Much Ado About XC

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Fast shoes, fast times?

Remember when you were a kid and you’d be in this park and then hear a bell or some music playing from afar.  It was the ice cream man and you needed to be first in line.  So you run as hard as you can across the grassy knoll.  Sometimes little Bobby “accidentally” cuts in front of you.  Maybe you “inadvertently” give him a little bump with your shoulder.  Your feet are slipping a little against the grass, wet with dew, but you can see it, the finish line.  Popsicles, candy cigarettes, bubble gum, jawbreakers…  Finally you all arrive, queue up, get your delicious snacks and go back to being friends again.  Now imagine doing that as a 30-something.  Welcome to XC season.

When I was in high school, I guess cross country was a thing.  I ran track, so it really was a different world.  Those kids that counted their runs in miles and not meters were nuts.  They really loved running.  And I only mildly disliked it most of the time with fleeting moments of loving it when I was running my fastest.  I couldn’t imagine running a step over 400m.  Fast forward 15 years and I’m turning 34 in two days and contemplating racing, or at least training for cross country races as part of my speed work.  Am I nuts?  I’m certainly not a kid anymore.  I probably won’t take pleasure in jockeying for position among fellow racers.  I probably won’t enjoy red-lining for 3-6 miles.  But I think the litmus test for what constitutes appropriate training for me ultimately ends with the question: but will it make me better?

I signed up for the LA Marathon today.  I have “ran” two marathons before, both other the time of 4 hours for different reasons, and none of them being that I was trying in any capacity to “race” anything.  As a matter of fact, I ran SFM completely injured after mile 11 last year and probably should have dropped instead of walking in the last 6 miles.  I was on crutches for a week after that race.  And it was all my fault.  I did virtually no speed training, and none of my long runs were on pavement.  My body simply wasn’t used to the pace or the surface and I tricked myself into thinking that would be totally ok come race day.  It wasn’t and I won’t make that mistake again.

Running a road marathon is not my cup of tea but I do believe in pushing yourself outside your comfort zone.  Challenging yourself beyond the familiar is the only way to really get stronger and become a more disciplined athlete, in my opinion.  So occasionally, this trail runner likes to humble themselves with something really scary.  For me, that is running a fast road marathon.  My goal would be to qualify for Boston, as I haven’t run that iconic race yet and it’s on the “bucket list” so to speak.  Considering I’m not much of a road runner, I don’t have many opportunities to race these things hard.  So I’m trying to really take this seriously and do it right and hopefully come out with a better result, or at least not come out on crutches.

I was talking to a customer, friend and racing team teammate today at SFRC and she mentioned that she did track, tempos and XC races as her primary workouts when training for a marathon.  It certainly got me thinking.  There has been SO MUCH HYPE around the cross country scene here.  It felt foreign to me.  I didn’t understand the concept or the appeal.  The closest thing that came to running XC for me were the few offseason workouts we had where we would take out borrowed spikes on the dirt to simulate speed for early season crap conditions.  We weren’t allowed on the soccer field so we would run around the back of the school between the fence and the neighborhoods and tear up the grass until it was nothing but a bunch of dirt patches and holes.  Oops.  It wasn’t exactly a race and it wasn’t exactly 3 miles of hard running.  I couldn’t imagine doing it as a teenager and it is almost laughable that I’m considering that sort of hard effort now as a middle-aged adult.  But it turns out a lot of adults do it.  The cross country circuit here is the scene is really big and super competitive.  I’m sure I’ll be fighting for last or second to last place at most races, and I’m not even that slow.  A lot of the people who race XC ONLY race XC and they know their way around a grass course.  They feel at home running fast and racing aggressively.  I’m not sure I’ll fit in.  But I do know that the kind of training that goes into cross country season makes you fast.  And anything that can fill in the gap for me between short term speed, long distance endurance and strength is worth looking into.  Maybe I’ll race, maybe I won’t.  Maybe I’ll love it, maybe I won’t.  But any excuse to make myself faster and use some really fast-looking shoes seems like a worthwhile expenditure of my time this fall.  So….elbows out?

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Thinking Outside the Box: How Not Running Has Made Me a Better Runner

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It’s Friday 9am, I have an hour and a half before I have to be at work, the sun is shining, I’m lacing up my shoes and I’m heading into The Cave.  A part of me looks longingly at the East Peak of Mt Tam, prominently framed as you look out my crossfit box’s garage-style doors, wishing I was playing on the hill, effortlessly leaping among the rocks, descending the steeps with my friends like a pack of wolves on the hunt, arriving at our favorite coffee destination with dirt marks up our calves and sweaty salt caked on our brows.  There’s something wonderful about running, and trail running in particular.  And that’s why at least once a week, I don’t run, and crossfit instead.

When I started increasing my mileage, intensity and my time out on the trails, I found that my body could only take so much.  It “broke” so many times, not literally (but sometimes).  It failed me.  I couldn’t run downhill with the fearlessness that I wanted–my IT band was too unstable and my quads were too weak.  I couldn’t climb without my hamstrings getting tight.  My core was failing me during the fatigue of long runs, and my stabilizing muscles, connective tendons and fascia were overtaxed and underused at the same time.  When the going was good, it was good, but when the going was bad, it was bad, and painful, and expensive.  More than recovery, but rehab became an everyday thing for me.  The train, race, injury, recovery, rehab cycle became all too familiar and it drained me.  It also prevented me from progressing as a runner.  When you keep interrupting your training cycles to rest your body because of injury, you aren’t able to get that consistency that is so key to becoming a stronger, better runner.

