Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Off to Missourah

Ozarks in the Fall.  Home Sweet Home.
(OT100 Facebook Page)
The simple fact that I will be running 100 miles on Saturday (103 proper) has finally settled into my brain, so I reasoned it was time to gather a few thoughts before I take off.  If for nothing more than to laugh at when things inevitably stray from the plan.  Because they always do.

The poison of choice will be the Ozark Trail 100 in Southeast Missouri, and it's no secret this will not be my first drink.  Said elixir just about killed me back in 2010, when the weather took a turn as the sun went down and hypothermia set in.  It was my first ever DNF and to be honest, it took a long time for me to get over it.  Here's what I had to say about it, via the race report I could never bring myself to finish:

If a race actually brought me to my knees and would not allow me to finish, you know it was hard.  Shit, I was 100% positive getting up and turning around to walk back to the aid station was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my whole life.  Unfortunately, ending the race did not end my fiercest challenge. Instead, it was only the beginning of the true toughest test of  my life: learning to accept my human limitations, and becoming open to seeing the outcome as anything but a failure.

Jeeeeze.  Bring on the dramatics.  For real though, I say that now - after I've DNF'd two additional races (both 50ks at the first aid station, by the way) and have generally settled the f*** down with regards to my competitive drive and need to control everything, but I assure that it was all quite horrible when it happened.  Listen to me, all acting like two years has garnered me a decade of experience and wisdom, but honestly it does kind of feel that way.  

The things I've learned are not only tangible and tactical, such as switching my headlamp batteries in the middle of the night, relying on liquid calories and aid station food in the cold when my gel freezes and packing every warm piece of everything I own in my Hwy DD drop bag.*  But I've also I would say earned, rather than learned, some serious peace of mind with regards to getting through a 100 mile race.  For starters, I ran Angeles Crest with spikes jabbing my patellar tendon the whole way and pain that had me gasping for breath - and I finished.  If I can run through that, I can pretty much run through anything.  At Western States this year, I discovered that running a little bit harder in the last 20 miles is really no different than just trying to move forward at all, at any rate, so I might as well keep pushing the pace.  
*That's the place where shit got real last time.  I had to go over 9 miles through waist high stream crossings to the next crew point in shorts and a long-sleeve t-shirt.  It was 17 degrees in the hollows.  It was not good.

Getting even deeper still, I've learned to place my self assessments not in relation to other people but rather in relation to myself.  By no surprise, this keeps me in a much better mental state throughout the ordeal, as well as prevents me from doing something truly stupid.  Or in other cases, not pushing where I know I can.  I remember last time I ran the race, a gentleman scoffed and scolded me for running all the uphills.  Accordingly, I started hiking - now just barely hanging onto a 24-hr pace.  I realized much later that it had been wholly stupid not to run while I could, and given that the course was covered in hidden land-mine rocks - that would've been the uphills, followed by weird, hoppy dance-like maneuvers on the downs.  I run in the San Gabriels and Eastern Sierras for chrissakes.  Two of the steepest ranges in North America.  Of course I can run up the hills.
Them thar hills
Shall we peel another layer?  So the other thing I've got going for me is that I am in a largely better place in life, generally speaking.  Two years ago was basically a bunch of turmoil with work, finances and relationships - all things I was fighting to fix, all of which was absorbing every ounce of my energy and patience.  I had thought a 100 mile run through the woods would be just what I needed to clear my head, but as it turns out, it only added another layer to the problem.  The whole, "Why am I not good enough for ANYTHING?!" game crept in something fierce and was compounded as I lie on my back in the leaves somewhere around mile 70, officially unable to move.  

BUT, my dad scooped me up and all but carried me back to the nearest aid station.  I eventually warmed up, got some rest and survived.  And lo and behold, over the next few months, pretty much everything started to get better.  In fact, the last year of my life has truly been one of the best ever - not for any specific monumental event - but rather simply the comfort and trust I have felt in EVERYTHING.   Some things have worked out, some have not, and some I have been wholly indifferent to - but through it all, life has just flowed right along, and I've been happy for would I estimate to be 98.2% of it.  If I can extend that ratio to the race on Saturday, I should be in damn fine place.

