Saturday, July 08, 2017

Losing My Religion


I’ve met God across his long walnut desk with his diplomas hanging on the wall behind him, and God asks me, … Didn’t I realize that each of us is a sacred, unique snowflake of special unique specialness? Can’t I see how we’re all manifestations of love?
I look at God behind his desk, taking notes on a pad, but God’s got this all wrong.
We are not special.
We are not crap or trash, either.
We just are.
We just are, and what happens just happens.
And God says, “No, that’s not right.”

Yeah. Well. Whatever. You can’t teach God anything.


― Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club





My favorite local coffee shop in town does that thing where they have two tip jars, and wherever you put your tip is answering a question. For example, this morning’s question was “Which Harrison Ford?” The two tip jars were labeled “Han Solo” and “Indiana Jones.” I’ll confess, I paused a long moment deciding in which jar to drop my coins. (I mean, seriously, could there be a more difficult frivolous question? They are both my #1 answer!) 

I have a pretty good time checking out what categories they come up with every day, and studies show that these “category” tip jars actually garner more tips than unlabeled jars. This is because it’s the very nature of our brains to want to put things into categories. 

Categories, and their corresponding labels, help our brains make sense of large amounts of information quickly. I’ll skip the cognitive psychology lecture for you though. What’s important to know is that the labels our brains create (aka schema) work really well for most things in this world, but they create a lot of problems when we apply them to human beings. It is much more difficult to imagine and see people for the complex individuals that we are, and our brain actively fights this by wanting to categorize everyone. This, of course, is how we end up with ugly things like racism, sexism, classism, etc. 

Lately, I’ve been pondering not only how we put others into categories, but ourselves as well. We see ourselves in very specific ways, and sometimes I wonder which came first - the labels we have for ourselves, or the behaviors that give us those labels. And what happens when those things change, but no one wants to change their label for you?

 ~ 

When I was 22, I was nearing the end of a six-month road trip with my friend Charlie, and her biggest stress in those final days of traveling was what she called “ having an identity crisis.”

“Who am I,” she asked fretfully, “if I’m not a nomadic adventurer living out of a van?” 

It was a label she was about to lose - one that she liked very much. 


Here’s a good test of the labels people have for you. When people introduce you at a party, what’s the tidbit of info they share about you? Mine, without fail, is always exactly the same. 

“This is Gretchen. She runs hundred-mile marathons.” 

Although I completely, 100% identify as a Runner with a capital “R,” I still cringe lately when I hear this introduction. It’s not just that I have to bite my tongue and politely refrain from informing people that there is no such thing as a hundred-mile marathon, that a marathon is a specific distance of 26.2 miles (okay, unless you’re in South Africa, but I digress). It’s mostly the fact that then I have to talk about myself. Specifically, I am obligated to talk about running “hundred-mile marathons.” 

But lately, I feel completely talked-out on the subject. I’ve written thousands of words on it. Like, what else could I possibly have to say about it? I didn’t even write a race report for my last hundred-miler because meh. I didn’t care to. 

When I run into people around town, or see friends I haven’t seen in a long time, the conversation inevitably starts with, “How’s the running going?” And lately, the answer is always, “Oh, I’m not doing much running lately.” (And invariably, no one believes me.) 

Like I said, I completely identify as a runner, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. When something has been such an ingrained part of your life for so long, it doesn't just disappear. I also don’t think you need to be actively doing it to still see it as a part of you. But here’s the thing: I’m starting to realize that might be the only thing people see me as. A runner. 

Before training for ultras sucked all of my time away, I was many things. A rock climber, a painter, a knitter, a skier, a photographer. I think it’s fine that I don’t have as much time for those things; it’s all a choice. But I still see them as part of who I am. Labels that fit me.

You know what I’m getting off on these days? Teaching. No joke. This is what’s taking up all of my time. 

It’s not because I’ve become some crazy workaholic. Ha! Never. It’s because I’ve somehow reached this magical little place in my career where things are interesting and exciting, where I am supported professionally and creatively, where I have confidence in my skills but a drive to learn moremoremore every day. It is quite possible, in fact, that it is learning that I love more than teaching. 

I struggle to explain it all adequately, but somehow, the passion and creativity that used to go into writing, that used to fuel me through 80-mile training weeks, is all going into my classroom. And it’s FUN. 

It seems ironic to me that “teacher” is a label that most of my friends do not ascribe to me. Or maybe they do, but it just doesn’t sound as exciting as “runs hundred-mile marathons.” 

