Sunday, October 16, 2011

Life on the run

To casual readers of my blog, it probably seems like I've had a busy year so far. But everything has just been build-up to my big crescendo for 2011, which happens to be most of the month of November. In the first week of November I'm traveling back to Utah for my sister's wedding and also to compete solo in the 25 Hours of Frog Hollow. Then on Nov. 16 Beat, myself and two friends are traveling to Nepal for a six-day, 155-mile stage race through the Annapurna Foothills with Racing the Planet. And right now, October, is when I have to get my body ready for all of this.

How does one train for a 25-hour solo mountain bike race followed by crazy travel sandwiched around a 155-mile, week-long run, and still be at least partially productive in other aspects of life? I wish I knew the answer to this question. For now I'm just trying the strategy of ride, run, write, ride, visit with friends in town from Utah, send-emails, write, run, blog, and maybe occasionally sleep and eat. For an unstructured person my days seem surprisingly busy.

I actually rallied for a fairly full week of training directly after my 68-mile weekend. So I settled for a more "moderate" schedule this weekend, which means I only did a 4.5-hour mountain bike ride and 3.5-hour run. On Saturday Beat and I linked up a network of trails along Skyline for a solid 35-mile ride with 5,300 feet of climbing. He rode the singlespeed to test the new shock, so he really had to work hard for every foot of elevation gain. I enjoyed the relative ease of my geared bike, but I was still encouraged by how painless the ride felt through 35 miles of steep grades and loose descents. "Riding a mountain bike is easy," I thought to myself. "This doesn't even feel like work. Just float up and coast down. I am so going to rock the 25 Hours of Frog Hollow. This is going to be awesome."

Then, on Sunday, I paid for my shameless hubris. I wanted to complete a "long" run in preparation for Nepal. I planned to climb Black Mountain, a 17-mile loop with 3,600 feet of climbing. Beat, who is still recovering from the Slickrock 100 and our ambitious singlespeed ride, joined me for the first four miles. Even when he's tired, Beat is still a significantly stronger climber than I am. I had to push hard to hold his pace up the steep trail. As I sucked down ragged gulps of air through my congested sinuses, I took small comfort in the idea that as soon as our four miles were up, the trail would get "easier" and I could run "slower."

But I was wrong. After four miles the trail does not get easier, it turns to singletrack and becomes even steeper. If I wanted to run at all, even just to shuffle at a pace only slightly faster than walking, I had to push my effort to the redline. My ragged gulps of air turned to desperate gasps, sweat streamed from my pores in full shower mode, and the 74-degree air felt unbearably hot. But I was going to *run* the *whole way* because I was *running* so just harden up and ...

I'm not sure how I actually made it to the peak. I'm suspicious that I may have even blacked out for a half mile, but when I staggered onto the final crest I had a strong urge to just curl up in a fetal position next to a rock and maybe if I was lucky I would die quickly. I'm only exaggerating slightly; I really haven't felt that bad during a workout in a long while. I was six miles into a 17-mile run.

This is the part where I knew the learning experience would begin, and I knew it would be painful. I began shuffling down the steep trail and developed a side stitch almost immediately. I was already breathing badly through my congested nose; the side-stitch made oxygen even more scarce. I continued to gasp and shuffle on a downhill grade that I can normally almost coast. It was bad. I was in pain. Running is hard.

It took four slow miles for the side stitch to finally loosen its grip. By then I had reached a rolling section of trail, gentle climbs and more steep descents. This is the part where my IT band started to tighten and hurt. By now, I was just angry. Running is hard. Why is running so hard? When I ride a bicycle, even if the ride is long and difficult, it's almost never painful. Running, even when my route is short and easy, almost constantly is. This is the part where fellow cyclists nod their heads in agreement and say, "Yes, this is why humans invented bicycles, so they wouldn't have to run." I'm inclined to agree. And yet — in my own strange universe where struggle and pain travel arm-in-arm with reward and bliss — this is what makes trail running so appealing to me. Running is difficult. It's so disproportionally difficult that I can't simply accept the difficulty at face value. I want to accept the challenge, embrace it, and run with it, so to speak.

So today I suffered for the entirety of 17 miles and I wasn't even fast, even relative to myself, nor did I take a single photograph. But I did it, and I learned some things. And perhaps when I'm in a really amazing place like Nepal, I'll be able to take what I've learned and run that extra mile, the one I didn't think was even possible. After all, that's what running is about.