Now, as for the less ethereal, feel-goody aspects of my preparedness for this race… I'm going to be honest.  Shit hasn't been ideal.  What I mean by this is that my plan when registering was that I'd recover from Western States and then start hitting it hard mid-July, building on the supreme shape I felt I was in and my best 100 to date.  This was all going well through a great week in Silverton for Hardrock, and then my world came crashing down.  I ended up really sick and exhausted for the better part of two months - only finally starting to get things rolling in September.  This was all likely related to a kidney infection and some antibiotics that seriously f'd up my system, but more on that in a later post.

Here's the thing though - while it was hard being a bit slower and doing a little less mileage at first, at some point between now and then, I suddenly realized how awesome and strong I felt.  I was running faster and higher; I completed some extremely long and challenging days; I re-graduated to the heavier weights in my cross-training.  And best part?  I wasn't injured, overworked or tired.  I was on some sort of an upswing, if you will.

Recently, I sat down and crunched the numbers in my training log - you know, the numbers I would write down but refuse to add up, lest I dive headfirst into a horrible "why can't I run as much as I used to" depression.  To my surprise, they weren't too far off from what I consider one of my best months leading up to Western States.  Because I haven't been racing, I've been able to build up some real, quality miles and vert, and lo and behold - the training was actually there.  I'm still having a bit of trouble believing it was enough, but hell, that happens even when I'm hitting 100 mi+ weeks.  Which, btw, I did have one of those in there without even realizing it.

So I guess what I'm saying is that I feel good.  My body is rested and uninjured and my mind is finally up to the task of running for a day and night or so through the Mark Twain National Forest.  I valued rest and recovery almost even more than the training itself, and the result is a body that's truly chomping at the bit to get out there and tear into the trails.  On Saturday, I ran 11 miles up over 8,000 feet with a couple K of climb in there and felt like I was on a 5 mile stroll along the beach.  Last night, I felt electric as I ran a few "easy" miles around town, only to discover I'd been clipping off 6:30 miles.  I have so much energy in the evenings, it's hard to contain myself even with an addicting book*.  I do, however, still feel like I weigh 200 pounds - so I guess all signs point to taper in full effect.  Dom's probably been wise to leave me to my lonesome, but that will be inescapable when we meet at LAX tomorrow.  Praying for his sake the emotional warfare portion of the fun doesn't take hold between now and then.
(*"Wild" by Cheryl Strayed - def worth your time)

All this aside, arguably the best part about running the Ozark Trail 100 this Saturday is that I get to go HOME.  I get to hang out with my mom and dad, snuggle with the most awesome bulldog ever - Miss Stella, eat my grandma's pies, drink some Schafly Pumpkin Ale, get a way-better-than-LA haircut from Cherie, run through the crunch of a midwestern fall and bury myself in the most comfortable couch in all of the land when I'm done.  It will be glorious, and even better yet, I get to share it all with Dom!  He's never been back to Missouri with me and I'm so excited to show him all of the things I love about my hometown in my favorite season to spend there. You's in fo' some fun, California Boy!

Fit for crunching.
Missouri Hiking)
There is going to be some in-race tracking of sorts this year - though I wouldn't rely on that too much.  If you were wondering if we'll be in the freaking styx, the answer is yes.  No cell service, no towns, no nuthin'…. but trees, leaves, rocks, roots and hills.  All of which should add up to a good challenge of what they say is 15k of gain over a nasty surface that you can't see, due to all the leaves on the ground.  Yee-haw.  Thank goodness for my pops, who knows the area well thanks to camping, fishing and float trips and has a general sense of direction and timeliness which can be trusted.  Having him there to take care of my crew and ensure they survive in the wilderness (Joan) and get to where they need to be (Dom) is a giant relief.  Plus Mr. Mitch will be there for comic relief and Aunt Laura will be there for the much needed F bombs. Feral pigs, bald eagles and possible meth labs will add to the charm. It's going to be a backwoods party for the ages.

