Monday, April 02, 2012

Labeling myself

Shadowing a coyote on the Bella Vista Trail
Recovery is predictably going slow for me this week. I am experiencing some late-season burnout, which is funny because this is early season for most everyone else in North America. Beat is already talking about plans for next winter and I can't even wrap my head around it, so I've stayed uncomfortably in denial. The truth is, when I think about racing hard or grueling epics next winter, it makes me want to withdraw from UTMB and spend my whole summer laying on the beach, writing a novel, and drinking iced coffee. For me to survive UTMB I am really going to have to be "on" during what is typically a tough season for me, the hot summer. Beat is good at being "on" all of the time; he's generally either at full throttle or zero, which is how he recovers. I am not good at zero, so I spent this week taking it easy on mellow runs and rides. I really need to get outside most every day for my mental health and productivity. But I admit even the five-mile runs have been taxing. I am coming around, though.

Feeling like a slug brought me back to this ad I encountered a couple weeks ago. It's an somewhat outdated (2010?) campaign from Pearl Izumi to sell shoes to road runners, but it's controversial message sparked a debate around a few runner blogs on the InterWebs recently:

Usually I have almost no reaction to advertising. It's a shallow form of communication that I don't connect with at all, but for some reason I had a strongly negative reaction to this ad. I should have just chuckled, "Oh, ha ha, slow losers, Pearl Izumi doesn't want you." Instead, I felt like I was back in seventh grade wearing the new Guess jeans I just bought with my babysitting money and having a group of more stylish girls accuse me of sewing the label on a fake pair of jeans. It was an interesting knee-jerk reaction to this ad, actually. Why did I think Pearl Izumi was bullying me? For starters, I don't even run marathons. In fact, it's actually one of my goals to get through life without running an official road marathon. But if I ever did run a marathon, it would probably be in a non-serious manner, on a lark, and I probably would "mosey" across the finish line because there's no way my hips and knees would stand for 26 miles of pavement pounding. So why was I so offended? Why did I care?

I think it comes down to my seventh-grade Guess jeans incident, and the mistake of trying to wear labels. I've proudly flown my cyclist flag ever since I managed to ride a borrowed mountain bike all the way to the top of Salt Lake City's Mill Creek Canyon and back without tipping over or walking the bike (full disclosure: all pavement.) But I've been reluctant to wear the label of "runner." I've been serious about the sport of trail running for 18 months now, I'm building up a decent resume on Ultrasignup, and I'm currently preparing to at least participate in one of the more prestigious ultramarathons in the world, UTMB. During my stay at the Windy Gap checkpoint in the White Mountains 100, I was telling my friend Dea about the Susitna 100 and my plans for UTMB when she said, "Oh, so are you more of a runner now?" I shook my head. "No, I'm still a more of a cyclist. I'm definitely not a runner." I laughed at what I thought was a great joke, but Dea just looked confused.

Why won't I call myself a runner? Maybe because I don't want the "real runners" to point and laugh at me. It's middle-school silly, and yet I'm insecure about it all the same. Even in my "on foot" pursuits, my end goal isn't running for the sake of running, but to efficiently traverse large swaths of "real" terrain — mountains and deserts, streams and snow. Ultimately I'd love to have the fitness, skill, and strength to take on long wilderness trails, such as the Pacific Crest Trail, or even trail-less traverses such as Alaska's Brooks Range, in a fast and efficient manner. This effectively makes me a "hiker," and yet I enjoy going out and running as fast as I can in my local, hilly 50K races (full disclosure: not all that fast.) I also spend more time riding bicycles than I do running, even when training for 100-mile ultramarathons. So what am I? A part-time-running cyclist? A fast hiker who likes to use wheels? A mountain biker who occasionally leaves the bike at home?

In coming up with a label for myself, I listed some of my strengths:

1. I am good at plodding along for hours, days, even weeks on end.
2. I am good at adapting to my surroundings and making use of what's available in changing environments.
3. I am good at being self-sufficient.
4. I am patient.
5. I am stubborn.
6. I basically have one speed but I can hold it almost indefinitely.
7. I am great at carrying extra weight. My Iditarod bike weighed 70-plus pounds, my Tour Divide bike 50-60. I can pack 10 extra pounds without blinking an eye and generally do on even the smallest training runs. My indifference to extra weight has made me an incurable packrat.
8. I can thrive in a wide range of weather conditions.
9. My body seems willing to slavishly follow the unreasonable demands of my mind.
10. I am strong.

When I compile these all together, I picture this:

A mule. I'm totally a mule. Not in the drug-ferrying sense, but in the beast-of-burden, combo runner-cyclist, stubborn-as-all-get-out sense. And yes, I totally used Photoshop to make a mash-up of a mule riding a Rocky Mountain Element. It only took 15 minutes, but it does serve as an example of what happens to my creative productivity when I am not spending enough quality time outside. I hope to get out for another five-mile jog (and I purposely use the word jog) this afternoon to spark better work productivity this evening ...

Proud to be a Jogger. And an Animal. I am Mule. 

But really, if you had to place a label, how would you define yourself? It's not an easy question to answer.