I have always been a fan of cross training.  I dabble in just about everything, including strength training.  Bootcamp classes, light lifting and the typical core workouts have become part of my weekly routine.  But it wasn’t until I really took a hard look at myself that I realized what was missing.  I’ve always been a thinner, slight-framed, petite person.  Even at my strongest and most athletic, I was never terribly “muscular”.  I do however, gain strength easily and lose it easily.  As I increased my mileage and running took priority, other cross training methods took a backseat and my body suffered.  My homeostasis is “skinny”, I fight to keep muscle tone on like others fight to keep “fat” off.  My body is always trying to return to its natural state.  It loses weight easily and is always trying to get back to where it was for the first two decades of my life.  I learned this and also know that a good amount of strength training is good for me.  It keeps me strong and more durable, and able to run longer, harder and faster.  And ultimately enjoy the experience of running and racing more.  And while my normal J.V. strength training routine was all good and fine for your run of the mill marathon training, it wasn’t cutting it as I wanted to increase the intensity of my goal races.  Cranking it up in one department, in this instance, required a cranking it up in other departments too.

First, I realized I needed more rest: more sleep and better recovery.  Second, I realized I needed more food: more calories–more of the good stuff and less of the bad stuff, though my body could also tolerate more of the bad stuff too, which was a pleasant by-product.  Third, and most importantly, it required an increase in strength training in order to stave off the risk of injury that came from taxing my body on the impact-heavy practice of hard running.  While lifting 5 pound dumbbells and bodyweight exercises at bootcamp was great maintenance, and if done every single day, would maybe have done the trick, what a lot of runners lack is just brute strength.  We also have major imbalances that impact our biomechanics.  Most times, those can only be corrected by very targeted and focused workouts.  Crossfit is the answer that most runners don’t want to hear.  They cover their ears and say “lalalalalala”.  They make fun of crossfitters.  We are barbaric.  We grunt and yell and high five each other with our cavemen hands, ripped from too many pull-ups.  We eat paleo.  We don’t believe in cardio.  We are all SUPER JACKED and the women look like men.  We don’t like to be outside.  We slam things down that make loud noise just for effect.  We are crude and can’t do anything but lift heavy things and put them down.  We are obsessed with numbers and stats.  We are one-sided athletes.  We are not athletes.  For as many inaccurate stereotypes that runners have of crossfitters, crossfitters probably have just as many about runners.  Maybe I’ll never truly cross over into the crossfit world, I’ll always be the runner that goes to crossfit, but that’s ok.  And the crossfit community welcomed me with open arms.  The biggest stereotype that has no real basis is that crossfitters are close-minded.  They are not.  And now that they see a distance runner give up her free mornings to come to the gym, they see that some runners are just as open-minded.

I spend a lot of time talking about crossfit to customers at SFRC.  I do so because it really has helped my running.  It has also become an independent passion of mine.  I love pushing myself to do something out of my comfort zone.  Each time I walk into the Cave, I’m surrounded by fit, strong people.  They can all lift more than me, do more reps than me, and they have great abs…just saying.  It’s intimidating to walk in there.  And it’s a hard thing for someone as competitive as me to put that on the shelf for an hour, totally tell my ego to shut up and only work up to my limits, and do only the things that will help me in the end be a better runner.  Because in the end, that’s why I returned to crossfit after many years off and that’s why I continue to sacrifice precious hours that I could be spending running to work out instead.  Having Tam stare at me from the open garage doors when I’m doing a time trial on the rower or suffering through a deadlift EMOM is a great reminder of why I’m here.  I never lose sight of that.  It helps me keep focused while I’m working out and it helps me keep overall perspective of my training.

Moves like deadlifts and squats are key for runner health and strength.  These focus on strengthening muscle groups that usually go underused when we run.  When this happens, stronger muscles get used more and get overtaxed.  This creates dangerous imbalances that lead to injury.  Deadlifts and squats in particular help develop glute and hamstring strength, usually weak in runners, especially in female runners.  Additionally, moves like kettlebell swings, cleans and box jumps mimick the explosive power needed in sprints or uphill running that comes from the legs, glutes and hips.  This enhances training you do on the track for similar purposes.  Moves like pushups, pull ups, rows, curls, etc… help develop muscles that you don’t get a chance to improve on running, mostly the upper body, shoulders and back.  Core workouts focus on stabilization and posture during your runs and single leg workouts are of utmost importance, given that running is largely a single-legged activity if you really think about it.  I could go on and on, but there are major benefits to most things you will do at crossfit.  Also, lifting heavy (as opposed to light lifting) allows you to build on actual muscle strength and not just fitness/endurance (which is usually something runners already have).  Lifting heavy, especially on squats and deadlifts create muscle, create strength and create power.  This power, especially for trail runners, is key to increasing your power to weight ratio, important for running uphill.  It also increases strength and stability for running downhill with more confidence, explosiveness and durability.  And after a while of developing these muscles, it will also help your top end speed on flats or track intervals.

To all things, there is a downside, of course.  First is the risk of injury.  Much like everything in training and most things in life, there is risk in challenging yourself in a new way.  You could injure yourself at the gym.  We have all heard those urban legends, the runner that went into crossfit and threw their back out, they bashed their legs open on a missed box jump, they got too competitive and tried to lift too heavy and something fell on their head.  These aren’t just urban legends, I know for a fact they happen.  They can also happen on the trail, or in yoga, or on your bike.  I hate to break it to you, but shit happens, and sometimes it happens in a crossfit gym.  But not always and hopefully not if you’re careful, listen to instruction, only lift to your ability and have a good coach.

