Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Way Too Cool 50K 2015

When you’ve been struggling with your motivation like I have, there is no better cure than a long day of moving down sun soaked trails and greeting friends at every turn. For so many of us, the first Saturday of March in Cool, California is the kick off to the spring running season – the beginning of feeling faster and running more consistently. Also, the perfect, summer-like weather that has been present there the last few years certainly marks the change of seasons. It’s hard not to love the Way Too Cool 50K.

It only took me five years at this race to finally figure out how to run it. My training has been incredibly mediocre and uninspired, so I found myself really struggling with my confidence going into it this year. I knew there was no way I would come close to last year’s 4:44. I simply wasn’t in that kind of shape. And there is something mentally challenging about returning to a familiar race knowing it isn’t going to be your best performance.  I knew the best part of my day would be seeing friends (It was!), and I put my expectations in check, just hoping to finish in under five hours.

Jenelle and JP, keeping warm before the start

I caught a ride down the hill with Jenelle and JP. After a stop for coffee in Colfax, where we ran into fellow Truckee runner Jeff Brown, we made the early arrival in Cool to snag a great parking spot. I always think rock star parking is a good way to set the tone for an awesome day.

Another reason to get to Cool early, besides good parking, is the socializing. It’s easy to miss your faster or slower friends after the race, but in those chilly morning hours we are all there, excited and shivering together. For a day that was predicted to reach 70 degrees, it sure was freezing out at 7:00 AM!

Pre-race with Jamie

Jeff, ready for a great day!


I lined up with Jamie for the typically fast start of this race. After five years at Cool, the speedy start doesn’t intimidate me anymore. I had a great time on the rolling terrain in those first 8 miles! I met and ran with several runners local to my area – Craig from Reno, and Jeff who just moved to Truckee and is planning on joining my running club, the Donner Party Mountain Runners. As we cruised the downhill to Knickerbocker Creek, I was startled to see a makeshift bridge had been placed across it.

“When did they put a bridge here?” I asked.

“Damn, this race has gotten soft!” I heard a guy behind me joke. I laughed, but I couldn’t disagree. The water was clear and running low – the safest creek crossing you could imagine.

The only part of this loop that wasn’t pleasant was some guy several runners back who thought it would be a good idea to run with a cowbell attached to his hydration pack. I can tell you that after 8 miles, that cowbell became beyond annoying. I heard comments from several other runners about what they’d like to do to that guy and exactly where they’d like to put that cowbell.

I ran back into the first aid station at the start/finish area and handed off my arm warmers to JP. I didn’t need water yet, so I just grabbed a GU and headed out. To my dismay, cowbell guy was right behind me now. I was at the point where I was so annoyed with him that I knew I wouldn’t be able to ask him nicely to put his monotonous noisemaker away, so I just kept my mouth shut. On the downhill, I reminded myself that I wasn’t here to run a fast time, so I deliberately slowed down and let the cowbell guy pass me. I breathed an immediate sigh of relief and felt myself instantly relaxing and smiling. It’s funny how something like that can really get under your skin and put you in a negative mindset.

At the Quarry Road aid station (mile 11), I was greeted by friends Chaz, Pete, and Chris who filled me up with GU Brew and got me on my way in a flash. 

Coming into Quarry Rd. aid station (photo Pete Broomhall)

Chaz is on it with the refil! (photo Pete Broomhall)

I started to wonder where Jamie was. We had been running together the first mile until she paused to hand off her arm warmers to a friend. I knew she was in great shape and should smash her PR for the course, so I was expecting her to pass me any minute.

I was thoroughly enjoying this mellow section of trail that I run often in training during the late winter months. I had discovered on the drive down that I had forgotten my watch. I won’t try to explain how seriously my head is in the clouds these days, but let’s just say I wasn’t surprised that I had forgotten something. Luckily, the watch wasn’t critical, and in fact, it helped me relax and just run on feel. Since I didn’t have a big goal for this race, that was perfect.

Somewhere before the Main Bar aid station (mile 16.7), I realized I was coming up behind the cowbell guy again.

“Oh no!” I heard the men I was running with declare. “It’s him!” We were all relieved when we passed by and realized he had put the cowbell away.

A few minutes later, I was chatting with the woman who had saved us all. She had asked the guy very politely to put the cowbell away. It sounds like he didn’t acquiesce immediately – it took a little discussion and convincing on her part. I give this woman my eternal gratitude!

The ALT aid station always seems like forever in coming. I swear it is farther than 4.3 miles from Main Bar! Sure, all the uphill makes it slow, but I’m certain it has to be closer to 6 miles between those two stations.

As I was closing in on ALT, I saw a woman up ahead that I thought might be Erika Lindland. Awesome! Although I knew I was probably not in good enough shape to be running with her, I was excited to be near here this late in the race. She is a really strong runner, but on my good days, I can hang with her. I made it my goal to try to keep her in sight, but of course in my excitement I started running harder and began closing in on her. After about two miles of slowly gaining, I was right behind her coming into the ALT aid station at mile 21.