I don’t know that this joyride through my career will last forever, but I’m onboard until the tracks run out. And since summer vacation began in mid-June, I’ve been dipping my toes back into some of those other identities. Rock climber, guitar player, maybe even writer. 


In the past, my training has been fueled by my love of racing. For some reason, it’s not fashionable for non-elite runners to admit to competitiveness. This is especially true, I think, for women. But I’ll go ahead and own it. I have always loved racing. Even when I’ve had less-than-optimal fitness, I’ve nearly always toed the line at races with an intention to throw down my best performance. I mean, otherwise, what’s the point, right? 

I love running, but signing up for a race has always been what gets me out the door to train. I am religious about writing out a season-long training plan for myself, and meticulous about recording the results of each day’s workout. 

Or at least, I used to be. 

At the moment, racing just isn't as sacred as it once was, and the daily prayer of going for a run is most often left unsaid. 

So I guess it’s not surprising that a waning interest in racing over the last few years has led to a dramatic drop in my running mileage. That’s okay. I have other labels to embody. 

Since the Broken Arrow Skyrace in mid-June, my racing calendar has been completely blank. It’s something of a disconcerting feeling, but there’s also something new and exciting about it. It’s as though, with no specific goals to train for, I am rediscovering other reasons I love to run. 

Community appears to be a big reason. At least half of my runs in the past month have been with friends and/or group runs with the Donner Party Mountain Runners. These people give me a reason to get out the door, and they are completely awesome to boot. 

Meditative alone time is clearly my other motivation. I’ve written many times before about the relationship between running and writing, so it comes as no surprise to me that when my running mileage drops so too does my inspiration to write. Most of my writing is an act of reflection, a processing of my experience or that of others, and that reflection nearly always begins when I am out on the trails. Without that uninterrupted time for my mind to wander, to give my thoughts the freedom to follow any path and see where it leads, I find it nearly impossible to squeeze my enormous emotions and jumbled ideas into the inadequate packages of words, sentences, and paragraphs. 


We all take on roles and identities throughout the course of our lives - ones that evolve and change. Child, student, athlete, nerd, musician, parent, teacher, artist, lover. The ones that stay with us the longest may have the most impact on shaping how others see us and how we see ourselves. Girl, daughter, runner, friend. 

While it’s not so easy to shed these various identities like dirty clothes at the end of the day, maybe we can still claim them even if it’s not who we are every day. When I am injured, I am a runner. When I am uninspired and write nothing, I am a writer. When I only lace up my shoes one day a week (or month), I am a runner. When I write horrifically bad poetry that no one will ever see, I am a writer. When I run three miles instead of ten (or 30, or 100), I am a runner. When the only writing I do is writing comments and feedback for revision on student papers, I am a writer. 

What I find somewhat surprising is that, of those two identities - runner and writer - the one I miss the most right now is writer. 

 ~ 

The more labels I pin to myself, the more I feel I am defying any single one of them. Of course, we all defy our labels, in spite of our brains’ need to have them. Is this because we are all “unique snowflakes of special unique specialness”? Not exactly. I think we just are who we are, and human beings can be a difficult puzzle to solve. 

I think that for people to understand and connect with one another, we must, as author John Green encourages in many of his writings, imagine others complexly. This includes how we imagine and see ourselves. Snowflakes are unique, but puzzles are complex. 


This summer, I have embarked on a quest to rekindle the fire of my various passions. No teaching - it’s time for EVERYTHING ELSE! 

This includes running, which, I’m not kidding, I feel like I’m completely rediscovering. In a very low-mileage way, that is. I returned from an early morning track workout with DPMR one day this week and declared, wide-eyed, to Andrew, “God, I feel so good!” Like, what a wondrous thing! Who knew? 

It also includes writing. Even if all I manage to cobble together is a collection of confusing and somewhat unrelated thoughts about labels and identity and running. 

Running and writing: the Han Solo and Indiana Jones of my identities. They are both my #1 answer.


New identity: Ski Mountaineer. (Mt. Shasta summit, 14,180') 


Thursday, July 06, 2017

The Canyons 100K ~ 2017

Author's Note: I wrote this piece back in May, shortly after the Canyons took place. What follows is the "first draft" of the significantly shorter piece that came out in Ultrarunning this month. To be honest, I don't consider myself a really strong writer, but what I am is a crack editor. I can usually take a horrid first draft, revise it, hack it back by at least 30%, and turn it into something reasonable.

