Monday, November 11, 2013

Finding our community

The concept of community is becoming increasingly more paradoxical in the modern era. Internet, smart phones, and other sources of instant information sharing have contributed to a global community; we can feel just as connected to someone in Bangladesh as we can to the family next door. In other ways, we're more isolated than ever, distrusting our neighbors and remaining clueless about our local issues and leaders. Family and friends scatter all over the world, we change locations multiple times, and it's becoming increasingly more difficult as individuals to define where our "community" resides.

Earlier this year, a friend introduced me to Ann Trason, who is something of a legend in the sport of ultrarunning. She absolutely dominated the sport for more than 15 years, winning the Western States 100 fourteen times and setting a course record that stood for 18 years. Through the '90s, she held world records at the 50-mile, 100-K, 12-hour, and 100-mile distances. Most newer generation trail runners know her name from Christopher McDougall's book "Born to Run," where she was portrayed as a cutthroat competitor and antithesis of the easygoing style of the Tarahumara runners. After 2004 she disappeared from the sport almost entirely, although she continued to serve as the co-director of Dick Collins Firetrails, a popular 50-mile race near Oakland, until 2010. There was, of course, much speculation about why Ann stopped competing. Since she was a private person who didn't give many interviews, the speculation remained just that.

We met for lunch back in July, but then months passed before we found a weekend when we were both in town and not too busy to schedule another meeting. It was just going to be lunch, but then Ann decided to pace one of her friends at the Rio Del Lago 100-mile race near Auburn, California. She invited me to join her and help as crew. That's how I found myself driving east in Ann's Subaru on Saturday afternoon as she frantically changed clothes and organized her hydration pack in the back seat. We made it to the mile 53 aid station a mere three minutes before her runner arrived. Friends there had collected a bib for her that read "PACER" in big block letters. "Do I have to wear this?" she said with a smirk that betrayed a silliness behind her initially serious exterior. "This is so humiliating."

After she took off with her runner, Kevin, Ann's friends asked me how I knew her. I didn't feel a need to beat around the bush about it. "I'm a writer and I'd like to work on a book about her," I said. "But that's up to her whether that happens and honestly I'm happy either way. It's been great getting to know her as a friend. She's a lot of fun."

It's 2013 and, at age 53, Ann Trason is back, although not in the way most people expected. After nearly a decade away, she's become quite active in ultrarunning events this year, pacing friends and others at the Western States 100, the San Diego 100, and the Javelina 100. She also entered and finished two 100-mile races of her own, the Idaho Mountain Trail Ultra Festival in 33:24 ("It was scary," she told me. "I was sure I was going to fall off a cliff. Have you felt like that before?" Since her race happened on Aug. 30, the day I timed out of PTL, I replied. "Yes, and most recently on that exact same day.") The second was the Stagecoach Line 100 in Flagstaff, Arizona, on Oct. 19. She finished in 29:42. ("I was so cold. I couldn't see. My water bottle froze. I was second to last! But I was only disappointed because I wasn't dead last. I thought I was.")

As Ann told me her stories about struggling with technical scrambling, gnawing on a frozen water bottle valve to break up the ice, shivering in the eerie darkness of the desert, slogging along sandy trails with her friends, taking the time to soak up beautiful scenery, and feeling pangs of guilt about not living up to others' expectations, I thought, "Wow, we have so much in common!" But within this new perspective on running is the same woman who possesses phenomenal drive, talent, and success. She still holds the Leadville 100 women's record, which has stood since 1994. But I get the sense that part of her life is done now, and she's happy about that. For many of these past ten years, Ann didn't run at all, even as recreation. She recovered from injuries, participated in long-distance cycling, and tended a massive garden on her property near Michigan Bluff on the Western States course. "I have always been an all or nothing kind of person," Ann told me. "But all I ever really wanted was to run. I love running. I missed it."

But why has she made her way back into ultrarunning, specifically? In a word — community. She wants to give back to the sport in her own ways, and re-integrate into a community that she's felt separated from for too long. She's self-described "out of shape," reluctantly testing the latest gear such as Hoka shoes ("I don't know about these things," she said. "They're like moon shoes."), and is baffled about why she's still drawn to 100 milers ("I said no more after Flagstaff," she said. "But there will probably be more.") But it seems enjoying being "back" in the sense of giving back. She's enthusiastic about sharing her knowledge and experience with the next generation of runners, through coaching, trail work, and pacing at races. She also coaches a middle school running team in Berkley, and enjoys spending time with the kids most of all.

Ann's friend Kevin finished Rio Del Lago 100 in 20:01. The following day, she and I headed out to Ruck-a-Chucky to take some photos on a course section of a 100-kilometer trail race she'd like to launch next fall. I've been experiencing a knee "lock-up" issue since my bike crash last week, so I didn't want to commit to running the whole way. We ran down a steep fireroad down to the American River and then I hiked and jogged up the Western States Trail while she ran down-trail, hoping to grab a few images at a scenic spot further down the river. By the time we got out there it was nearly noon and the light was high and flat, not the best for photography. It was a downright hot day, especially for mid-November, and I didn't have much water. I was frustrated about being somewhat crash-injured yet again, and disappointed about missing out on an opportunity to run with "the great Ann Trason." And yet, I'd already learned so much from her in the past day. Ann has had quite the journey, and this is where she's arrived — with a sense that her home, and her community, is the most important part of her life.