Sunday, March 3, 2019

Thoughts on the Run #3: Fountain Cave

On my long run the other day, I ran past a historical marker. You know, the ones that are heralded by green or brown signs across the small highways of the United States. The ones most people pass by without a second thought.

In fact, I have run by this plaque several times in the past without stopping. This time, though, I caught the title of the plaque out of the corner of my eye: "Fountain Cave." I find caves fascinating, so I turned off the bike path to give it a look.

Apparently, just downstream from the marker, there used to be a cave with a stream pouring out of it. In its time, it was one of the more famous landmarks along that stretch of the MIssissippi. Back in the early 1800s, it was popular with explorers, several of whom wrote about it in their journals. Travelers and tourists used to stop there on their travels up and down the River. The sculpted sandstone cliffs were said to be beautiful.

It was also the site of the first permanent (meaning, I assume, white, European) structure in St Paul. In the 1830s, a cast-off from Fort Snelling, just upriver, built -- what else -- a saloon there. Later on, there was even a small refugee settlement on site.

Why, then, I wondered, had I never seen or heard of Fountain Cave? I have explored most of the length of both banks of the Mississippi over the past 5 years, and this is just the sort of feature that I would find fascinating. My favorite spot along the river is actually just upriver from the marker: a small slot canyon carved into the sandstone bluffs.

The cave doesn't exist any more: they filled it in to build the highway.

Go figure.

And that made me wonder: what does it say about us as a species that we have historically been so willing to destroy natural wonders for the sake of our own projects? Why were we so willing to flood Glenwoond Canyon for the sake of a reservoir? Why, on a smaller scale, did we fill in a natural wonder of Minnesota for the sake of a highway?

Why do we so often, to quote the song, pave paradise to put up a parking lot?

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Thoughts on the Run, Post 2: Noise


I live in a fairy middle-sized city —a quarter million people or so — in a reasonably-sized metro area — 3-4 million people. I enjoy many aspects of city life: concerts, museums, shopping, dining; all the advantages you get by simply having a large population of people in a small area. 

There are parts of city life I really dislike, of course: all the straight lines, the constant presence of people, traffic, the lack of natural areas (even though we are relatively blessed in the Twin Cities). Mostly, though I dislike the noise. 

Noise has been difficult for me my entire life. When I was a child, they extended the freeway in my hometown to the point where it ends now: four blocks from my house. Suddenly, I had to deal with something I’d never really thought about before: traffic noise. I remember lying in bed in the summer, the window open — nobody in Duluth had AC, because Lake Superior served us better than any AC unit ever could —unable to fall asleep because of what seemed to me excessive traffic noise.

I would later learn that “excessive noise” is a relative term. 

I live in a city now. Not a very noisy city, in the grand scheme of things, but a city nonetheless. St Paul mostly shuts down after around 9PM on the weekdays, and 11PM on the weekends. Even so, there is constant traffic on the street outside our apartment. We are on an emergency route, so we get the addition of sirens Dopplering by our windows at odd times of the night. People talk and yell, sober or otherwise, and I am a light sleeper: I wake up every peep. 

On the other end of the spectrum, I went to college with people from NYC who had the opposite problem: they had difficulty sleeping in the quiet of the middle of nowhere, Maine. Many of them could not sleep without a TV or a noise generator in the background, because they had grown up with the constant sound of the City that Never Sleeps. 

Strange . . .

The ubiquity of noise was driven home to me viscerally the other day. I went for my normal run on a day when I was particularly stressed. When I feel stressed, my run tends to take me down to the Mississippi. Growing up in Duluth as I did, the mere presence of water has always calmed me down. 

There is one particular spot on the river where I stop whenever I pass it on my run. It’s a spot where barges dock in the summer, just downstream from an old grain elevator. We had just gone through a cold snap, and the river was partially frozen, blocks of ice floating downstream and crunching into each other. 

I sat and listened to the ice crunch for a while, but the sounds of the city — the traffic on the road behind me, the constant “beep beep beep” of construction vehicles backing up, the sirens of the occasional ambulance — kept intruding, and I couldn’t help but think that all this noise cannot be good for us. The constant stimulation, the incessant background hum. 

Even the Boundary Waters, far from the sounds of any city, lie underneath an international flight path. 

I don’t know of a solution, but as I sat there on the bank of the river that day, I longed for a moment of quiet. 

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Thoughts on the Run, Week 1

I have often said, to just about anyone who would listen, that “the best way to get to know a place is to run it.” 

I said this, believing it to be true. I espoused this. I tried to live this, and thought I was doing so. When I travel to a new city, I run it, sure in the knowledge that I will thereby be getting to know the place better than I would any other way. 

I have lived in my current neighborhood for more than four years, running locally the whole time. I felt confident saying that, based on my own maxim, I knew this neighborhood. 

But I have a confession to make: I was completely full of it. 

I know this now because I recently took up a challenge, posed by Rickey Gates, to run every single street in my neighborhood. 

After running more than 40 miles of streets and sidewalks, all within a mile and a half of my apartment, I can tell you that I did not know this neighborhood anywhere near as well as I had thought. Before this challenge, I had probably run less than 25% of these streets in four years. And these are the streets that, according to my own saying, I should know better than anybody. 

In the process of running every single street I found, among other things, a house that looks like it was transported straight from an English village, a row of mansions overlooking a homeless encampment, more Little Free Libraries than I could have imagined, and a Calvin and Hobbes mural painted on a garage door. I saw eagles, red-tailed hawks, and a fox. I found new allies, through, and dead-ends mere blocks from my front door. And I ran by more than a dozen churches.

So does my theory that the best way to get to know a place is to run it hold true? 

