Monday, October 28, 2013

Made up Stories and Young Adults

Neither novels nor their readers benefit from attempts to divine whether any facts hide inside a story. Such efforts attack the very idea that made-up stories can matter, which is sort of the foundational assumption of our species.

                                            - John Green, The Fault in our Stars

Description begins in the writer's imagination, but should finish in the reader's.

                               - Stephen King, On Writing

As a teacher of both writing and literature, I often find myself telling my students that reading and writing are two sides of the same coin. Writing, for me, is an act of connecting, of reaching out. It’s a way of creating relationships with people I don’t even know, and I’ve long believed that creating meaningful relationships is part of the important work of a life well lived.

I think this is what art in general is all about. Whether you’re a writer, a musician, a painter, a singer, a dancer – on some level, you’re attempting to connect with others.

Reading, then, is also an act of connecting. Instead of doing most of the talking, the reader does most of the listening. The reader is not, however, a passive participant. As John Green puts it, “Reading is always an act of empathy. It’s always an imaging of what it’s like to be someone else.”

You can live so many different lives through the act of reading stories. It’s possible to learn so much about so many different things through the living of those lives. It’s simply brilliant.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I’m more of a reader at the moment than a writer. I simply haven’t had the emotional energy for creating my own art, but I’ve taken great solace in living on the other side of the equation by reading more than usual.

And what do I read? Mostly young adult fiction. After all, I do spend my days surrounded by them (young adults, I mean). But to be honest, I know that’s not the only reason I like to read what they’re reading. I love YA literature for some of the same reasons I like working with its audience: there’s just something very compelling about that time of life.

The experience of being a teenager can be exciting, confusing, provocative, scary, poignant, and incredibly vivid. That transformation from childhood to adulthood is a pivotal time in many of our lives, and one where we make a lot of choices than can affect the adult we eventually become.

The first book of assigned reading that I can remember loving is John Knowles’s A Separate Peace. I was a sophomore in high school, and I remember feeling so connected to the emotions of the characters. Not coincidentally, the essay I wrote for that book is one of the first pieces of writing I can recall really pouring my heart into. An early lesson in how good literature can inspire.

As an adult, my relationship to the genre has changed. In high school, I loved Holden Caulfield because he was so critical of adults, so full of judgment. These days, I don’t see that as such an intriguing characteristic, but his struggle to make sense of his world and growing up is one that gives me empathy for my own students. I still love Catcher in the Rye, but for much different reasons than I did as a teen.

When I first began teaching ten years ago, I did make a concerted effort to read some more current YA fiction so that I could share casual discussions with my students. I didn’t realize it would be a path to reconnecting with an entire genre of literature I’d forgotten. On one trip to the bookstore in those early years, I happened across, and purchased, John Green’s recently published, debut novel, Looking for Alaska. If you’ve talked about books with me at all, you’ll know that John Green is my favorite author, and Alaska was my first taste of brilliant YA literature since I’d been a teen myself. If I were to give you a quick summary of the book, I would say that it is strikingly similar to A Separate Peace.

Not only do I love John Green’s books (If you haven’t yet read The Fault in our Stars, go do it now! Even if you don’t think you’re a fan of YA. Just read it.), but the man himself is completely full of awesome. Through the youtube channels created by him and his brother, Hank, he has allowed his fans unprecedented access to who he is, and what he and Hank think on all kinds of topics. John Green is smart, thoughtful, hilarious, and an unabashed nerd. He and Hank have created a community of like-minded, motivated individuals who are more than just fans of the books and videos and songs the brothers create. They are participants, engaged in artistic conversations. The world needs more people like them.

One of the reasons that I am allowing myself to go all fan-girly over John here is that he is such an inspiration, and with the recent success of The Fault in our Stars, more people are starting to realize it. (John shares some interesting concerns over this phenomenon in this video.) Much of what I’ve said here are similar to things John has said in his videos over the years. It’s easy to connect with someone who verbalizes so well notions that you already hold true. He sums it all up very nicely I think in this introduction to Crash Course Literature. (What? You’ve never heard of Crash Course? You’d better go check it out! Right after you finish reading The Fault in our Stars.)

I love this video for so many reasons, but one is the topic that I last heard addressed by my own high school English teacher many years ago: authorial intent. This is completely my favorite thing about reading – it is up to YOU as the reader to interpret what happened! Can’t decide whether Pi really survived for 227 days at sea with Richard Parker? Don’t understand the ending of The Giver? Really really dying to know whether he chose the Lady or the Tiger? (Questions, by the way, that all of my students ask me.) You, as the reader, have to decide for yourself, and each person’s answer may be different.  “You decide whether the swing set is just a swing set.” Author Nathan Bransford has a great post about How Art Changes With Us, emphasizing (to me) how what we bring to the table as a reader is incredibly relevant to our understanding of a story.