What I learned writing this piece is that the approach to writing something that is 800 words is wholly different than the approach to writing something that is 2,500 words. Like, I already knew this in theory, but oh man. Now I know it in practice. Even a good editor struggles when faced with reducing the word count by 60% while still maintaining the essence of the original piece. Next time, I will limit my "horrid first draft" to 1000 words.

So, it's not that this version is really any better than what you'll see in print. But I spent so much time on it, that I felt compelled to share the director's cut. If you can't get enough of The Canyons, then read on.

~

The Canyons Endurance Runs take place every spring on the historic Western States Trail out of Foresthill, and I’ll tell you a secret: April is the best time of year to run here.


Part of RD Chaz Sheya’s vision for the event is to provide an opportunity for every runner to experience this storied trail.


“The reality is, it can take a really long time to get an entry into the Western States 100. It took me six years,” he shared. It’s clear from his voice that he’s passionate about offering that access to all runners, especially those from out of the area who might not have the trail knowledge to come run it on their own. “You want to race on the Western States trail? Cool. Here’s a race where you can just sign up and come run it!”


This year, on the last Saturday in April, 400 runners do just that. Like many of the other 100K entrants, my primary goal for the day is simply to finish with a Western States qualifier. Anyone who came here expecting an easy 100K qualifier though will be in for a surprise. The Canyons can dish out suffering and disappointment with the attitude of a much longer race.



The first half of the 100K course heads north out of Foresthill through the namesake iconic canyons of the Western States trail. This half is by far the most difficult part of the race, consisting of an out-and-back across three steep canyons. Preserving any running ability for the second, more runnable half of the race requires a great deal of conservative pacing through the steep descents and climbs of the canyons.


My first worry of the race meets us at mile two in the form of Volcano Creek. All spring, as snow in the high country melted, this creek crossing had grown deeper and more challenging. Two weeks prior, it had been nearly waist deep at the crossing, with immense force from the rushing current.


Jamie crossing the creek two weeks before race day.




“It’ll be exciting!” I declare to two women running in front of me as we make haste on the technical downhill of Volcano Canyon.


“There’s some positive spin,” one of them laughs.


One thing we all agree on, there will probably be a bottleneck as runners cross carefully with the aid of a rope stretched across the water.


As it turns out, the race directors added a rope, giving runners two places to cross. They even replaced the usual, flimsy rope that hung there with something sturdier -- a much-needed improvement for race day. With the creek actually running slightly lower than I's last seen it, the crossing turns out to be quick and painless, the current coming only up to about mid-thigh on me.


There are a couple miles of dirt roads after you climb out of Volcano and head into the first aid station at Michigan Bluff. We run in various small groups, enjoying the company of other runners as the sun rises on the still chilly morning. I run much of this part with Jen Hemmen and Whit Rambach.


“The best way to run this course is to negative split,” I tell Jen with authority. Because, you know. I’m an expert.


It's a sentiment I repeat to at least two other runners during the day. And while it’s not an incorrect strategy, it is perhaps harder to do than I recognize. Especially if one’s training happened to consist of running just twice a week.


I do my best to execute the negative split, staying relaxed on the descent down to El Dorado Creek. The shade of evergreens and oaks keep things comfortable, and the four-mile climb up to the aid station at The Pump goes by quickly. The amount of trail work that has been done through this area is only apparent to those of us who have been out here all spring, and I am duly impressed. Winter wrought difficult conditions, with downed trees incessant and entire sections of trail washed away. The Western States trail crew, along with Chaz and his merry band of chainsaws, clearly fought the good fight in recent weeks, and I am grateful.


At The Pump, runners are greeted by the rainbows, unicorns, and energetic smiles of Reno’s Silver State Striders. The genuine love flowing out of this group exemplifies one of the best things about The Canyons Endurance Runs: community. In only its fourth year as an event, Canyons already feels like family.

Good feels at the Striders' aid station. (Photo: Jill Anderson)



It is hard to leave the energy of the Striders aid station. I am buoyed by the knowledge that, after a short (though not quick) drop down to the Swinging Bridge, we will see them again on the round trip back to Foresthill.



Happy at the Pump. (Photo: Jill Anderson)
Adding to the challenge of this steep and technical section is the fact that runners travel in both directions. Only 15 miles in, we are all still smiling, and it’s an opportunity to say a quick hello-and-good-job to a lot of friends. In spite of this, the constant dance to pass becomes tiresome after a while.


