A passion for trail running, ultras, mountaineering, snowshoeing, hiking, and other outdoor adventures

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Wasn't Such a Bad Year After All

Sitting here drinking my morning coffee on the last day of the year--and of the decade, if you don't get too technical--and staring out at some light, beautiful snow that just started falling makes me reflect back on the year that has passed. If I compare 2009 to the goals I laid out a year ago, I'd have to be disappointed. But I guess I'd rather dwell on some of the positives I take out of the year.

You do enough "destination races" in beautiful places, you start to take them for granted. But I shouldn't, and can't let myself! I got to run some awesome trails this past year in the low desert of California and high desert of Arizona, the verdant mountains of Virginia and Washington State, the vast open spaces of Montana and Wyoming, and a bunch of great new places I hadn't yet run in my own backyard (the Shawangunks, Delaware Water Gap, Sterling Forest). Oh yeah, and that big glorious hole in the ground in Arizona they call the Grand Canyon! And there was that guided winter climb up Mt. Washington and that introduction to mountaineering through a training course last Feb. in New Hampshire. I have to feel so, so very fortunate to have had the resources, the time, and the good health to be able to make these trail sojourns. And oh yeah, the patience and indulgence of a partner in life who's willing to put up with my obsession with this stuff. These journeys are really like pilgrimages to the soul.

I guess beyond the race results, the PR's and DNF's and injuries and recoveries and all that humdrum stuff, it's really the particular feelings you've had in the course of your outdoors experiences that really stick with you. A few stand out from this past year. The incredible glow of the Cholla cactuses by the roadside and the stark beauty of the Joshua trees you encounter after an hour or so in the back country in Joshua Tree NP still linger fresh in my mind from last January. Another highlight was seeing the incredible panorama of the Grand Canyon at first light as you descend the South Kaibab Trail, the colors coming alive as the sun slowly sweeps across the canyon. And as far as moments within races themselves, I'd have to say that the raging streams, alpine meadows, and pine forests of Helena National Forest in Montana at HURL Elkhorn were all all pretty memorable. Like running through a postcard!

And then there are those moments in a race or training run when everything just "clicks" and you find a zone and are able to stay in and really push beyond what you thought you could do that particular day. Training, preparation, the weather, the course, everything just seems to converge. I had long strethces like this past year like that at both Calico 50K and Mountain Masochist 50m. Not coincidentally, those were my two PR's for the year. I wish I knew how you can just "turn it on," stay on and then exceed your race plan, surprise yourself with how hard you can push it while staying within yourself. Those moments are so elusive, but I feel like they're at least more reachable now for me in distances up to 50 miles. High time to see if I can conjure a little of that elusive magic at distances beyond that!
A nice little walk through the falling snow just gave me a chance to reflect on the lower points of 2009, and the lessons taught and hopefully soon to be learned! Three 100 mile DNF's and that pesky and mysterious knee injury in May are at the top of that particular list.

Not quite sure what it is with me and the 100 mile distance. It's easy to make excuses, and so much can (and will!) go wrong when you tackle that distance. If you let it.... And if you let the setbacks crescendo into crises and then into failures to complete the job at hand. Those awful spirals of negativity I can get into.

Bottom line, MMT I was fit enough but probably over-raced. Waiting list or not, shouldn't have done it with two fifty milers under my belt three and seven weeks out. And then shouldn't have let the wet conditions dampen my spirits and become some negative. With a better push through those sections with my pacer John, I could have made that cutoff at 66 or whatever, and gone on to fight further into the night, at the very least. Thinking that Tahoe Rim two months hence was going to be my "real 100" during that one was another big no-no...injury ended up keeping me out of Tahoe as it turned out, and so I didn't get the two birds in the bush or the bird in hand! If you're not fully physically and mentally committed to the very fiber of your being to finishing the race, things will go south in a 100 miler. That's a huge lesson I hope I can internalize!

Cascade Crest, after the injury layoff and such, I can chalk up to the combination of the stomach problems and not really being as fit as I needed to be to make that tight 32-hour cutoff. Just not enough quality training months after I got back to training maybe 7, 8 weeks out. So, be nicer to your stomach on the day before and race morning next time, Scott! And next time don't feel locked into a race just because you've registered for it months in advance, and even though you had to bag that same race two weeks before the last time ('07) because of an injury. It'll still be there! Just say no, and wait another month or two for another 100 and get fitter!