Another reason I’ve been thinking about these things lately is that, back in September, my students and I celebrated Banned Books Week. It blows my mind that people want to prevent teens from reading about the ugly and difficult things in this world. How else to allow them to learn about, and then hopefully avoid experiencing, those ugly things themselves? How else to keep them from being lost if they already have?

Again, literature is such an incredible tool for learning. This is Speak author Lauire Halse Anderson’s take on censorship.

Reluctant readers make me sad, but at the same time, I consider them a great challenge.  I know there are books out there for everyone. One of my biggest jobs as a teacher of reading is to help kids find books that they love. I can say that I have definitely gotten a lot better at that part of the job. How? Simply by loving reading the same books they love reading and then sharing them.

Today in class, one of my students interrupted a lesson to declare, “I finished Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children!”

I asked him if he liked it, and he was like, “Yeah, but it was such a cliffhanger!”

And I was all, “I know! He’d better be writing a sequel!”

Important conversations to have with kids, right?

(Incidentally, yes, many of my students have figured out they can derail a boring-as-hell grammar lesson by throwing out a comment about a book. I kind of consider that on-topic, really.)

Anyway, my point is, read good books. Good fiction matters because it connect us. It teaches us about each other and about ourselves, and often we don’t even realize we’re learning at all. We’re just being swept away in the power of a good story. Stories help to make the world a little bit smaller, in a very good way.

What do you think? What was the first story that swept you away? What are your favorite titles now?

Friday, August 09, 2013

Tahoe Rim Trail 2013

Sunrise at the TRTER - one of my favorite pics from 2011

The Tahoe Rim Trail races keep me coming back every year for many reasons. It’s partly the incredible scenery and challenging terrain, but mostly I would say it’s the awesome people involved. (Okay, yeah, it's also in my backyard.) The runners, the race organizers, the volunteers, the supporters and pacers – it feels like the epitome of ultrarunning family, and there’s no place I’d rather be on this weekend in July.

I signed up for the 50 Mile race this year, and I’ll be honest, my training has been what you might call lackluster. A lack of time combined with a lack of motivation can greatly diminish a girl’s ultra mileage. It’s just been that kind of year, and I’m okay with that. It does take some adjusting of expectations though, and there’s been a lot of that, too.

My primary goal for this race was to run under 11 hours. For the first time in 5 years, I planned to put my name into the hat for Western States, and for the first time in 7 or 8 years, I am without a qualifier. I ran an 11:30 at Squaw Peak, leaving TRT as my last shot for that sub-11. I had it in the back of my mind that if I missed sub-11 here, I might sign up for Firetrails and try to do it there, but at this point, it wasn’t in the plan.

With Jamie and Tina Ure before the start of the 100

Anthony chose to go the pacer route. Smart man!

Chaz gets a good luck hug before the start of his 100 mile adventure!

Race morning at 4:30 AM, and Jamie and I pulled into the parking lot simultaneously from opposite directions. Hardly surprising. We just seem to be in sync that way much of the time. We arrived in plenty of time to see friends in the 100-miler and wish them well before their 5:00 AM start. Several of them were tackling the 100 mile distance for the first time. I always find myself in awe of this choice – like, really? Couldn’t you have picked an easier race for your first 100? – until I remember that I did the same thing. Oh yeah. I guess if you’re going to be crazy, you might as well just embrace it, right?

Jamie and Michaela in the early morning

I lined up with John Trent, and we managed to share most of the early miles on the way to Marlette Lake. I felt a little unsure of my pace, so I tried to hold back a bit, but mostly I just went with the flow.

By the time we reached the first aid station, Hobart at mile 6, I didn’t need to refill water yet, but I was starving! I stuffed two PBJ squares into my mouth and made a quick visit to the port-a-potty. I have to mention this because the port-a-potties at Hobart smelled like cherry Jolly Ranchers. I’m not kidding! They had some kind of amazing air fresheners in there. Whatever they were, Hobart peeps, keep them on the list for next year! 

Climbing up to Marlette Peak. (Photo from 2009)

Morning light from the top of Marlette Peak is one of the most beautiful sights you will ever see. I took it all in with joy before descending into forested, rolling terrain. This section has a mix of climbing and descending on the way to the Tunnel Creek aid station. Later in the race, returning through this same section, a runner told me that he had been running near a group of men behind me during these early miles. Apparently, one runner in the group instructed, “Watch her. When she walks, you walk!” I thought this was super nice of him to tell me – so glad I could help other runners with their pace without even knowing it!

The Tunnel Creek aid station, as many of you know, is a thing of delight. It was a bit overwhelming because I was greeted by so many enthusiastic friends, but who can possibly complain about that! It wasn’t yet hot, but definitely warm enough to ice the bottles, and Jenny Capel took great care of me while I sucked down strawberries and another PBJ.