Second aside from acute injury is the risk of constant fatigue and overtraining when you add in hard crossfit sessions in addition to your normal training routine.  I felt this at first.  I thought, I would do crossfit on my rest days.  I would do them before my longer trail runs.  I would combine them with a kayak session.  And all it did was make me constantly tired and sore.  My body wasn’t recovering as well as it should have.  Each of us has a limit of what we can do.  I have to give up some mileage to effectively benefit from crosssfit and other cross-training that I do.  I am ok with that.  I am at peace with that.  I also realize that I can’t run a 100-mile race if I don’t put in the right amount of time on feet, vert and miles on key weeks.  It’s a balance.  Just like I am totally ok with skipping my runs on Fridays to hit the box, I am also ok with skipping crossfit for a week, sometimes a month, if it’s a crucial running block or a recovery period after a race.  Know your body and know your limits.

Third, you have to be ok with totally sucking.  As runners, we aren’t focusing on lifting heavy things and putting them down.  We aren’t even great at the weighted core stuff, or the body weight stuff.  We don’t practice it and therefore, aren’t that good at it.  You’ll think you’re strong and then you’ll attend a crossfit class and realize you are  just another skinny runner person.  But then you do it more, and you work your way up and you get better.  Just like the first 5k or half marathon you ever ran, it won’t be your PR and the goal is to get better, your first month and often year at crossfit will be frustrated by your physical limitations.  But then you have breakthroughs.  Remember the first time you did a cartwheel as a kid?  Ran a 6 minute mile on your high school track?  Yup.  You’ll remember the first time something clicked and you nailed your snatch balance technique.  You’ll remember the first time you lifted more than your bodyweight in a deadlift.  You’ll remember the first time your chin cleared the bar on a pull-up, the first time you hit back to back double unders and you’ll remember that sense of accomplishment whether it’s an accomplishment out on the trails or in the gym.  It’s progress and it’s you getting better.

I’m not saying crossfit is for everyone, or every runner.  We all have to decide what’s going to benefit us in the end.  But I’m really starting to feel like home in the crossfit gym and I never regret a workout.  Because even the workouts where I didn’t hit a PR or nail a technical move or skill or find that my hands and forearms are shaking when I try to gather my things after class, are workouts that are helping me be a better runner.  I always walk out of the gym a stronger person than walked in, and if that’s the only thing I get for the sacrifice of not running that morning, I’m totally ok with that.

Stronger on the inside so I can enjoy the outside more.

Stronger on the inside so I can enjoy the outside more.

Getting to the start line is the hardest part, they say…

In some ways, I really want to slap the person who said that getting to the start line or taking the first step is the hardest.  That person has never run for 17 hours straight.  That person has no idea what they’re talking about.  But sometimes they’re right.

For the past year, I have been planning my voyage to my first 100-miler.  I will choose a 100-mile race.  I will hire a coach.  I will train my body.  I will test my mind.  I will focus on race day nutrition.  I will run very hard training runs and races.  And I will get to that start line, take that first very difficult step, and then about a million more, and then be extremely happy.  This is how things were supposed to happen, and in my mind, there was no detour.  Life had something else planned.  I chose a 100-mile race, Bryce Canyon 100 in Utah.  I hired a coach, the amazing Krissy Moehl.  I trained my body and tested my mind.  I fine-tuned things that needed fine-tuning and I ran, a lot.  And then I went snowshoeing and injured a tendon in my lower leg.  Eight weeks with heavy rehab, body work and rest (and anxiety) got me back on track but not until it totally derailed my original plan.  Bryce wasn’t going to happen, and neither were any of the awesome training runs and races I had scheduled between January and June.  My first true “long run” back was when I ran the first 18 miles of the Lake Sonoma 50, my first official DNF even if it was planned.  Slowly, things started coming together again and I refocused on starting at square one again.

I chose a 100-mile race (again), Pine to Palm 100 in Oregon.  I continued working with my coach, the amazing Krissy Moehl.  I trained my body and tested my mind (more).  I fine-tuned things (again) that needed fine-tuning, and I ran even more.  I started to gain a very healthy balance of strength training and running and got strong.  I even dare to say I was getting…fast.  I was also getting confident that I was going to get there, to the start line, the first step.

I ran Santa Barbara 100K (race report here) and actually had a great training run and ended up winning the race.  Totally on the right track for my first 100-miler.  The week after my 100K race, all I wanted to do was run.  My body felt a little stiff but good and my brain was on overdrive thinking about all the great moments that awaited me at Pine to Palm.  But my body wasn’t that ready, it was creaky and a little more stiff than I thought.  My mind wasn’t that ready either, it turns out.  The more time for reflection that I had to think about my 100K race, the more satisfied I became with my season so far.  I wanted a break, I wanted to celebrate.  I wanted not to have to mental exhaust myself with a training schedule….yet.  But Pine to Palm was only two months away and I couldn’t afford such a luxury.    I was conflicted.  I wanted to run 100, but I didn’t want to run 100.  I wanted to train, but not yet.  I wanted to experience 38 more miles of suffering, but I didn’t.  I wanted to race again, but was also happy enough with my last race not to.  I stepped back and gave myself a moment to really think about whether lining up at that start line was something I was going to want to do in a couple months.

During that time I was deciding about Pine to Palm, I was also thinking about other races down the road.  HURT 100 might be one of the toughest 100-mile races in the country.  It’s terribly technical and miserable and takes everyone a very long time to complete, if you’re lucky.  It’s also pretty popular since it has a lottery to get in.  The more I thought about HURT, the more excited I got about running again.  It lit a fire in me to train and gave me something to look forward to.  I entered the lottery and waited for my name to be called.  I refreshed the screen about a million times and my name never appeared.  After not getting into HURT, something about running Pine to Palm felt so…vanilla.  It isn’t, at all.  Pine to Palm is tough, and beautiful, and everything I could have hoped for in my first 100-mile attempt except it wasn’t HURT.  And at that moment, nothing could live up to HURT, or the idea of HURT.