The day warms enough for me to shed my arm warmers, and I share a few miles on the return to Foresthill with my friend Miriam Smith. Eventually though, I realize that staying with Miriam means I am probably running too fast. I let her go ahead. Although I feel comfortable, my watch indicates that I will get to the halfway point at Foresthill with about seven hours on the clock. That is exactly the same pace I ran last year, and I’d followed it up with a six-hour second-half. Thus making me the negative split expert.


In the past three years, as my motivation and enthusiasm for consistent running has waned, I have continuously revised my definition of what it means to go into a race undertrained. Now, as I arrive at Foresthill on pace with my 13-hour finish from last year. I quite honestly think to myself, “Maybe training is just a waste of time.”




Thirty years as a competitive runner, and sometimes I am still dumber than the most ignorant rookie.


The aid station at Foresthill has the familiar feel of race day at Western States. A cheering swarm of family and friends mingle with volunteers. Someone brings me my drop bag, while friend and Aid Station Director Sean Flanagan helps me get fueled up for the second half of the race.


The day has warmed considerably, and I fill my bra with ice before heading out in the opposite direction toward the Middle Fork American River. It will be 15 miles of somewhat rolling, but overall gradually downhill, terrain to the turnaround at Rucky Chucky.


The trail makes a long traverse across the sloping canyon, with views of the snowy Sierra above and the sparkling river below. When I tell people that if they only run here on race day at Western States, they are missing the trail in its best season, this is the scene that comes to mind. The 70 degree temps are mild, even if it doesn’t feel like it to this mountain girl. The slopes are lush and green, and wildflowers abound. California poppies, lupine, paintbrush, shooting stars. They attract butterflies who put on their own dancing display of color. Small waterfalls and creeks cross the trail as it winds in and out of pocket watersheds, and they are unusually swollen for this time of year.






I can feel my right hip tightening in a way that is worrisome, and eventually my left ankle also gets cranky. I find myself questioning if six hours for this 50K is really a possibility. I splash off in the creeks to keep cool, and finally find my way to the Cal 2 aid station and the loving arms of the ladies of my own Donner Party Mountain Runners. Here is another infusion of love and energy, and at this point, I am sorely in need of it. The trail is exposed, the sun hot, and I know the seven miles to the turnaround are not going to pass quickly.


Bob Shebest cruises past me in the opposite direction on his way to the men’s win. Sharing the trail with runners on their return trip is less tedious this time since there are no 50K runners, and we are more spread out. Apparently a fair number of 100K runners dropped at Foresthill, which would also account for the thinner traffic.


I approach a beautiful creek crossing to be surprised by Kelly Barber popping up from full submersion in a deep pool.
“Oh my God, you are brilliant!” I tell him, as I take off my hat and sunglasses in preparation for the same treatment. He is clearly having a good race and throws words of encouragement over his shoulder at me as he tears off down the trail. The soaking is delicious, and I swear my body temperature drops by two full degrees while my spirit climbs in proportion.

Cat Bradley heads by looking incredibly casual and with what looks to be a sizeable lead in the women’s race.


“I love your pigtails!” she calls to me. This makes me smile, and I thank her. I love it when the top athletes have the spirit to cheer and support the other runners.


As the miles slowly tick by, the trail maintains its beauty, and fellow runners trade greetings, I recognize the state that is setting in: survival and acceptance. The return to Foresthill isn’t going to be especially pretty. There will be more walking than I’d like and increased pain in my hip and ankle. But it will get done. I’ll get there. And it’s that confidence that allows me to appreciate the struggle of the remaining miles, if not quite enjoy them.


Somewhere in the last five miles, I’m climbing another endless hill that god-dammit-I-should-be-able-to-run-but-can’t, when I see my friend Michelle Edmonson heading toward me.


“Yeah, Michelle!” I give her a cheer. “How are you?”


“Oh, man.” She shakes her head, and I can see she’s deep in the thick of this thing. “I’m fighting, Gretchen.” Her voice shakes slightly through her smile.


I want to stop. Give her a hug. Tell her she’s got this, she’s badass. Tell her I totally get it.


Neither of us has time for that shit.


“That’s what it takes,” is all I’ve got for her. “Keep fighting!”


And I hike on, engaged in my own fight toward the finish.




I manage to get there before truly needing to turn on my headlamp, and I take a morsel of pride in this. There’s a reasonable crowd cheering for me, and five seconds after I cross the line, I am sitting in a chair while Sean once again fetches my bag for me. Thank God because I am certain I could not have walked the 20 yards to get it myself.