The next stretch was the 6-mile Red House Loop. A steep descent, some nice, flattish running, and a steep climb. Overall, it felt pretty darn good. I passed my friend Tina here who was attempting her first 100. Remember those crazy people I mentioned earlier? Yeah, she is a tough chick. She looked great!

On the climb back up to Tunnel I was starting to feel the heat, and my shirt was beginning to chaff under my right arm. I won’t go into all of my race day wardrobe woes, but suffice it to say that I have never before raced an ultra in anything but a tank top. So yeah, I ditched the shirt at Tunnel Creek. No more shirts for me on race day!

Between Tunnel Creek and the Bull Wheel aid station (miles 17-20ish)I started to feel some cramping in my legs. This usually only happens when I’m pushing my pace beyond what my training would really allow. I knew the heat was probably also a factor, but I sheepishly admitted to myself that I’d probably been running at the pace that I’d like to maintain, rather than the pace that I could maintain. I dialed my speed back just a notch, popped more salt, and kept drinking.

I’d been heavy on both the salt and the fluids for so early in the morning (maybe 10:00 AM?), but it was definitely the right call. I’d been fighting sloshy stomach already and really wanted my body to absorb that water. I knew I would need it! Normally I don’t take much salt, but I think that’s because I typically have water in one bottle and GuBrew in the other. I just didn’t feel like the sweetness of a sports drink that day, so I was going with plain water. With the extreme heat, that meant extra salt for sure.

After the Bull Wheel aid station, I ran with Roxana Pana. We’d never met before, but we have a number of mutual friends, so it was great to finally make her acquaintance. We ran together for a few miles and shared sympathies on our similar challenges. It was already shaping up to be a tough day!

Dropping into the descent towards Diamond Peak AS, John came up behind me.
“I thought you were ahead of me!” I declared in surprise. It was great to see another friendly face.

“I’m everywhere!” he declared, to both of our amusement.

We ran the long downhill, and I took multiple opportunities to splash my face in the cold waters of the creek. I was already crusted with salt!

My spirits got a boost as I headed into the Diamond Peak aid station which was packed with cheering fans. Betsy and Jenelle were both there to support 100 mile runners, and they immediately jumped up to help me out. It was like having my own crew! Yay! Betsy iced my bottles while I stuffed my face, then she helped me drink a Coke from my UltrAspire cup. Yes, I hadn’t quite figured out how to use the cup myself at that point. It was pretty funny. It required three hands. (I have a full tangent about going cup-free at aid stations, which I think is a super good thing, but I’m going to try to motivate to give it a blog post all its own. Don't hold your breath.) Someone (Maybe Julie, or maybe an aid station volunteer?) offered me an Otter Pop, and I was like, “Yes, yesyesyesYES!!”

Betsy sunscreens me up at Diamond Peak. She was the BEST! (Photo by Jenelle Potvin)

Betsy sprayed me down with sunscreen, I took a quick douse in the hose (hopefully not washing off all my sunscreen) and I was off feeling awesome! Soaking wet, ice in my sports bra, ice in my bottles, and Otter Pop in my hand. Could life be better?

Well, yeah, I did have that damn DP climb to tackle. Ugh.

“So John,” I yelled ahead to John, who was now running with his daughter, Katie, “remember at mile 3 when you said the first half of this climb was runnable?”

I was teasing him, but I really hoped he wasn’t about to break into a run. I would have felt like a total loser.

“Yeah,” he laughed, and that’s about all the commentary we needed. None of us was going to run this at noon in 95 degree heat.

I did the best I could while I watched John and Katie slowly pull away from me. I was fighting small bouts of nausea and knew I just had to maintain whatever pace my body would allow. I actually passed quite a few other runners on this climb, mostly 100 milers I think, who had started at 5:00 AM. It was clear that Diamond Peak was creating massive carnage even at mile 30. I only hoped I would not be part of it!

I passed my friend, Dustin, who was another first time 100 miler. I could tell he was struggling, and I was worried for him.

“Just keep moving. Take it slow,” was all I had to offer. I wished I had something more inspiring to say, but I was barely holding it together myself.

Helen, making the Diamond Peak climb during a June training run.

Near the top of the climb, I could hear someone madly ringing a cowbell and cheering people on. I could make out the words well before I could see him, and I knew exactly who it was.

“You’re awesome!” he declared to someone. “Hey, you in the shade there, time to get moving again!”

I smiled. Passing out the best mojo around, none other than Greg Holmes had hiked ¾ of the way up the nastiest climb on the course in order to support us. It took me forever before I finally reached him and crawled my way by.

At this point, the hill is so step and sandy that progress is achingly slow. Your foot slides back down half a step for every step taken. In the hot sun, the sweat poured off me and I swayed with unsteady balance. While trying to wipe sweat from my eyes, I accidentally wiped a crust of salt from my face directly onto my eyeball. Gaaaahhh! Now I was stumbling and blind. Would this climb ever end?