Backing out of Pine to Palm was a tough call.  I had a pacer lined up, my friend Jamie, founder of SweatGuru, overall fitness badass, speedy and tough trail runner, and one of the only reasons I know that 100-mile races even exist.  Before I even chose my first 100-miler, I knew I wanted Jamie by my side.  We’ve run plenty together, mostly up to the East Peak of Mt Tam, early in the mornings to catch sunrise.  She’s faster than me, but we can be evenly paced if I decide to work a little harder and she goes easy on me.  She’s a master fast-hiker, I don’t know how her legs move so fast without actually running.  She claims she’s part goat and I almost believe her.  Not only is she a great friend but she would be a great pacer.  Having done 100-milers herself, and even attempting Pine to Palm a few years ago, I knew she would have the experience I was lacking to carry me through the tough times.  I asked her to pace me at Bryce.  She cleared her (extremely busy) calendar and said yes.  It broke my heart to tell her I couldn’t run it because of my injury but she understood.  I told her I was going to choose another one.  When I chose Pine to Palm, I did so half because it was easy for her to pace me there.  Jamie and her husband (and dog) recently moved to Portland and I thought it was fate that the 100-miler that “spoke” to me after not running Bryce was in her backyard (almost).  Not running Pine to Palm hurts.  It hurts not running my first 100 miler when I’m physically able to.  It hurts not getting a Western States qualifying lottery ticket for 2016.  It hurts to watch friends run the race I was supposed to run, that I persuaded THEM to sign up for and run with me.  It hurts to take that week long vacation off the schedule and have to work instead.  But it actually hurts most of all because I feel like I’m letting everyone down.  I feel like I’m letting my coach down–the 100-miler was the only reason I hired her.  I feel like I’m letting my friends down who are only running the race because we were supposed to run it together.  And I feel like I’m letting Jamie down.  Again, I have to break it to her that I cannot run.  Not for the same reasons that I couldn’t run Bryce, because my body wasn’t able.  But because my mind isn’t able–and somehow that feels less valid of an excuse to not race.  But in the end, my heart felt flat when I thought about getting to that start line.  It should have been full of electricity.  I don’t want a flat heart, I want a fast beating hummingbird heart, beaming with lightning energy and excitement to take that first step.  I want it to come from a desire to want to be there, and not just the adrenaline that is inevitable on race day.  I want to get to the start and say, I’m ready.  And I don’t think I’ll get there in 2015, and even though it is a choice I am in total control of, and is the right call in the end, I’m not sure I’ll ever feel 100% good about it.

So how do you get that spark back again?  Right now, I’m trying to find inspiration.  It’s all around me.  Anna Frost and Missy Gosney just became the first female team to complete Nolans 14.  I just went backpacking in Desolation Wilderness, one of my favorite places on this Earth.  I’m re-reading Rebecca Rusch’s book, reminding me that the toughness comes from picking yourself back up, and success comes from working hard and smartly figuring out what your next move is.  I’m coaching track for a private training program in the city, helping beginning runners try to discover the love of speedwork.  There’s so much inspiration around me, it’s only a matter of time until I latch on to my next race, adventure or hair-brained idea.  Hopefully when I do, my heart will be ready to love again.

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Here’s Jamie looking out from Temelpa Trail, half way up Mt Tam, on one of our many morning summits.

My first official DNF, as planned, at mile 18 of the Lake Sonoma 50. All smiles because I get to stop running and get back to training the next day.

My first official DNF, as planned, at mile 18 of the Lake Sonoma 50. All smiles because I get to stop running and get back to training the next day.

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This picture was taken the week I decided to register for Bryce 100. It was a moment of clarity during a morning run in Berkeley, a few days after my second 50-mile race. Mentally and emotionally, I had a tough time during that race, but being able to run shortly after and have this inspirational moment on the ridge with a good friend made me feel invincible. That race hadn’t defeated me, it only made me stronger.

Californian by choice

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Californian as of July 2004.

I moved here in July 2004 from Maryland via Colorado via Maryland via New Jersey for law school.  The plan was to stay here for three years, finish law school and then take the bar exam somewhere I wanted to stay for good, most likely back on the east coast where I would be close to family and enjoy four seasons and a slightly more affordable cost of living.  Three years of hard work and vacation is how I saw my stay in San Francisco.

Eleven years later, I’m still here.  I did in fact finish law school, but then took the bar in California and remained here as a lawyer for six years before getting out of the profession for good and starting a career in the outdoors industry.  After 11 years in the Bay Area, I can no longer say that I’m here temporarily.  I might be here for good.  And I can no longer use the excuse that I’m here because I’m tethered to something, a job, a license, a relationship, a home.  I now must admit I’m here by choice.  And I’m just starting to be ok with that.

Today I was reading this article about the most “beautiful Taco Bell”, and I knew exactly where it was.  I was visiting a friend who lived in Pacifica and she pointed it out to me.  Since then, I’ve taken several surfing trips down to that beach and eaten at that Taco Bell along with every other salty, sandy beach bum.  It’s only after being here over a decade that things like that are starting to happen to me.  I can’t take the train, the bus, go to an obscure coffee shop, attend a seminar, without running into a handful of people I know.  While there are still many areas left to explore, I can comfortably navigate the trails and the roads in the Bay Area, and generally have memories attached to most restaurants, parks, street corners.  I was recently walking back from Fort Mason to the Financial District and every block was like dragging up the past.  The smell of olive oil and warm focaccia bread in North Beach reminded me of every night of the five years I spent living in that neighborhood, wafting through the window, mixed occasionally with cigarette smoke and the sounds of women laughing.  Walking through the FiDi, I thought of all the times I would walk that exact route on the way to law school, then years later, on the way to BART after spending time with my boyfriend who lived in the city and I had since moved to the East Bay.  The thing with memories is the new ones don’t replace the old ones, they just accumulate.  And my brain is starting to feel like a hoarder’s basement.