So that leaves Iroquois. Really should have finished that one. Three weeks after CC, so wasn't any fitter, but I knew the course, and had the mental advantage of having completed it already. I think in part I was too complacent about navigation based on that familiarity, however. Be very careful with nighttime navigation next time, and listen to your pacer (Jason) when he says he suspects you might be going in the wrong direction! Also, that "smart" plan of running the first half slower than the first year so you wouldn't wilt the second half as much probably wasn't so smart after all. It was a cooler first day this time, and with more "money in the bank" I could have ridden (rode?) out those huge time losses due to navigation errors and still gone on. And next time, don't assume you're out because you've missed the official aid station cutoff; tell the RD, whom you know in a small, informal race that's pretty flexib le, that you feel like you can go on and finish, and that you're only behind because of nav problems and are still feeling ok. Had you asked, maybe begged a little if necessary, I bet Ian would have let you go on. And you just might have made up that time. Truth is, I didn't have the courage, and felt mentally defeated by the combination of time loss and nighttime fatigue and didn't keep fighting when I needed to.

So, ultimately it comes down to a mental thing. I've got this big pyschological barrier about 100 miles going back to my first Bighorn DNF. "I'm not worthy of this distance! Stopping or getting cut off will feel so good!" But it doesn't! It sucks! You have to live with yourself, with the "could haves" and "should haves." And somehow the Iroquois finish last year didn't get it through my thick skull and thin skin that, yes, I can do it again, and need to be more of a fighter, need to maybe be a little more aggressive the first half and not cut myself such a small margin for error at night and in the second half. Damn it, this means SO much to you, you CAN do this!!!

So as I look into 2010, the major goal I have set for myself is to get that elusive first "western mountain 100 mile" finish. Where it all started, at Bighorn. That glorious Bighorn mountains backcountry with those tough, endless, breathless climbs. Then if I can do that (and I will!), hopefully maybe I can finish a second 100 around Sept. or so. Wasatch if I get in, or The Bear, or maybe something else.

What will it take to finish Bighorn? I've got to apply the lessons from the last few months and especially the time leading up to Mountain Masochist. Get fighter, faster, and lighter! Stick with the weekly speedwork, and get back into the second hard mid-week workout, like the medium-long "marathon training runs" or hill workouts in Palisades and Rockefeller that worked so well in October. Try to get the weekly mileage up to 80 or so for a couple months. Keep it up with the training diary you've gotten back into using (why did you ever stop?!). Be more systematic in planning the training calendar. Space out the races better, and make sure the last tune-up isn't too close to the big race. Experiment with the altitude simulator device you're planning to be. Find that perfect, elusive tune-up race for late April or early May. Keep the weight down!

I think if I do all those things, I can get to the starting line at Bighorn at maybe 150. Definitely no more than 155. And fitter than I've been for any 100. And race-tested and tuned-up but not over-raced. And make sure I have a strategy that gets me to Porcupine Ranger Station turnaround at mile 48 faster than last time.

That leaves the mental battle--the tough part! The rest is easy! I can make sure I do at least one overnighter in training, which should help. And hopefully this 100K next week helps build confidence beyond the 50 mile distance. But ultimately it will come down to how I can handle adversity when it comes, as it most certainly will. Can I muster enough belief in myself? Hopefully, good races at Bandera, Old Pueblo, and whatever I do in April/May will help keep the recent boost in confidence post-Iroquois going. Maybe try some visualization? What about a sport pscyhologist? A few sessions couldn't hurt, I guess....

Summing it all up, I'd say 2009 wasn't such a bad year after all. Didn't accomplish all I wanted, and the 100 mile DNF's were true setbacks. But I started and finished the year on high notes, and improved my speed, and think I've latched onto a few keys that can help me make a better effort in 100s. Improved confidence being at the top of the list. If you'd said a couple years ago, I'd finish 4 50 milers (getting my total up to 10) and 2 50K's in a year I would have said "I'd take that in a New York minute." The year ahead promises to be challenging, but most of all full of new adventures. Can't wait!

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