At least I had the advantage of being familiar with the climb, and thus not fooling myself that I was nearly at the top when, in fact, I had quite a ways to go. Upon finally reaching the summit, I felt massive relief, but otherwise still pretty crappy.

I took it easy along the ridge back toward Tunnel Creek wondering what was in store for me. Eighteen miles wasn’t really far to go, but in my current state, I knew it would take quite a long time. I felt nauseous, dizzy, and exhausted. This could turn out to be a very sad race for me. I wasn’t really upset by the thought; I just recognized the truth of the matter. It felt merely like a curious adventure. Very Alice-in-Wonderland-ish.

I was doing my best to recover when another woman, who I later learned was Molly Knox, came flying by. She looked amazing. How was that possible when I felt so horrible? I didn’t let myself dwell on it too much. I just had to keep moving and stay positive.

And nothing helps a girl’s mental state like seeing all the awesome folks at Tunnel Creek again! I filled up on water and smiles, and as I left the aid station, I looked back to see if Roxana was anywhere behind me. I saw instead a girl with short ponytails with whom I had run a bit in the first half of the race. I allowed this to motivate me in staying focused and improving my pace. I knew I wasn’t in contention for a top finish or anything, but what the heck. Even when I’m feeling crappy, it’s hard to completely squash those competitive instincts, you know?

But as it turned out, I wasn’t feeling so crappy anymore. I was surprised, in fact, to discover that I was feeling quite recovered, and this further lifted my spirits. I passed a few men through this stretch up to Marlette Peak and enjoyed conversation with several of them. One of them was the one who explained how other runners had judged me to be experienced and paced off me through here in the first part of the race. That comment definitely provided a mental boost!

Eventually the ponytails girl did catch me, and I finally found out her name was Ashlee. We ran together, chatting all the way into Hobart, and it was awesome. I love it when a feeling of competitiveness in me so quickly and easily turns into one of camaraderie.

I left the aid station ahead of Ashlee, but she quickly caught me on the way to Snow Valley Peak. I gave her a brief rundown of the terrain remaining to the finish before she left me on the climb. I don’t know if it was helpful information for her, but I have realized that I usually enjoy answering people’s questions and giving advice about this course during the race. It feels like I’m contributing a tiny bit to other people’s races, and I know I always appreciate it when course veterans give me tips at races that are new to me.

As I neared Snow Valley Peak aid station, I began to do the math. From SVP, it was 7 miles to the finish – about 5 ½ to the final aid station at Spooner, and 1.4 from there to the finish.  In order to run sub-11, I really wanted to be at 9:30 on the clock, giving me 90 minutes for the final 7 miles. That would definitely put it in the bag. However, I knew that if I came through at 9:45 at the latest, I probably still had a good shot. I would just have to work for it.

Of course, I came through at 9:50.

So, I redid the math. Seven miles to go – that meant 10 minute pace. Five of those miles are downhill, so that sounded doable, even at the end of a tough 50-miler. However, I’ve been in this place before, and I know exactly how hard it is. In my 2009 race here, I was doing the exact same math trying to go sub-ten. That year however, I had 80 minutes to squeak under the hour mark; this year I had 70. I knew it meant I had to use my downhills better.

“So, Gretchen,” Ashlee, whom I had passed at the aid station, came up behind me, “sub-11 … what do you think? Can we make it?”

I smiled huge, both inside and out. Great minds think alike, right?

“That,” I breathed, “is the only reason I am even still running this fast right now. Otherwise I'd just be jogging it in. I think we have a shot at it, but it won’t be easy.” I went over the math with her that I’d been doing in my head.

“Do you need to pass me?” I offered. She graciously declined, saying she was going to learn from a more experienced runner. I thought this was funny since the only reason I was keeping up with her was because I’d been passing her at aid stations, but I was stoked to have someone to run with.

I kept a close eye on the watch as we closed in on the aid station at Spooner. One thought kept me motivated and running hard: I really didn’t want to run Firetrails this year! I’m sure it’s a great race, and I’d love to do it one day, but my heart just wasn’t in the ultra training right now. In fact, so immense was my desire not to run any more 50s this year that I took the option off the table right there in the last 4 miles of TRT. It was sub-11 here, or not at all!

I watched the minutes tick by on my watch in agony. I informed Ashlee that we really needed to hit Spooner by 10:46, but I knew in my head that if it was 10:47 we should still try to go for it.

When the aid station was finally in sight, my watch said 10:48. Fuck it, I thought. With Ashlee and me working together, we might be able to run 1.4 miles in 12 minutes. The easy math: about 8 minute pace. Not impossible.

“Okay,” I informed Ashlee, who was running in front at this point, “we’re going to run right through this aid station, and we’re really going to have to go for it.”

She didn’t question me at all; she just picked up the pace. So. Freaking. Awesome.