I long to live somewhere new.  Somewhere I can make new memories, a clean slate.  I love the familiar, but there is a fine line between the familiar and the feeling of walking through a ghost town every time you grab lunch down the street.  I want to feel comfortable, but not cluttered.  I am starting to feel cluttered here, like there isn’t any room to feel new again.  There are some places in the Bay Area that I simply can’t go because the memories are too painful, too emotional.  And of course the opposite is true too.  The reality is, this is what happens when you live in a place this long.  I’m just not sure what to do with that realization.

Maybe I’ll still leave one day, a part of me wants that more than anything.  But at the end of the day, every time I think about leaving, something keeps me here.  After years of believing those things are external, I am now realizing that I am the one keeping me here.  Something inside me doesn’t want to leave just yet, because really, I’m the kind of person that if I really did want to leave, I would.  Even though I’ll never truly FEEL like a Californian (I walk and talk way too fast for that), I’m here.  An east coaster at heart but a Californian by choice.

One foot in a fairy tale and one foot in the abyss…

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It’s strange how at-home one can feel on a giant slab of granite.  Lake Aloha’s shoreline closely resembles the face of Mars, puckered with crushed rock and a shallow lake filled with tiny desert islands.  I never thought I could think something so barren was so beautiful, but the quiet, harsh landscape of Desolation Wilderness’ Crystal Range redefines natural beauty.  She’s striking, and when the sun sets upon the peaks, the solitude and remoteness of where you are starts seeping into your bones.  The wind howls and threatens to blow your silly little tent away and you start to wonder how you came upon this rocky shore, surrounded by jagged mountains, circling you, half protecting you from the vast wilderness beyond and half looming over you like cranky giants waiting to humble you and any thought you had about how tough you might be.  And somehow, this is beginning to feel like home.

Last year, I visited Desolation twice and completely fell in love with her cold shoulders and exposed lines, and rocky face.  There were times when I felt my boundaries were pushed so outside my comfort zone that I had no choice than to adapt, to delve further into the wilderness, and eventually embrace the adventure around me.  I couldn’t imagine my first two trips any other way.  The last time in particular, exposed all my vulnerabilities but left me wanting more.  I wanted to feel the contrast of the burning sun and the icy gusts that would come off the snow covered mountainsides.  I wanted to look down below my feet and feel my stomach drop with the thought that I was hundreds of feet from the next ledge.  I wanted to use my body, my muscles, my skills again to climb higher and see from these great heights the tiny starting points of the journey, to see how far I’ve come.  Literally.  Figuratively.  So I started planning my return to these rocks.

With race plans put on hold until fall, I found myself happy and healthy and with a little bit of time on my hands.  Perfect conditions for adventuring!  When I learned that Chris hadn’t been to Yosemite or Desolation, I decided that we were motivated enough to make an impromptu three day weekend tour of a few of my favorite places.

We started off in Yosemite and did a nice mellow run through Lyell Canyon before camping with friends in Tuolome Meadows.  We drove through the park, getting fleeting glimpses of the iconic formations from a million vistas on Tioga Road.  It was a brief trip, but hopefully just enough to make you want to come back over and over again.  One of the highlights of my trip, aside from the company and amazing camp side dinner prepared for us by our friends was seeing Tenaya Canyon from the overlook.  It reminded me that about a year ago, I told myself that one day I wanted to attempt the infamous and dangerous Tenaya Descent.  I read this article about a father and son who had a near death experience during their attempt a few years ago and a quote really stuck with me–something about how things on your bucket list should be things you want to do before you die, not necessarily things that can easily kill you.  But a quick glance over mine pretty much represent the latter.  Oops. Tenaya is a gnarly descent through the canyon, streams that can drown you, rocks that can fall on you, boulders that you can slip down hundreds of feet to your death.  Only the most capable teams can do it all in daylight, so for most, it also includes toting supplies for overnight survival or at least getting through the trip after dark.  So many accidents happen in the canyon, a disproportionate amount of deaths and many believe in the curse that Chief Tenaya placed on the canyon long ago.  Looking at the canyon from Tioga, it’s so vast, so beautiful, so brutal.  Paulo Coehlo at one point wrote something like that we all have one foot in a fairy tale and one foot in the abyss.  It’s most evident when I’m standing, looking down into the oblivion and thinking, I would like to be there.

It’s how I feel when I spend time in Desolation.  Feeling the environment dwarf me over and over again is addicting.  So after Yosemite, we headed into the wilderness. Our first day there was spent grabbing our permits, repacking our bags and trying our best to keep our carry weight down.  It was probably the least amount of food I have ever brought with me backpacking, mostly because every time I go, I always think, why am I carrying half this stuff back with me, unused.  So I went bare bones and used nearly everything I packed.  We even left the emergency bivvy in the car, promising each other we wouldn’t need it.

Weather was perfect, a tad on the warm side and the sun beat down on us as we started up the hard climb up the shoulder of Ralston.  It’s always a much longer climb than it looks on the map, and difficult.  The last time I was up here, the trails were difficult to follow once you encountered snow and water flowing down from the summit, but this time, it was bone dry and the trails were clear as day.  We made quick work down to Lake of the Woods and up a brutal kicker up to the PCT and Lake Aloha.  We found a great campsite towards the top end of the Lake.  The lake level was so low right now that you could almost feel like you could reach out and touch the islands that dot the water, giving it it’s distinctive character.  Chris and I decided together that heading up to the Crystal Range the next day was probably more than we could bite off in one day if we wanted to hike our packs out and be back at the car before dark.  I felt confident in my navigation skills to make it up to Price and follow the ridge over to the others in the range, but I had no idea whether the complete lack of snow would make it harder or easier, faster or slower, so we opted for a more certain option heading up Tallac.  Tallac has a definite trail that leads to the summit and is very difficult to get lost, so we decided to wake up with the sun and enjoy some Tahoe vistas instead.