Unfortunately for me, she was just a bit faster than I was through the aid station. I saw her leave, assumed I would close the gap, and never saw her again. Ah well. She ended up running a 4:44 which was never going to happen for me, so it’s probably best that I didn’t kill myself trying to keep up with her.

Those last ten miles were probably the best I have ever felt on that stretch in this race. I had taken salt early (beginning at mile 11), stayed hydrated, and wasn’t cramping at all. In contrast, last year I suffered painful cramps for the last hour of the race, plus for another 30 minutes after finishing. I enjoyed the smooth, easy miles to Brown’s Bar, cranked up Goat Hill, and smiled at how great I felt.

I saw friends Kirk and Jenny and asked them if Jamie had come through yet. Maybe she had passed me somewhere and I’d missed her? When they said they hadn’t seen her all day, I started to worry. Where could she be?

It is always my goal to run it in from the last aid station at Highway 49. It’s only 1.4 miles, but it’s mostly uphill and a little technical. Last year, I had to walk some of it. This year, I had no problem running every step. There were a couple other women kicking ass on this section, and we blew by a handful of men up that hill on our way to the finish line.

I have to admit, it was kind of fun not knowing what my time was. I felt pretty confident that I was going to finish in under five hours, but realistically I knew that I was probably not faster than 4:50. I was guessing 4:56, so when I came around the final corner to see 4:50 on the clock, I was all smiles. It was such an awesome surprise!

The surprise that was not so awesome was when Jamie met me at the finish line all cleaned up and changed already. I knew she could not have finished that far ahead of me, even if I’d missed her passing me.

“What happened?” I cried. The look on her face told me it was nothing good, and I had her in a sweaty hug before she could answer. She’d taken a hard fall on the downhill to Quarry Road and had had to drop. It was a crummy turn of events for her day, but so far she didn’t think there was going to be any serious lasting damage.

I headed over to the tent for The Canyons Endurance Runs where I had stashed my bag. I barely had time to get my flip flops on before Chaz was handing me a beer. Normally I like to drink my GU recovery drink before any of that, but it was too hard to turn Chaz down. It tasted phenomenal!

Jenelle finished just a few minutes after I did, and we all spent a couple of relaxing hours in the sunshine recovering, cheering on friends, drinking beer, and just generally reveling in the ultra runner scene.

Pete, Chaz, and Chris, who graciously hosted me and other friends with a chair, shade, and a beer.

Curt, who hung around after his race long enough to see us slow people finish!

Both the men’s and women’s course records were broken that day, and there was a lot of talk about how all the elite road runners are affecting the sport of trail ultras. I remember the same conversations last year. And I’m pretty sure I heard them the year before that. Sure, it’s true. Of the men’s top ten times on the course, 9 are from the last three years. For the women, 6 of the top ten times are from either last year or this year. If I had run 4:50 at my first Way Too Cool in 2006, I would have finished 5th woman. Ha! That’s hilarious. This year it earned me 30th.

So things are getting speedy, and it makes sense that a fast course with good competition would be the gateway drug for trail-curious roadsters. I think it’s exciting. When I look around at the crowd at Way Too Cool, I just see smiles and happy people. For me, the bigger field and faster runners have done nothing to dampen the spirit of this race, and it’s fun to see such impressive performances. I guess if you prefer a more low-key scene, there’s still plenty of that to be had at other trail races.

Thanks so much to RD Julie and to all the volunteers who work so hard to help make this event so successful! I will always be back in some capacity, whether racing, volunteering, or cheering. 

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

The Art Assignment (Assembly Line!) and Thoughts on Art

Last year, PBS Digital Studios began a weekly video series called The Art Assignment. It features a little bit of art education, work by a specific artist, and an assignment from that artist. Yes, you as the viewer are assigned to do art. I love this concept!

The truth is though, I am not an artist; I am a writer. But okay, I do consider writing an art form. It's a contradiction, perhaps, but there you have it. My art practice is minimal, and my talent is nonexistent. However, I love art! I love viewing it, learning about it, discussing it, and creating it. (I just set my expectations for quality extremely low for any “art” I try to produce! It’s more about the experience.) I think the potential for art to connect us as human beings is immense. It’s kind of how I feel about writing and reading, come to think of it.

My desire to complete an Art Assignment finally came to fruition last week with Bob Snead’s Assembly Line project. Here’s the assignment:

While visiting my sister in southern California, I wrangled her into helping me come up with a project for this assignment and talked my nephews into joining us on the assembly line. We had a few specific considerations when trying to decide what object to create. We didn’t want to spend a lot of money on materials. I wanted to pick something that would be fun for the boys, but not frustrating. We also had a limited amount of time.