“Turn right here. A hard right!” I yelled to her as we passed the aid station. There wasn’t time to look for turns, and since I knew the course I gave directions when necessary.

We flew around Spooner Lake, and I give Ashlee full credit. I said run hard, and she ran HARD. She kept a pace that most ultrarunners wouldn’t even bother with, and I loved it. I was barely hanging on, and I knew I wouldn’t have been able to do this without her there.  She set the pace, and I tried to do my part by feeding her tidbits of course info. 

I thought about how I had grouped up with some other runners and raced through the last 3 miles of Lake Sonoma last year in an effort to break 9 hours. This was very much the same type of racing experience, and I must confess, it was brilliant. There is just something so awesome about charging hard and pushing for a goal, and it’s even better when done with other runners.

Ashlee was astute enough to yell ahead to other runners so they had plenty of time to get out of the way as we came by, feet flying, arms pumping, breathing hard. We got a lot of cheers of support, and I, running behind Ashlee, had several people tell me “Go get her!” I smiled at this because how could they know that we were actually working together, not competing against each other? Plus, ultrarunning is pretty dull as spectator sports go, so it’s fun for people to see a little bit of racing going on. I totally get that.

As we approached the final straightaway with the finish in sight, my watch said we were just barely going to miss our goal. Damn! Well, nevermind the watch, we had to push it all the way across the line. We’d run through a long, difficult day, and been heatedly focused runners for the last 7 miles. That wasn’t going to change in the last 50 yards, regardless of time.

And guess what? My watch didn’t quite match the race clock, and I finished in 10:59:13 officially, with Ashlee 3 seconds ahead. Yesss!! How glad was I that I had ignored the watch in those final seconds!

The two of us spent quite a while in the finish tent recovering, exchanging hugs and excitement and congratulations, and just feeling generally stoked about the whole day. I told Ashlee that now she must put her name in for Western States, even though she’s never run a 100 before. She was just giddy because this was a one-hour PR for her for 50M. 

It’s funny how you can struggle so much in a race, have such a huge low, and then, because the final few miles were so fun, (and, okay, because we met our goal by the skin of our teeth) you think it was actually the best race ever. It was!

You might think that because I have previously run 9:57 atTRT, I wouldn’t be that excited about 10:59 (aside from the whole WS qualifier thing). But I know there were a lot of factors making this a more challenging day, not the least of which was my mediocre training. Honestly, I could not possibly have been happier with my race, my effort, or the way this played out. It was an incredible experience, and that’s one of the things I love about ultras – every race is different, even ones on the same course. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Ashlee for tearing up the trail with me, and clearly that was the most rewarding part of my day.

We finally stumbled from the finish tent to the post-race “party zone.” My stomach really wasn’t ready for food, so I drank a few sodas while sitting around sharing race stories with Jamie, John, Ashlee, Helen and some other friends. Jamie and I took advantage of the showers (cold, but when it’s still 87 degrees out, that’s not such a bad thing) because we wouldn’t be going home before the next leg of our adventure.

For many years at TRT, I’ve witnessed John Trent and his family participate in the races and then go up to Tunnel Creek to work the night shift. I’m always kind of torn between racing and volunteering here because they’re both so much fun, so this year Jamie and I decided to follow the Trent family’s lead and do both! Next stop: Tunnel Creek Aid Station!

I finally managed to down half a burrito as we bounced up the bumpy Tunnel Creek Road in Jamie’s 4-Runner. We picked up Joe, who we ran into along the way. He was hiking up to crew for four friends running the hundred. They’d come all the way from New Jersey, and all of them were running without pacers. I was impressed, to say the least. Just a little more ultrarunning awesomeness.

Volunteering at Tunnel Creek was an absolute blast, as expected. I’ll be honest, I was already tired when I arrived and I really just wanted to sit down. But when you see those hundred-mile runners coming in, you realize you’re being a total pansy-ass for wanting to sit. 

Jamie got assigned to the kitchen, and my job was attending to the needs of runners as they arrived – filling hydration packs, fetching food, pouring drinks, finding things in their drop bags, whatever. Not only is this a fun and social job, but it’s totally rewarding, too. These guys and gals were working their butts off in record-breaking heat, and I could attest to the brutal conditions that they had been facing all day already.

Volunteering with Noe (pic is from 2012, but we were both back this year, of course!)

Things started to get pretty quiet by 2 or 3 in the morning in terms of runner traffic. Cots in the medical tent were filling up, and Jill Trent and I tried to perfect the brewing of coffee with a percolator over an open flame. (Jill finally got it mastered.) While the day-shift people got some much-deserved rest (Except for Andy and Joanne, who I don’t think get to sleep all weekend!), Lon, Katie, and Annie had a dance party with a Kelly-Clarkson-Miley-Cyrus soundtrack. Things get weird at TC, boys and girls, but in such a great way.