The next day, heading up Tallac was difficult but not too taxing, and it was beautiful, and the right call given what we had to look forward to later in the day.  The hike back our from Aloha to Ralston with our packs felt hard.  The weight, altitude, heat and hunger were starting to add up.  My pack started to feel impossibly heavy, even though it was much lighter than most I’ve carried on multi-day trips.  Luckily we made great time up the shoulder again and paused at the top to take in the view.  From the side of Ralston, you can see the entire Crystal Range, Lake Aloha and the entire path you took here laid out in front of you.  The unobstructed vista was one I have seen before, but each time you see it, experience it, it feels the same but different in some way.  Not just the view, which obviously was different without snow at your feet or on the mountaintops, but in the air and in your heart, each time you look out you feel the comfort of being there before but the excitement of seeing it again for the first time.  I will never get tired of experiencing that feeling.

A big part of me wished I had challenged myself more on the trip, since you don’t get that many opportunities to spend this much time out in nature.  It feels almost wasted to have your trip be so mundane.  But then you think about it more and realize, not only was it one of the most enjoyable trips out to the mountains, but with each visit, it feels more and more like home.  Soon, the hard stuff will feel second nature.  The barren landscape is already starting to feel more like a fairy tale and less like the abyss, but I welcome a time when I can look over the edge into the oblivion and feel that I could only fly, not fall, succeed, not fail.  I’m getting there.  Maybe I’m there already.

So this is what 10,000 thirsty people look like: Volunteering at the SF Marathon

Over 6,000 people finished the SF Marathon this past Sunday.  I don’t know how many people started (and didn’t finish) and how many people ran the first half of the marathon as part of SFM’s first half/second half marathon option, but they all came at me and my 29 other volunteers with the fury of a wild stampede and nearly bulldozed us to the ground for four long hours.  I’m not exaggerating when I say this was probably the roughest volunteer experience I’ve ever had and the only one that I will probably never do again.  That’s not to say that there weren’t great moments and positive take-aways from this experience, but just like how I feel about Tough Mudder, I’m glad I did it, I’m glad it’s over, and I’m glad I won’t have to do it again.

I’ve run the first half of the SF Marathon twice and the full once.  I have nothing bad to say about my experience as a runner.  But my experience on the other side of the water table went a little bit differently.  The BayBirds and SFRC Racing Team were sponsoring the Vista Point Aid Station, which is the water/gu stop on the Marin side of the Golden Gate Bridge before the first half runners and the full marathoners turn around, head back over the bridge towards the city and make their way to Golden Gate Park.  As a runner I remember the welcoming cool breeze and light mist that hits your face as you cross the bridge.  I remember giving and receiving high fives as we crossed paths with the elites headed back on the bridge as I was heading out.  I remember I was still feeling good, only 7 miles in, each year I ran it.  And I remember that aid station, just a blip on the radar, I forget if I even stopped or just ran around the traffic circle and headed back into the city (repeating the mantra, only a 10k to go, in the years I was doing the half).

The very first obstacle I faced happened weeks before the race.  I somehow got roped into captaining that aid station and recruiting volunteers.  I was told I would need at least 25.  That sounded like a lot, given that my only volunteer experiences have come from ultras where the race numbers are a lot smaller, and the tasks, while more complex, are also more manageable.  But I knew we had PLENTY of people on the racing team, and I felt, truly felt, that people would feel the same way I did about giving back to the community and sacrificing their Saturday morning for this task.  I was so remarkably wrong.  I had trouble even getting 10 people to commit at first.  Eventually that number got to 15 and plateaued.  Many of the team was actually racing, so they get a pass.  As for the rest, I assume it was the early start time (4:30am) that deterred most people.  It was a huge bummer because many of those people who didn’t even bother responding to my plea for help have run the SF Marathon before, and are regular road races and I almost never see them at the other end of the water table, getting splashed with half empty cups of electrolyte.  Many only seem to appear at races when they have a bib on.  It’s just not how I was brought up, as a runner.  And so I had assumed that they would consider volunteering and supporting members of their racing team to be more important than sleeping in.  I was wrong.  I made another plea, and another, even asked people to bring loved ones with them.  I asked people outside of the racing team, my own friends.  And I actually got a really good response.  We were up to about 25 people and I felt confident that everyone would show.  At least we hit the minimum, everything else was going to be gravy.  This happened two days before the marathon, so I was a little bit stressed at that point.

My second obstacle was basically having an extremely stressful and busy week coincide with the marathon.  My week wasn’t going well (and got worse after the marathon with a flat tire/towing situation).  My mother was retiring out here from Maryland and was on her way, driving that weekend.  I had been spending all my free time looking up housing for her and helping her with the transition here in the Bay Area since she couldn’t do a lot of things remotely.  It was like watching a hurricane cross the Atlantic.  She was making slow progress but sure enough, going to make landfall just a couple days after the marathon weekend.  I know she doesn’t look like much making that passage, but I knew she would land and be a powerful force to deal with once she got here.  Also, this week/weekend is one of the busiest at work.  San Francisco Running Company is the hub of trail running in the Bay Area, but most of us also occasionally road race and SFM is our hometown marathon and we love to be a part of it.  This required us to be spread thin with some employees at the expo on Friday and Saturday and some of us at the store.  It turns out, this wasn’t as stressful as it felt last year, but it definitely guaranteed some long days.  I also work at a ski shop over the winters, handling their marketing and events.  We just had a long (5 hour) meeting about planning for the year, which added more to my already packed calendar for the week.  Additionally, my boyfriend was out of town in Bend that weekend, so any additional emotional support was about 500 miles away.  I was still sort of recovering from the 100K I ran a couple weeks prior so I was Ms. GrumpyPants since I wasn’t back into training/running mode.  I’m sure I was a pleasure to be around that week and the next.