These considerations speak to the challenge that I call Fitting Art into Real Life. For those of us who are not artists, we have to remind ourselves that creating our art is still valuable. There are always dishes to be washed, snow to be shoveled, dogs to be walked, or weeds to be pulled. That’s life. And it can be hard to justify setting aside those obligations for something that may seem silly or trivial. But creative exercises are not trivial. Besides, I’d wanted to do The Art Assignment for a year; it was time to make it happen!

We settled on making beads out of paper. It was simple, but produced beautiful results. I found myself wondering about whether this was really considered “art.” We found instructions for the beads on several youtube videos, making it not exactly an original idea. Also, most of these youtubers considered themselves “crafters.” Was our project more of a craft?

After consulting The Oracle with the question “What is the difference between art and craft?” I learned that it is apparently a long standing debate. Ultimately, it sounds like it is up to you as the artist (or artisan) to decide if your work is art or craft. I found this excellent lesson by Laura Morelli, titled “What is the Difference Between Art and Craft?” 

I was struck by some of the things she discussed that Art Assignment curator Sarah Urist Green had talked about in the Assembly Line video. They both started with Leonardo da Vinci as their example, and Morelli’s discussion of the changing definition of art in history sounded a lot like Urist Green’s discussion of master artists working with apprentices to produce their work. It sounded to me like a “craft type” art project was a perfect choice for the assembly line assignment!

These are the steps we came up with:

1. Cut paper strips from old magazines, narrower on one end and wider on the other end.
2. Roll a strip around a bamboo skewer and glue the last bit so the bead stays together.
3. Paint the outside with Modge Podge to make it shiny and durable, and place it on the drying rack to dry. (I made a drying rack by stabbing toothpicks into a pizza box.)

We had four people and only three jobs, so I figured two people could roll the beads since that was the slowest job. Our first challenge came when both boys wanted to paint the Modge Podge on and neither wanted to roll beads. Once I realized how quick it was to cut the paper, I just did that first. Then my sister and I rolled beads while the boys painted.

Our assembly line was not exactly a machine, which made it all the more satisfying that we were able to do this project. One of the boys went back and forth between our project and the kitchen where he was making chocolate chip cookies – very important! My sister had to depart temporarily in order to create and send out birthday invitations for one of the boys – also important. Hey, this is Fitting Art into Real Life, and we rocked it!

Once our beads were done and fully dried, we discovered that we loved them. I especially loved the texture of the shiny Modge Podge after it dried, and the sturdy yet somehow delicate feel it lent them. My sister loved the way the various colors came through and made each bead distinct. 

What I really love about The Art Assignment is how it gets you not only to become an artist yourself, but how it encourages involvement. Even if you don’t create art, there are so many opportunities online to interact around the art. There is online discussion, sharing, inspiration, and learning. My mom worked for 30 years as a docent in a museum, and her talent was getting the kids involved. She knew that learning and remembering happen best when we are doing something – interacting with the art as much as possible. I know this happens in classrooms all the time, but most of us aren’t art students. I love how The Art Assignment has made the world, both online and offline, their classroom and has invited anyone to participate.

These thoughts were on my mind when my sister, my dad, and I went to The Getty Center the following day. Laura and I arrived early and were greeted by Aristide Maillol’s “Air,” a nearly empty plaza, and an invitation to pose for a photo with the statue. Talk about interaction with the art!

I handed my phone off to my sister, and dived in excitedly to pose for a picture. Clearly I should have spent more time examining the art, because my pose is way off. Ah well. Because of this, I can now recall with perfect precision the position of the left hand in “Air.”

Posing with a statue in a museum is the kind of thing I have never done before. It feels so inappropriate. Disrespectful. But somehow, being invited by the museum itself took all that away. I loved imitating the floating lady and posting my photo to twitter. 

My favorite part about the Getty is the architecture and grounds. I recall it vividly from my one previous visit to the Getty – the year it opened in 1997. This time, I spent a lot of the day taking snapshots of the buildings and views. The two exhibits where we spent most of our time were the Josef Koudelka exhibit, “Nationality Doubtful,” and J.M.W. Turner’s “Painting Set Free”. There is something very powerful about viewing a large body of work from a single artist, and both of these exhibits were captivating.

One thing that stood out to me when I looked around a room full of Turner’s paintings was how every single one had a prominent bright spot of light more or less exactly in the middle. This was the sun, or the light coming from a diffused sun. For me, it overshadowed everything else about the works, but I loved it. It left me with a lot of questions.

When I arrived at my dad’s house later that day, I took this photo, which I thought looked very much like a Turner painting:

While I still wonder why Turner saw light the way that he did (The curator theorized it was related to developing cataracts in his later years!), I realize that seeing his work affected the way that I see light now. In the same way that you bring your own life experiences to your interpretation of a piece of art, good art will in turn influence the way that you see the world.

Both our project from The Art Assignment and our trip to the Getty got me to interact with the art. They were fun and thought provoking, and I can’t wait for my next artistic opportunity. What will the Art Assignment give us next?

Bonus pictures from The Getty, because I just can't help myself!