Even in darkness, the finish line at Canyons is essentially a ten hour party. Friends, family, and exhausted runners sit in scattered chairs sharing stories. Chaz grills tri tip and wild duck next to the beer keg and a buffet of hot soups. Music from the speakers is punctuated by the periodic sounds of cowbells and cheering, signaling the approach of another runner.


Well after midnight, the same crowd of friends who had been manning The Pump aid station are gathered around the finish area bringing the same effusive energy to cheer every late night runner across the line. They wait for their friend and Striders teammate Michelle, who is still fighting it out on the course.


She is the final runner across the line, and the Striders have champagne, sleeping bag, and flip flops all ready for her.


“It’s a great feeling,” said Chaz, “to have so many people out for that late-night support, cheering on every finish.” This includes the 14 finishers who won’t make the 18-hour cut off to get a States qualifier.

It’s exactly that feeling that I love about this race. It doesn’t matter that I had a fairly ho-hum performance. It feels good to have tired, aching legs and be surrounded by friends. Providing an opportunity for you to push yourself while also giving you incredible support is what makes The Canyons Endurance Runs truly magical.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Why we all Love the Way Too Cool 50K

Frog cupcakes! Who doesn't love frog cupcakes!?


I know some of you deny it – you call it the “Way Too Crowded” and turn up your noses. You say, “I just can’t deal with the conga line,” but you still show up to spectate. You train on the course with your buddies, who are all registered to race, and discuss the prospects of Max or Varner or this-years-new-thang. You pretend otherwise, but just like the rest of us, you totally love the Way Too Cool.

Jenelle, Jamie, and Sarah keep warm before the start of the 2013 Way Too Cool.


Cool is many things to many different people. For some, it serves as an early season benchmark. Where do I stand after a winter of semi-slothdom? For others, its friendly terrain makes for perfect first-time ultra racing. Because I run Cool year after year, it works well as a measurement of my own progress as a runner over the years. For those of us from the Tahoe and Reno areas, heading down the hill the first week of March is also a springtime ritual that beckons us with warm sunshine to break from the winter chill. Because it seems that the entire NorCal ultra community turns out for this race, it is also the pinnacle of socializing this time of year, second only to summertime's Western States.

What were some of my best Cool experiences? Back in 2011, going sub-5:00 was a big deal, and I was pretty stoked to get there. Let’s not forget the shit-storm outhouse-search of 2012. Most hilarious race report ever, I’m pretty sure. There were the quivering quads of 2014 which resulted in both my course PR (4:44) and the most painful post-race leg cramping I’ve ever experienced. That’s what happens when you run hard while under-trained, friends! Last year was the I’ve-barely-trained-so-I’m-running-without-a-watch-and-pretending-I-don’t-care year. It was a pretty good strategy that garnered me a 4:50 without too much trouble.

This will be my sixth year running this iconic trail test. With that in mind, I have some highlights and tips for those of you who will be toeing the line with me on Saturday. Here are some things to enjoy and things to watch out for:


  • Newbies: Don’t go out too fast! That first paved mile gets sub-looney really easily. Take the 8-mile loop to get your legs and warm up.


  • Veterans: Go out fast! No kidding. It’s easy to get caught behind the mob. When I ran a 12 minute PR to go 4:44, I shaved 8 of those minutes off in that first 8-mile loop. Apparently I’d been taking it too conservatively.

  • Use caution on that downhill between the first aid station and the Quarry Road aid. It’s a good place to use your refined downhill technique, but it’s also a good place to blow out your quads if you hammer it too hard. I always feel like people hammer this part, and I clean them up later after mile 20.

  • Drink-up at Maine Bar. They say it’s only 4.3 miles from there to the ALT aid station, but I swear to God it’s more like 8. I can never make that distance on one bottle without running dry and cramping as a result. That stretch is the sole reason I carry two water bottles at Cool. It takes FOREVER to get to ALT.

  • After ALT though, it’s all gravy. You can spend this long, smooth, slightly downhill stretch of trail passing people like mad because you paced yourself well. Right?

  • Always run that last 1.4. It’s uphill, yes. You hurt, I know. Suck it up. The finishline will get there so much faster if you run it. It’s only 1.4 miles! Don’t stop at the aid station – just go. At the end, friends await.


Get a good night's sleep, a good parking place, and I’ll see you all bright and early on Saturday!

Cupcakes and beer with Jenelle at a Way Too Cool finish celebration