My third obstacle happened the day before the race.  I took a look at the instructions and it said we needed 40 people to be at the aid station.  I started freaking out and asking people to keep recruiting.  I’m glad I did, and I’m glad my friend Chris was in town from DC to also lend a hand.  Little did I know at the time, but 40 would have been a good minimum number for what we were about to deal with and every single helping hand was a saving grace.  During this time, I also started to field logistical questions from the volunteers (seriously about 20 texts all related to how to get to the aid station, whether they would be able to run across since the bridge isn’t open, drive and park, ride their bike, leave early, come late….).  I know that each question was easy to answer, but getting them all within a 15 hour period of time was a little hectic.  I should have anticipated it and prepared more for it, but with everything going on that week, there just wasn’t time.

Ok, this brings us to the race.  Everything went smoothly that morning.  I couldn’t fall asleep the night before, so I only got about 2 hours of sleep, but luckily, my body is OK with that on those rare occasions so I got up with no problem and left on time.  I remembered everything from cowbells to my iPad so we could easily look at the instruction pamphlet, and a list of the volunteers names.  I even stopped at Whole Foods the day before and picked up snacks for the crew.  Everything was going great.  I parked and everything was easy to find.  Then it started. I arrived around 4:15 and walked over to where the aid station would be.  The truck with the supplies was just pulling in and nothing was unloaded yet.  It was so dark, I could barely see who I was talking to, but these two guys were near the truck so I introduced myself and asked them if they were here to unload.  They said they would get to it.  I decided that I couldn’t do much until they brought the supplies out, so I waited and welcomed each of the volunteers that came and told them to sit tight for a second. It was now 4:45 and some of the tables were getting unloaded.  We quickly set them up and then had to wait another 15 minutes for them to unload more of the heavy stuff.  We knew we had to mix Nuun and wanted to get a jump on it so we would have it ready when the first runners came through.  We were told however that the water was in the back of the truck and would be the last to get unloaded.

Creeping up to  the 5am mark, I started getting nervous as the pallets of water were still not unloaded and unpackaged.  The wind was picking up and we quickly found out that we couldn’t even set up the paper cups until we had water to weigh them down. Meanwhile over on the other end of the aid station was the GU set up.  This was unfortunate.  They had boxes of GU Chomps, not actual Gu Gels.  We had to start tearing them open for runners ahead of time and quickly realized we probably needed more than just 5 people over on that side, but I really couldn’t spare any from the water side, so I told the GU peeps to just do the best they can.

Over on the water side, at 5:30, we were finally pouring water and mixing Nuun.  The runners were already on course and they were saying it was going to be 6:07 for the first runner.  We poured cups until the tables were full.  We then had the option to use the suggested method of stacking cups using cardboard separators.  We tried this once and the wind lifted the separator from the bottom causing every cup on the top layer and many on the bottom layer to spill over and blow away.  So much for that.  Looks like we would just have to stay on top of it.

The first runners came through just a few minutes behind schedule and were welcomed with cowbells and cheers from our crew.  My coworker and friend Jorge Maravilla was leading the pack, sporting his trademark smile as he ran through.  The first three sped through, followed by another pack of five or six, then another pack of three.  They were all just seconds apart at this point in the race.  Then it started.  Not a pack, but a STREAM of sub-elites and elite women came through.  Then a flood of speedsters, all extremely diligent to grab hydration.  We were cautiously optimistic that this wouldn’t be so bad.  Then the middle pack started coming through and it was like getting hit with a freight train.  The Nuun table was so overloaded with runners, sometimes grabbing three or four at a time, we were unable to keep up with the sea of racers.  We quickly had to mix more Nuun on the spot since the marathon only gave us three of those big containers to use, which shorthanded us on the pouring end.  The water table was only slightly better just because they had more people and more cups laid out to begin with.

Over on the GU end, they were dealing with another sort of problem–people wanted gels, duh.  And no one could open the Chomps.  So as a result, we got packets of unopened chomps thrown back at us and littering the entire aid station.  Many needed us at the water stop to open them for them, taking time away from pouring and mixing.  I can’t even describe the overwhelming feeling I felt for the entire four hours.  Many of the runners were rude, or completely out of it and not able to hear us when we were answering their questions because they had earphones in.  Some thanked us, many more did not, it was probably a 1:50 ratio of thank you’s to not.  And even worse, many just barked orders at us or otherwise acted disrespectful to the volunteers and other runners.  The entire experience made me lose faith in the race itself and in road racers in general.

We were told that there was a soft closing time of 8:30.  Runners were still constantly coming through around that time, so we stayed operational even though many of the volunteers had to leave.  The last runners came through after 9, leaving us with half the volunteers and a massive break-down and cleanup operation.  We made quick work of it though.  Since many of us are trail runners and nature lovers, we took care to pick up even bits of wrappers and cups from bushes far away from the aid station, where the wind had blown them.  I’m pretty sure Vista Point looked better after the race than before. I was exhausted and disheartened by the experience.  My hands were completely raw from pouring salty electrolyte drink all day.  I had cuts on my fingers from tearing open Gu Chomp packets.  My legs were sore and I was permanently frozen from standing out at the point for over 5 hours.  My volunteers were all troopers though.  Some of them even said that they had fun.  I don’t think any of them were at the Nuun table with me.  I’m pretty sure we were all traumatized by the experience.  I was jumping back and forth between stations and it was clear the electrolyte table got hit the hardest during the race and a special thanks goes out to all my fellow Nuun pourers, including two completely random people who stopped to pitch in once they saw how over our heads we were, and one random dude who I signed a volunteer hour sheet for but have no idea who he was.  Really, thank you to everyone though.  Those few of you who stayed late to help with trash and label the recycling bags and repackage the water jugs into crates, you all saved the day.

