, stomping all over the damn hill at mile 3. I ran 12 quarter-miles on Wednesday in 1:36 or less, with the last four the fastest. So I told myself I could hang with this crazy, wild crowd, at least this week, and the snow actually gave me even more confidence. It evened the playing field, throwing a layer of slick under the cheetahs' paws. And running in shitty weather was practically my speciality, a leftover from my days as a hardass mountain climber.
We got little reminders all through the first hour that this was, well, different. Flakes slapped at our eyelids and occasionally stung our pupils, but despite was Corey Hart said, we could not wear sunglasses, even if technically it was just really early in the morning. When we ran up hills, runners either begged for traction or, as in my case, wore spikes that gripped the road but beat up our feet. At least one runner fell, hard, and because of her scouting report, I barely dodged a pothole that would have thrown me to the snow as well. When I ate a gel, it was cold and hard, like choking down a slug.
Conversations were sparse even if they were frequent. The snow, the hazy cold and the dark felt like we were running down a dream, as if we were contained in our effort, in the ache and the breathing and the simpleness of it, and though I knew where we were at all times, it all felt different, too.
We picked up new partners an hour later, and when we stopped to gather them into the group, my mind left the zone for a moment and dreamed about the car and a shower and food. I put my head down and tried to focus on the run again. Thoughts like that are dangerous.
Even so, they are also delicious when you can feel the end. My watch was close to two hours, just under 13 miles, and so me and a couple others peeled off from the group of badasses and made our way back. Heat, a shower and my family were waiting at home. They probably weren't even up yet.
I got back in the car. I was so cold I left the face mask on the whole drive home, and the car never seemed to heat up. But I reached down and turned on Judas Priest's greatest hits on the CD player. One of my favorites, the band's biggest hit, "You've Got Another Thing Comin'," started blasting over the speakers.
Rob Halford sang the first line. "One life I'm gonna live it up." And as my car slid on the snow and I wiped frozen snot off my face, I sang with him.

Friday, February 03, 2012

A letter to my twin girls

It's a tradition to write a Valentine's Day letter to the pre-schoolers at the place where my girls attend.
Here is what I wrote to them:

Dear Andie and Allie - 

We have tried not to lump you in with each other. We sing "Happy Birthday" twice on your special day. We don't make you wear the same clothes. We don't even buy you the same toys at Christmas, even at the risk of a fight later on. 
But we're writing this letter to both of you, rather than each of you, because the point of this letter is for both of you.
The reason we have tried to treat you like two daughters, rather than a unit, is because you are individuals. Fiercely so, sometimes, as we saw with many tantrums last year. Allie is gentle and careful and Andie attacks the world with the spirit of a wildland fire. Allie, you like Hello Kitty, a tribute to your middle name, Katherine, after Mommy, because we call you "Allie Cat." Andie, you like fairies such as Tinkerbell, the kind of characters who have the same energy and wonder about the world as you.
There will be many people who will try to assign you roles because you are twins. Allie will be The Dancer, and Andie will be The Athlete. Allie will be the dainty one, and Andie will be the Tomboy. People like categories. But the best thing about you two is even though you were born at the same time, and you even carry the same genes, like you were scooped from the same bowl of ice cream, you really are individuals. You are as different as your DNA is the same.
It's OK to be proud of being a twin. We love it. We brag about you all the time, and we've learned a lot ourselves. On the few occasions you let us pick your outfits out, sometimes we like to dress you two alike. And though we say we're sorry when we mistake you for your sister, which you always correct before we finish the sentence, we also think it's funny. Stand up for each other. Be as close when you graduate high school as you are now in pre-school. Love each other.
But never, ever forget you are your own person. 
We don't think you will. In fact, we already feel sorry for the people who think otherwise.
We love you,

Mommy and Daddy