Volunteering at TC, 2013. Photo by Noe Castanon

The best part about working Tunnel Creek is the progress you get to see. Because runners come through here 6 times in the 100 mile race, you can really monitor how they’re doing. I saw so many people come back to life over the course of the night!

Jamie and I bailed at sunrise because we had been completely worthless for the previous hour. I made it home by 7:00 AM feeling like I had run a hundred miles myself. The whole experience had also felt equally satisfying as running a 100.

I have to give a huge congratulations to all the runners, whether you finished or not. I saw a lot of heart out on that course that weekend. Also, a huge thank you to all of the organizers and volunteers. There’s a reason this race has become so popular, and you all are a big part of it.

As with every other experience at Tahoe Rim Trail, this year did not disappoint. For the last seven years in a row, as a runner, pacer, or volunteer, I have participated in these races in some form. I’m not planning to break that streak any time soon.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Western States Weekend 2013

Heat. Bloody, ridiculous heat. The Thursday before this year’s Western States weekend, that was my biggest concern. Now, two weeks later, I just remember it all as incredibly fun, and the heat-factor as simply adding to the excitement and challenge. Easy to say, since I didn’t have to run the entire 100 miles, but still. It’s funny how that works.

As with most years, this year I did a combination of volunteering at the race, and pacing for Jamie. An awesome combination of activities for those who didn’t get a slot on the starting line.

Working the check-in table with Stan. (Photo by Chipping Fu)

Friday morning, Stan Jensen and I gave out wristbands at the check-in at Squaw Valley, allowing me to greet each of the runners and wish them luck. It was great fun because I got to chat with many friends, foreign runners, and elites alike, all of whom were excited to be there. There’s an electrical energy coursing through the runners at Western States check-in, and it’s quite contagious.

Checking in Tim.

Jenelle checks in with her crew.

By the time Friday afternoon rolled around, and it was too hot even in Tahoe, I started to worry about the heat. Jamie, with four silver buckles in four years, has been an incredibly consist runner at Western States. She’s also good in the heat, so I knew she’d do well, but triple-digit temps are going to be a huge challenge for anyone. Like me, for example. I even started to worry about my task of pacing 40 miles in the 80-90 degree temps I’d face overnight. Unlike Jamie, I tend to wilt when the mercury rises above 80.

In preparation for my pacing gig, I skipped the start and slept late Saturday morning. By the time I met up with Jamie’s crew (her husband, Jim, and friend, Nicki) in Auburn at 3:00, I felt excited and ready in spite of the heat.

Team Jamie: Nicki, Jim, and me.

Calvin cheers on his mom with his uber cool shades. "Go Mom!"

We headed to Michigan Bluff where we happily absorbed the race drama unfolding all around us. The front of the race had already gone through, but we witnessed some of our speedier friends looking strong, as well as a few elites whose races were already coming apart. We squeezed into the shade with hordes of other crews, discussing strategy for how to help Jamie when she arrived, depending on how she was feeling. I sucked down coconut water, and generally felt that there is no better way to spend an afternoon.

Waiting patiently at Michigan Bluff.

Most brilliant aid station poster ever!

Jamie’s spirits were high, which made us all happy, but she kept apologizing for being slow. Ha! We just rolled our eyes at her and assured her she was not slow. Slow is all relative, I guess. She was about 30 minutes behind her splits from previous years, but I was actually pleased with that. It meant she was wisely dialing things back a bit in the heat.

Walking Jamie out of Michigan.

By the time she arrived at the circus that is the Foresthill aid station, she was charging. She’s a master at getting in and out of aid stations quickly, and soon we were heading down toward the river together.

Leaving Foresthill

Most of the time as a pacer, I think of my job as keeping my runner company, monitoring her nutrition and hydration, and assisting with staying on-course. None of these things is very challenging with Jamie at States, so I don’t usually find pacing too stressful. This year, however, I was also paying a little more attention to her pace because I knew sub-24 in the extreme heat would be a tall order. I also had pacing duties from Foresthill to the finish, instead of just Foresthill to Green Gate, which is my usual gig. Somehow, I felt this meant I had to take things more seriously.

She made great time to the river, and the water as we crossed felt wonderful. I even wished it had been colder since, even though it was 11:30 at night, it was still painfully warm out. I would have dunked myself completely under if not for the cell phone in the top of my hydration pack.

At the far side of the river, I calculated that we had made up 15 minutes on 24-hour pace since Foresthill. I was excited! I knew if she could make up another 15 minutes by Highway 49, she still had a chance at sub-24. Although she was still passing people and moving up in the race, I could see by ALT at mile 85 that we were unlikely to make that goal. I felt like she was moving strong, but the watch is always so damn honest.

