Thursday, February 3, 2011

Easy Like Sunday Morning

I only know one other man with a mustache that sweet.

Waking up sore and exhausted is tough. Waking up sore and exhausted with another long run in the big girl mountains* looming ahead is a bit daunting. Add some pouring rain and driving wind in there and you’ve got yourself a whole mess of “not gonna lie, I really don’t want to do this right now.”

*San Gabriels

Such was Sunday morning, as I awoke to all things comfortable: a warm, snuggly bed, cinnamon oatmeal, love, laughter and the freedom not to have to do anything. I had slept in until 7:45-ish after a night of hard sleep that could only be induced by the cumulative effects of hard training, and only disturbed by restless, twitching legs. But now I was awake, aware, and faced with that dilemma that ever so often creeps into the mind of a committed ultra endurance athlete – Technically, I don’t have to, but….

I looked out the window. I looked in the mirror. I could see the torment in my own eyes. I stalled with breakfast. I stalled with conversation. I stalled with every nonessential activity I could thing of. But there was an unspoken agreement. There was a common understanding.

Oh, we would be running today.

And so it would be, as we hit the highway in the Jeep and headed for the hills. It was an odd and somewhat ominous drive, as our typical loud singing, car dancing and blaring excitement for the day ahead was replaced with silence. I focused on the road and tried to convince myself that once I got going I’d feel better. And that another 4k or so of climbing wouldn’t really be that bad. And that I wanted to get out of the car and get started.

And so it was. We began climbing up Echo Mountain in the drizzling rain with the goal of getting some time in on rocky Sam Merrill, which represented miles 89-91 on the AC course. My body was tired and my legs were tight as I picked my way up the winding switchbacks, waiting for that a-ha moment where I warmed up and a little fire would light under my feet. However, as I reached the top of Echo 2.7 miles in, I was only more exhausted than when I had started. I began picking my way up Sam Merrill, but I could feel my form deteriorating and the full weight of my body with every step. Dom had doubled back to catch me, and I told him I was unsure how much farther I could go today. It wasn’t necessarily the number of miles, it was those which were vertical, and out here – vertical miles were inescapable. (Which is why we love it so.) I committed to running to the end of Sam, and then maybe I’d head back down if I couldn’t get it together. At this point, I had fallen UPHILL twice and I could just feel that I was running altogether ugly. 10-11 hard fought miles wouldn’t be a wash for the day and so I committed myself to knocking out these next two of climbing the best I could.

Sample of conditions on Echo Mountain Trail, as captured by Louis Kwan (who we ran into doing REPEATS up the thing - crazy man!)

Accordingly, I downed some calories and a Saltstick and focused on the task at hand. Get up this hill. One. Step. At. A. Time. As the trail wound upward, out of the exposed fire ravaged ridge and back under the cover of the forest, the grade became a great deal gentler and my feet began digging into the softened earth. I felt power in my stride and running became natural again. Mileage thoughts began to creep in – technically it doesn’t matter if I only run 11, but if I just go a mile and a half farther up, I can hit 14 to stick to the plan of 70 on the week. When I popped out at the intersection with Lowe Rd and Idlehour, I was all teeth... which were officially sunk into a day of training.

I decided that I would probably go another 15-20 min up on the fire road and then head back to the car. As we wound around the ridge it got colder and colder, so I ran harder and harder to keep warm. The fog, combined with the blackened hillside created some serious Tim Burton shit and I laughed at how happy I was in this completely uncomfortable and inhospitable environment. I was just so gosh darned excited that my run had turned around – that is what made me comfortable.

So, what I realized was happening now is that I didn’t want to turn around. I couldn’t remember exactly how much farther it was to the summit and I couldn’t see anything to make guesstimates, so I just kept at it. Keeping at it took me right to the top of the fire road, and even still, I didn’t want to go back. So I briefly explored a little single track before reasoning that I should go back down to the main road so as not to lose myself and add the aspects of worry and confusion to our already foreboding day. Before starting the decent, I decided to leave a little note in the mud, both for reassurance and smile purposes. Just as I was properly punctuating my greeting, I heard a voice behind me:

Hey, come up here. It’s snowing!