To the marathon: get your act together.  I know so many people now that work for the marathon and are completely competent and dedicated people, I know for sure this was not on them and really on any one person at all.  But seriously.  From the runners perspective, I know of quite a few who were misdirected and got off course.  This should not happen at a major marathon.  Period.  From the volunteers perspective, it was completely unacceptable to require us to be there that early when the trucks didn’t even arrive when they were supposed to so we could actually be of use.  I understand there was some problem getting the trucks over in the morning because of the escort not being available, but that just shifts the blame from the drivers to the race organization itself.  The cones and timing mats were barely set up on time and things seemed super hectic right up until race time.  For the amount of money SFM makes off this race, I would highly recommend them putting more resources into it.  Also, people need gels.  Because I work in the running industry, I know exactly why chomps were given.  GU (the company) recently changed their formulation and packaging on their chomps (now called chews).  Looks like they had a lot of back stock of the old stuff since that’s what was given at the race.  Not sure if that’s on SFM or GU, but it was a cheap move.  Gels should have also been available for runners.

To the runners: Be nice, be thankful and be courteous and respectful.  If you are an elite, we recognize that.  We offer you a cup, but totally understand if you can’t stop to take it or get pissed at us because we barely filled it.  If you are in the middle of the pack, in the sea of runners, we totally understand if you are frustrated that you have to fight through a crowd to get a cup of Nuun.  But also realize that no one paid us to be out there.  We are volunteers, serving you.  And it’s hard on us too.  Weirdly enough, the elite and lead runners, as fast as they were, were the most respectful and kind.  I don’t know how easy it is to say thank you at a 5:15 min/mile pace, but  many of them did.  And many of them were in good spirits even though they were extremely focused and working very hard.  I hate to say it but the bulk of the rudeness came from those marathoners who would finish after 4 hours.  Many of them were going slowly, but came to the aid station in a flurry, pushed others out of the way to get to the cups and ordered us around.  Many of them were walking out of the aid station and would pass by a trash can, walking, and opt to throw the cups on the ground.  It’s behavior that I can’t understand.  To those of you who did say thank you and were respectful to your fellow racers, thank you.  Congrats to Jorge, Coach Mark, TR, Devon, Ashley, Brook, Chris S., Sarah E., Alex H, Josh and anyone from the team that I’m missing that ran and got to enjoy more of this beautiful city we live in.

To my volunteers: wow.  You all did so well given the circumstances and I only wish I could have given you a better experience.  I can’t thank you all enough.  We all would have loved to be on a run ourselves or just gotten a decent night’s sleep but did this instead and you all earned yourself running karma that morning.  Ksenya did bike marshaling for the marathon overnight before volunteering.  Sarah Bin was 9 months pregnant and volunteered, offering to get out on the front lines of handing cups out, getting splashed like front row at Sea World.  Sarah Evans ran the 5k after volunteering.  My friend Chris came all the way form DC for work and to support his friends and ended up working the entire time and not even seeing the people he was there to support.  Stephen and I both went to work after volunteering for a full day at SFRC.  Andrew, Alywin, Masha, Rick, Rachel and Francois stayed super late helping cleaning up and breaking down the aid station with me.  Serious kudos to everyone, too many to mention.  It was a wonderful experience only because I got to support some friends who were racing and because I got to see what a small but powerful community can do when it comes together.  Our racing team should be (and hopefully is) much more than just pinning on a bib.  It’s about supporting each other.

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Leaders coming through the mist. Hip hip, Jorge!

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My first SF Half Marathon and my first SFM full (and my first official race as a BayBird).

QOM is rookie league. If you really want my respect, you’ll have the title “Queen of Pain”

I read Rebecca Rusch’s book a while ago called “Rusch to Glory”.  I knew of her and little about her accomplishments, but it wasn’t until I read the book that I found this newfound respect for a different breed of endurance athlete.  She’s not just a badass mountain biker, she’s a world class paddler and rafter, a big wall climber, and all around amazing athlete.  She’s not just the Queen of the Mountain, she’s the Queen of Pain.  She can grit through situations that would break most people and that’s something I respect far more than actual accolade.  I respect the ability to succeed but I respect it more when it is connected to the ability to suffer.  And not just the typical suffering that a road cyclist has during a century race, and not just the suffering that a triathlete has at the tail end of an ironman.  I mean the kind of suffering where you feel like you’re playing with the edge of the universe.  Where the weather, the world, your body, the elements and the challenge are all beating down on you with the fury of a lifetime of track meets and thru hikes.  Where your hair hurts, your eyes want to close and you want to sleep, but instead, you dig deep and perform instead.  Grit, to me, is true greatness.  Toughness is not something easily taught.  I believe it’s something inside of you–the ability to not crumble like the weight of the world is coming down on you, when the weight of the world is actually coming down on you.  Yes, there is a way to gain toughness, but it has to come from within.  I know some pretty amazing athletes who aren’t mentally strong.  Maybe they’ll get there, or maybe they’ll never have to in order to succeed doing what they want to do.  For me, a challenge isn’t a true challenge unless it’s testing both my physical and my mental strength.  I want to put myself into situations that test my ability to stay mentally strong.  Because just like any muscle, you have to keep it active if you want it to be there for you when it counts.