I didn’t mention the unlikelihood of sub-24 to her at this point, for fear it would take some of the wind out of her sails. I figured my job was still to keep her positive and focused on moving forward. By the time we reached No Hands, I know it had to be obvious to her, but it wasn’t until our watches actually hit 5:00, on the climb up to Robie, that she acknowledged it. And in the predawn light above the glow of the river, we kissed her sub-24 streak goodbye with a few philosophical words. Sad, but in its own way, kind of beautiful. I couldn’t criticize her for feeling a little disappointed in spite of an incredibly impressive race because I totally understood it. I would have felt the same way. But every race is different and can’t really be held to the same expectations as its predecessors. And thank God for that, or running a hundred miles might start to get boring.

Two days later, she said this Western States was her favorite. With the exception of my one time as a racer, I think it was mine, too.

At the finishline with my badass best friend.

The finish line at Placer High was its usual, emotional site of joy. I witnessed many friends make their lap around the track, and I cried every single time, starting with Jamie.

Clare, Scott, and Jamie after Scott's finish.

Was it hot? I barely remember. I just know that Jamie kicked ass and never gave up. I was lucky to be there. One of the beauties of Western States is that, even though it’s hard to get into the race, it’s so easy to be a part of it.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Eugene Marathon

If I could tell you only one thing about the Eugene Marathon, it would be this: Go run it!

Of course, if you know me, you know that I have far more than just one thing to say on the subject.

Tracktown, USA!

Eugene first caught my eye last year when Charlie and I were scoping races for a spring marathon to run together. We figured Eugene would be a great place to run fast, and Big Sur would be perfect if we just wanted to relax and stick together for the whole race. Obviously, Big Sur was the right call, but after looking so closely at Eugene, I knew it was one that I wanted to run one day. Turns out, I only had the patience to wait one year.

My training has been what you might call bipolar. With an overloaded work schedule and a frequent lack of motivation, my main goal has been to enjoy my running. I didn’t do any of the long, goal-pace road runs necessary to run a truly fast marathon. It just didn’t sound like fun. Instead, I spent weekends in the canyons with Jamie. What my long runs lacked in speed, they more than made up for in enjoyment.

My weekly mileage for March and April averaged somewhere around 40. Not bad for marathon training, if not exactly spectacular. The only thing I did do to help myself was put in some solid track workouts.

I’m not afraid of a vicious set of intervals, although it’s true that my favorite part of any speed session is that slow, satisfying, barefoot jog around the soccer fields after it’s all over. I spent Tuesday evenings at the Reno High track and ran, among other workouts, a bunch of those damn Yasso 800s. Such a love-hate thing, interval workouts.

Marathon day approached, and I’d managed to average 3:01 for 8X800 during track workouts, but only 7:50 pace for a “long” road run of 16 miles. What did this mean for a potential finish time? No clue.

I was more than a little shaken by what happened at Boston, and I just couldn’t get myself out the door for any final training days. Sickened and confused by the bombing of an event I love, motivation abandoned me. It resulted in a significantly longer taper than I would normally give to a marathon leading into a season of ultras, but whatever. I truly didn’t care.

I knew the one thing that might lift my spirits though. Running a marathon.

I was also extremely lucky that Charlie had agreed to join me for the weekend, even though she wouldn’t be running. It’s so rare that I have my own, personal cheering section! I also have little interest in travelling any real distance for a race if I'm doing it all alone.

We spent Saturday hanging out at the farmer’s market in Eugene, getting a slice of the local culture. It was a perfect pre-marathon day. We sat on the grass in the warm sunshine eating tamales and watching the bluegrass kids vie for territorial rights to various street corners. I’m fairly certain U of O has some sort of entrance requirement about being able to play either the banjo or guitar, with extra credit given for fiddle or washtub base.

Sunshine, organic local produce, and banjos. Yes!

That night we ate Gyros and found an awesome movie theater where they serve you beer and burgers while you kick back on the couch and watch Ben Affleck get Americans out of Iran. We really need one of these theaters in Truckee!

Race morning arrived with perfect temperatures. The cloud cover meant it was warm enough to start in my tank but would never get uncomfortably hot. I made my way to corral B (for 3:05 to 3:25 finishers) and bid Charlie farewell.

Pre-race, with Chuck.

Before the gun, we had a moment of silence for all those affected by the bombings at Boston. It may seem cliché, but this was one of the most powerful moments of the race for me. You know how things are at the beginning of a marathon: The announcer’s getting everyone excited, telling us how many minutes to the start while enormous speakers pump out Eye of the Tiger; runners are bouncing up and down in the crowd or feigning last minute stretches; a mass of well-tuned and rested bodies is ready to bolt down the open road; energy fills the air. So to have that energy so quickly silenced, sucked away as if by a vacuum, was impressive. We all stood with bowed heads, no background chatter, not even a baby crying in the distance. Silence.

And somehow feeling slightly more connected to the runners around us, we headed off for our marathon adventure.