Sure enough, the rain was turning to snow right before our eyes. It was one of those moments where you couldn’t really do anything but just stand there, close your eyes and tilt your head to the sky, and smile. Magic.

The details of the descent were somewhat inconsequential, save my notations of how hard Sam would be after already having run 90 miles... of hellacious climbing... now in the dark. I opened my stride and pushed the pace in a few sections and relaxed into others, focusing more on form. I was running naturally. Comfortably.

As I wound down Echo mountain, I dipped out of the gray and became sandwiched between two cloud layers. The effect was pretty dazzling, as the sun stretched to highlight the trail and the weather swirled all about the mountain, above and below. As I ran the last few miles down to Pasadena, all I could think about was how completely and amazingly this day had turned around for me. Things didn’t just get better. They got awesome. I love surprises.

Down in the city, we capped off the run with some Mexican replenishment replete with a couple Negro Modelos and celebrated our bad day gone good. Looking back, it’s funny how our linner conversation echoed that same sentiment, on a much grander level. I’m talking about life, people. As we ate our delicious $15 meals in a warm restaurant, with gas in the car, rent paid, and nice gear on our backs, we discussed our gratitude for being able to finally live our lives more comfortably. Ahhhh, there’s that word again.

Less than a year ago, my life was much different. I was working tirelessly for a start-up that sucked the life out of me. I ate off $10 a week, never turned on my heat and sometimes had to literally run my errands because I couldn’t afford gas. I had to say no to social activities and scrape together enough cash to drive out to train, packing cheap food and sweating every quarter shelled out. I camped at races and shared meals when out with friends – always chosen by the largest number of calories per dollar and never by what looked good. It wasn’t terrible. But it was hard.

And now here I was, beginning to get a taste of the comfortable life America could afford you if you had the means to buy in. I could train the way I wanted. I could go to movies and concerts and dinners and drinks with my friends. I could buy presents for my loved ones and go on out-of-town visits. I could get nicer gear to keep me safe, warm and dry. I could eat. I could drink. I could be merry. And I was so very, very grateful.

Even still, how comfortable would I allow myself to be? Everything in my life – my apartment, my vehicle, my wardrobe – is built for function. And until now, that was always for necessity. Now, perhaps I could afford to begin acquiring nicer, more comfortable things – yet I have no desire. I think I’m afraid to lose that part of me that doesn’t need any excess, yet I am struggling with the pressure to create a more accommodating environment for the people in my life who perhaps do view these things as important. And not wrongfully so. I don’t blame anyone who would rather stretch out in a quiet Acura rather than bounce around in a Jeep with wet, muddy clothes permeating from the back. I myself occasionally enjoy curling up on a plush couch after dinner and surfing the channels, over spreading out on the floor and only being able to watch one of twelve DVDs on the TV I got for my tenth birthday. And I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t like to put on a pretty outfit, do my hair and makeup and hit the town.

Similarly, I wouldn’t blame anyone who would rather stay inside on a nasty day and be perfectly content with the fact they had already run 22.5 miles and climbed 4,000 feet the day before. But that’s where my path diverges.

Because when you don’t go out, you can miss the magic of rain turning to snow before your very eyes. You can miss the beauty of your body understanding the training and coming alive. You can miss the sheer joy of a few fleeting minutes flying down a single track that make the other four hours of grueling torture 100% worth it. You miss another opportunity to make yourself better. For me, the only way I can get to the things that make me truly unabashedly happy is by doing things that are hard. Things that “not gonna lie, I really don’t want to do right now."

Because the truth is, the only thing that makes me really, truly uncomfortable is getting too comfortable.

Saturday's training run on the Leona Divide Course, thanks to RD Keira Henninger. I swear there were other girls there too!

This song has been rocking my life as of late, and applies perfectly to my thoughts. Enjoy your socks for a few more seconds... because you're about to lose them.

"I Want Something to Live For" - The Rocket Summer


  1. awesome post, katie. i like the part where you're uncomfortable of being comfortable which might (as i presume)indicate that you're more comfortable of being uncomfortable (the real deal/no lies).

  2. Great post :) And, I completely agree with your "uncomfortable being too comfortable" statement. Good stuff.