This is real, people.

Planning on tackling the thing in the New Balance 1010s (which come in a 2A!), which I think should be a good blend of providing a little bit of protection, while still being flexible and minimal enough to let me feel the trail and not crack an ankle.  Injinji Ex-Celerator socks should help keep me from tweaking my calves in the cold morning and I'll also be trying something new with nutrition.  I've been using GENR8 Vitargo and Nuun for the past month or so, and it's been a great departure from eating so many damn gels.  Of course, I've still got shit-tons of those as they are basically fool-proof for me, but I'm going to try and rely on liquid a bit more, given that it could be very cold and also fumbling with gel packets on super technical terrain = disaster.

Weather could be anything from hot and humid to thunderstorms to freezing temps - though it's looking like the cloud cover could keep things from getting too unbearable.  Either way, I've got Goretex and Primaloft coming out my ears as well as the recent experience of running 40 miles in the hail, rain and wind of the 2012 Western States Apocalypse… all in a 3 oz. Minimus jacket.  So I think what I'm trying to say is I'm pretty much good.

Final thing (lay off me - I'm tapering and disjointed):  technically the farthest I've run is 101.5 miles  - never 103, so I'm looking forward to a new PR regardless.  

Oh, one more thing:

Happy Halloween.  I'm a panda.

OK seriously - bye.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Earned Confidence

I love the mountains.  In particular, I love high, steep backcountry - lungs burning, legs screaming, weather a brewin', rocks flying - that's the shit I live for.   Key emphasis on the word, "live."  This is decidedly why I am paralyzingly afraid of/have no interest in the sport of climbing.  Videos of Alex Honnold legitimately make my pee pee hurt.  Mad respect, but no thank you.

So, as you can imagine, when Dom suggested we take the Mountaineer's Route up Whitney yesterday, I naturally jumped right in.  

I had read about the route, but Class 3… Class 4… blah, blah, blah.  It's all just words until I really get out there and understand what it means on my own terms.  The internet is awesome for information, but I also understand how it fulfills the human need to over dramatize and aggrandize pretty much everything, including mountains.  Especially mountains.  I figured it was high time for me to get out there and make a decision about the relative difficulty and danger for myself.  If I got too uncomfortable, I would simply turn around.  Simple as that.

Interestingly enough, through narrow, exposed traverses, hands and knees climbing, steep, slick slabs, boulder fields and scree scrambles, snow and ice - I never did turn around.  A few times I got a little wiggy - but I simply took a deep breath, made a calculated choice and moved forward.  Confidently.  And as I learned throughout the day, that's really what it's all about.

Class 3, on my terms, now means this:  Don't be an idiot.  But also, don't slip.  So in my book, Class 3 is something that definitely puts me a bit out of my comfort zone, but that I am 100% confident in handling.  In the light.  In the summer/early fall.  Solo, but preferably with a friend.

9800' up, but it's all in the 6" between
your ears.
On Sunday morning, I had to negotiate the Ebersbacher Ledges alone.  I was comfortably uncomfortable, if that makes any sense at all.  What I mean is this:  the narrowness and sheer drops were just heady enough to make me slow down, pay attention and take careful steps.  Doing so, I realized I was in no real danger whatsoever and this gave me the confidence to proceed.  I recalled a conversation I had with Joe Grant at Hardrock this year concerning these photos taken on Kiener's Route up Long's Peak in CO (a route I almost accidentally took last June before being discouraged by some climbers around Chasm Lake).  He explained that there was, in fact, adequate room to cross without roping into the wall - you just had to take careful steps.  Those photos scared me almost as much as the Honnold videos and I took no comfort in Joe's explanation, as it was something I did not yet understand.  After crossing the Ebersbachers, I think that maybe now I do.  And as silly as it may sound, I'm actually really proud of myself for approaching this fear with a logical head and fully and wholly conquering it.  Just as with anything in life, I cannot be convinced of anything.  I must experience, embrace and decide for myself.  F you Internet.