I had tucked myself between the 3:05 and 3:25 pace groups in an attempt to stay out of the crowds. Still, the first few miles felt uncomfortably tight, and I mostly focused on navigating among the other runners and not tripping.  We ran through quiet neighborhoods with adorable houses – thousands of feet stampeding through the middle of the street, while inside, people slept that beautiful sleep of Sunday mornings. Or maybe the thundering feet woke them up; I don’t know.

Excited at Mile 1

I made a lightning-fast outhouse stop at mile four, and when I emerged, I could still see the 3:15 pace group off in the distance.

I knew I really wanted to run faster than last year’s 3:19 PR at Napa, but I honestly didn’t know if I’d trained well enough for that. I felt wonderful, but of course it was still quite early. My strategy became “Don’t get ahead of the 3:15 pace group.” Sometimes I get a little annoyed at the pace groups because it’s always so crowded around them, but at Eugene, I was truly grateful for that 3:15 group.

Time and again I’d be running along, just going the pace that felt good, and all of a sudden, there he’d be – that guy with the sign that said “3:15.” I’d feel the claustrophobia of the crowd and slow down to let them go ahead. My body wanted to go faster, but my brain said, “Relax. Don’t be stupid!” Generally in these situations, it’s better to listen to your brain.

the night before, Charlie had studied the map for the best places to cheer, so I knew where to look for her: miles 1, 8, 16, and the finish. This was fortunate, since for most of the day I spotted her before she saw me, and looking forward to those brief encounters was a great way to break up the race.

Mile 8

I entertained myself by trying to memorize all the hilarious signs people had made so that I could share them with you guys. Of course, I can only remember a few, but there were so many good ones!

At mile 1: “The End is Far!”

More than once, I saw: “Pain is temporary, posting on Facebook is forever.” Oh how true.

Held by a dejected looking little girl: “This is the WORST parade ever!”

Held by some hipster kid: “Motivational Sign”

Eventually I promised myself that if I still felt good at mile ten, I would allow myself to pass the 3:15 group. Mile ten came and went, but I was just too uncertain to pick up the pace. Same story at the half marathon. Finally, at mile 15, a parting of the crowd coincided with a short downhill. I took that as a sign and went for it. I averaged seven-flat for the next five miles, and suddenly I only had six miles to go.

Mile 18. I felt completely amazing here!

I found myself at the most wondrous of places: at the end of a race, on PR pace, passing other runners like mad, and feeling great. Of course, most people will tell you that mile 20 is nowhere near the end of a marathon, and they’re right. But my ultrarunner’s brain knew it was nothing, and my body told me clearly that it was not going to blow up during the course of the next six miles.

My pace slipped to 7:10, and I focused on maintaining it. But here’s the thing: when you know you have a big PR in the bag, and you’re really not worried about anything, it’s kind of hard to push yourself. I kept thinking about how I felt during the final miles of Napa last year, and there was a stark contrast. I’d been hurting at Napa, and trying desperately to hang onto a sub-3:20 finish. I’d pushed hard with everything I had.

But in the final miles of Eugene, I had already exceeded all of my own expectations. I knew there was more in the tank down there somewhere, and I tried hard to go for it – to make this PR as big as possible. But I knew I felt nothing like the pain of mile 25 at Napa. I felt a little guilty for not being able to dive headfirst into the pain cave. A few twinges of guilt, however, could do nothing to derail this train of near marathon perfection.

The finishline is at Hayward Field, which is so totally, completely awesome, except that you only get to be on the track for, like, ten seconds. The stadium was packed with cheering fans, and people pressed up against the fences. I’m pretty sure they were all screaming my name. Next time, I will run slower for that part.

I looked at the clock, and it was rapidly approaching 3:12. I thought, “Ooh, I could go under 3:12!” and sprinted for the line only to miss it by one second. Then I sheepishly realized that was the gun time. My chip time was 3:11:42. Wahoo! An eight minute PR!

The finish line! You can see why I sprinted to make it under 3:12. Heh heh, silly me.

Charlie and I kicked back on the soccer fields with a beer while the worst 80’s cover band ever blared in the background. Just then, the clouds lifted, and the sun shone down on my blissful face.

Signing the poster for Boston.

Eugene sent the poster, signed by all the participants, to Boston.

I declared myself in need of a hamburger, so after showers at the hotel, Charlie Googled “best burger in Eugene.” We took a leisurely stroll along the Willamette, through green grass and sunshine and several parks, to get to a place called Cornucopia and the best burgers not only in Eugene, but probably the entire universe.

A few stats on the day:

Finish: 3:11:42
First half: 1:37:10
Second half: 1:34:32
Average pace: 7:19

I know what you’re thinking: “You started too slow!” But I really have to disagree. I always do better when I have a negative split. Maybe I could have picked up another minute with a faster first half, but I have absolutely no regrets about how this played out.

And seriously, you should go run the Eugene Marathon.