Though I considered turning around, in anticipation of how much worse the route might get - I pressed on to Lower Boyscout Lake, at least wanting to get the view of the peaks.  To my delight, I found Dom there waiting for me, having decided we would continue together.  I felt the apprehension melt away as we picked our way up snow covered rocks and pushed over step slabs of slick granite.  The views were sensational and I was immediately glad I'd chosen to step out of my comfortable world of established trails meant for "soft, succulent people" and into this new universe afforded me by "well-seasoned limbs."  That's a Muir reference, look it up.

View from Lower Boyscout Lake.  Slabs to the left, Keeler Needles and Whitney peeking out right of center.

Dom and I had been warned that a summit might not be possible/safe without winter climbing gear, due to some ice in the chute, and as we approached Iceberg Lake, 'twas confirmed.  Two groups had abandoned attempts even WITH the proper gear, and as such, I had already decided I would not be pushing to the summit.  If Dom had his mind set to it, I would wait at the lake for him to watch and confirm his safety, but seeing how late it was getting/the first clouds of the predicted storm now on the horizon, he decided to leave it for another day as well.  

Route to the summit is Class 3 up the chute to the right to the notch.  Then a bit of Class 3-4 to the top.
We quick-footed our way down the talus and slabs - Dom forging his own line, and me carefully picking out cairns - as the late afternoon glow filled the valley.  We got off route more than a few times, eventually finding our way with only a few obstacles.  Exhibit A was some wet granite on a steep slope - but moving quickly had me across easily.  Exhibit B was some snow packed down to ice on a rocky section of trail/boulder downclimbing - but carefully choosing each step had me down without a problem.  Exhibit C was the worst - momentarily taking the wrong way down the Ebersbachers - but a quick look around found a cairn, a route, and just like that - the worst was over.  

Talus stompin'

Heading down the slabs - Lower Boyscout basking in the Sierra glow
As the route spilled out onto the "succulent" main trail, Dom opened his legs and sped off.  I hung back, casually running down a wide, soft span of carpet and finally allowing my mind to relax.  I was proud of what I'd overcome and accomplished for the day, but I couldn't help but wonder:  What if we'd tried to ascend the chute and gotten stuck?  What if the storm had blown in and covered the granite in water?  Or worse, what if it had frozen?  Oh god…. what if there had been ICE on the Ebersbachers?  What if when Dom had jumped down a ledge, he'd been unable to climb back over to the correct route?  

And then I realized - none of these things had happened, because we paid attention to our surroundings, the time of day, the weather and stayed true to our respective abilities.  Just as I always do in the mountains.  Nothing is ever entirely predictable, but being wholly in tune with one's surroundings, and more, fully understanding the possible implications of one small shift in time, weather, etc. makes all the difference.  And those implications are very specific to each individual.  While Dom may have been able to go further and still get down before dark or climb back up the ledge, I would not have - which is why I made my own decisions up there.  Though we made and often make different choices, we're both always safe.  I'm learning to trust that more and more.  And maybe, just maybe, I can learn to trust that while Alex Honnold's choices are pretty much the exact opposite of mine, maybe he's safe too.*

(*Side Note:  Earlier this year, I struck up an aid station conversation with a guy out crewing his girlfriend, myself crewing Dom. He said we were all "crazy" for running this far. Only after the race did Dom inform me that the Alex i was talking to was the Alex that made stomach turn one YouTube video at a time.  Super nice guy -but I made sure to tell him he incited a fear in me greater than Satan himself.)

For me, for now, I am confident in my feet and I am confident in my hands.  If I can have one of these two things firmly planted, I am ready to party - no matter what (or what's not) going on around me.  The minute I have to trust a rope, an axe or any other object to function properly is the minute I lose that confidence.  Bungee jumping, legitimate rock climbing even mountain biking… not for me.    As Dom pointed out, I even have a problem trusting a car sometimes, because well, it's not my hands physically cranking the engine or physically grasping the brakes.  I was honestly more comfortable hanging from a tree wedged in a crack on a sheer face of granite than I was driving down the 5.  That said, just as I've learned to accept my Jeep's ability to get me from Lone Pine to Los Angeles without a hitch and trust that the risk of a crash, engine problem or fat tire is worth the reward of getting me to the most glorious range of mountains I know; so might I someday learn to trust a rope and caribiner to get me to a peak I could otherwise not reach.  But that trust has to be learned and earned.  Without it, even the best gear or most powerful machine is utterly worthless.  And so I move forward, step by baby Class 3 step.

Did I mention how fabulous the Sierras are right now?


Now, I realize having said all this, there are undoubtedly two camps on either side of my Sunday Adventure.  There's the "Seriously? Whitney Mountaineer's Route is a joke and I can't believe she's making this big of a deal about it" group.  This would likely include the majority of the Sierra climbers and many runners I know, probably even Dom.  This definitely includes the old man at the portals who told us about running straight up the slabs and taking his son out there for a summit in the dark… without lamps.  These are the folks that I feel downright silly around sometimes.  I call myself a lover of mountains, but I'm admittedly too afraid to experience the same "edge."

Ha!  But then there's also the, "Seriously?  Get the fuck down from there right fucking now" folks.  (Hi Mom and everyone I work with.)  These people can't believe I would go running all day in the mountains alone.  They cringe when they hear stories of getting stuck out in the dark with no light.  Many believe I'm taking unnecessary risks, though in the aforementioned examples and many more of being temporarily lost, dehydrated, sick or facing extreme heat or cold; I can honestly say I've been fully confident in my abilities and never truly feared for my life.  

All day solo affair up and down Shepherd's Pass - 10/20
Feet happily on the ground.
Again, it all comes back to that theory of relative safety and only knowing what is possible by self-discovery.  If we make choices based on those principles, combined with a true understanding of our environment - no one else can judge.  If we don't, well… there are the stories you hear of that create all the judgement in the first place.   

One of my favorite things to Google is "survival stories," although ironically, I often encounter the opposite of survival.  One subject that comes up more often than any other is Everest, and as no surprise, many of those tales don't end so well.  Recently, I was struck by one particular article which criticized certain adventure outfitters for making anything accessible if one has the time and money.  In my 29 years of life, I've undoubtedly learned that nothing creates a false sense of entitlement like money and power; and in no place is that more dangerous than a remote, high altitude peak, completely exposed to the elements.  No amount of money can create an understanding of a wind shift, the strength to continue another 20 miles with no food or water or the skill to route find in zero visibility.  These and more necessary SURVIVAL skills can only be garnered through hard work and experience - which leads to confidence.  Entitlement is not confidence.  Know the difference.

I do.  And on any given day, on any given run - be it my hundred and somethingth loop of Mt. Wilson or trying a new, Class 2-3 route up a 14,000+ peak - I never, NEVER feel entitled to a summit.  In any given moment, I am taking stock of the terrain, the weather, the time, water sources, topo lines and often most importantly, the other people I am with or meeting. (i.e. Dom).  At what point past dark will he call a ranger or come looking for me, potentially putting himself in danger… I do know that answer.

So I guess my whole point is that no matter which camp you are in, I am not afraid to tell you that I am fully proud of and confident in what I did yesterday.  I learned a lot about my abilities, knowledge and decision making skills in the wilderness, and experienced the rewards of my fitness, strength and abilities.  All the while, I was acutely aware of my personal limitations, relative to me and me alone, and therefore stayed 100% SAFE the entire way up and down.  It was extremely fulfilling and entirely beautiful.  

I can pretty much guarantee taking this route many times in the future, and I look forward to it.  And as my skills and abilities progress, I can't wait to see what other "hell fucking no's" become "seems reasonable's."  In the mountains and in myself, it can all be summarized by one thing and one thing only:


A "seems reasonable" up icy Shepherd's Pass @ 12,000'

*I'd be an asshat not to mention the fact that a certain oft-bearded, always smiling man has an awful lot to do with encouraging my confidence and teaching me necessary skills required for safely enjoying the places I love most. Unicorn, you make my life better in so, SO many ways and I am forever grateful.