Maybe it does, but you have to run a place with intention. 

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Thoughts on the Run

I am a runner. 

People who know me well at all tend to be aware of this. Casual acquaintances tend to be aware of this. The elderly gentleman I run past several times a week no doubt is aware of this. When first learning about my “runner-ness,” there are a few questions that  inevitably arise. One of the most common is “what do you think about when you’re running?” 

To quote Quenton Cassidy, protagonist of the novel novel “Once a Runner,” I often answer “quantum physics.” As he said, it’s as good an answer as any, and for me, it has occasionally been the literal truth. In college, whenever I was stuck banging my head against a particularly difficult physics problem set or take-home exam, I would actually go for a run. More often than not, I would come home to find the solution floating in my mind. 

The truth is, on my easy runs, I think about anything and everything. During harder runs, as well as races, I think about the run or the race. I simply don’t have the mental space to think about anything else. But more than two thirds of my runs are easy, and my mind is free to wander. 

I have often thought that most of my more interesting ideas seem to occur when I’m running. More often than not, I don’t fully recall these meandering thoughts when I get back and return to my daily, non-running life. 

Lately, however, I have worked hard to write more regularly, in a more focused way. I confess I have had this intention many times: I have started and made significant headway on several books, novels and nonfiction. 

Never having been able to finish one of these longer works, I decided this time through to try to write shorter, more focused pieces. This is my attempt to do so. 

Each day, I run. 

Each day, my mind runs. 

And now, each day, when I return from my run, I write down a brief phrase or two that represents some of the thoughts that passed through my head during the day’s run. Later on that day, I use these phrases as a cue to jog my memory (apologies for the horrific pun) and expand on it, writing out long hand. If I deem it worthy, I will later edit it, type it out on the computer, edit it again, and post it here. 

Welcome to Thoughts on the Run. 

Saturday, November 24, 2018

A Tale of Two Ultras

A few weeks ago, coming off the high of a good long run and my first 50 mile week in years, I made what may have been an ill-advised choice: I signed up for a 50k and an 8-hour race a mere week apart. 

What can I say? It seemed like a good idea at the time. 

Or, as another runner so appropriately phrased it: “We’re ultrarunners. We don’t make good decisions.”

I will say in my defense that my goal race (Wild Duluth) had not worked out. I was going to be in another state that day. So I eyed the Hixon 50k, which was the following weekend, as a replacement race. I had just put in one of the better training blocks of my life, running both faster and farther than I had in years, and I didn’t want to waste my fitness. 

But then, I didn’t want to miss the Icebox 480, the unofficial end to the midwest ultra calendar, either. It’s always a fun day, and the 7 mile loop really allows you to see more people than you might think. Plus, I could drop out at any time. 

And a lot of my trail running friends were planning to be there. 

So yes, I had my justifications. The fact remained that I had never done anything remotely like running (potentially) two ultras within seven days of each other. Hixon being on a Sunday, I would only have five full days of rest between the two races. 

Naturally, a few days after signing up for these races, I tweaked my ankle during what would have been my last real pre-race tempo run. 

At first, that seemed like awful timing, but I quickly realized that it might have been the best possible time to have such a minor injury. I had already gotten through my hardest training block and my biggest mileage. I was just over two weeks out from my first race, and all my substantive training was already behind me. As long as I was smart and didn’t push my ankle too hard, too quickly, the forced taper that little niggling pain started might just be the best thing to happen to me. 

I took four days completely off running, foregoing my last longish run, and two other runs besides. I came back that fifth day, on a trip to Madison with my wife, with zero pain. Over the next week, my ankle twinged a couple times but never hurt in any serious way. I proceeded into the land of taper tantrums and over-thinking my gear. 

Hixon 50k

What can I say about this race? I controlled what I could control, and those aspects of the race went well. And what I couldn’t control, I managed. 

Things I could control:
I treated HIxon as a goal race, meaning primarily that I obsessed over this race to the detriment, or possibly the benefit, of the Icebox. As race day approached, and the weather forecast stayed the same (rainy and windy, with temperatures between 40 and 50 degrees), I went back and forth repeatedly on what to wear. 

I decided on a long sleeved New Balance cooling shirt, my capri tights, light gloves, my UMTR buff, and my normal socks and shoes. On top of that, at least for the first part of the race, I would wear my Altra StashJack, the one with the fully open back that’s designed to accommodate a vest. I would be wearing a waist belt, but I figured that the open back would allow better ventilation and keep me from overheating. 

I took the race out at a pretty decent clip, but not crazy fast. As usual, I found myself in the not-quite-lead group: two runners took off, and I stayed with the next group for a while. I wanted to run within myself for the first lap, and then see where I was during the second. “Composure, Confidence, Compete.” was my mantra for the day, courtesy of an iRunFar column. 

With that in mind, I ran much of the first lap with two other runners, chatting about work, about the course, and just about anything else that came to mind. They would drop me a bit on the hills, I would catch up on the flats and downhills. I saw no reason to push the hills on lap one. 

I went through the first of two 25k laps in 2:30 on the nose, feeling good and ready for lap two. 

Things I could not control:
Around mile three, I started to feel water running down my back that was more than the rain could account for. I reached for my bottles and, sure enough, the cap had come off of one of my two 10oz water bottles. I’d be stuck with half the water I had planned for during the remainder of the race. Not a huge deal, with the frequency of aid stations on the course, but it meant I ran out of water a couple times on the second lap. 

At about the same point in the race, I realized just how wet the trail was. So far, I was still in the top 10 runners, and the trail was in good shape. But there were more than 100 50k runners behind me, and another 350 25k runners would star an hour the 50k. The second loop, I knew, would be a muddy mess. 

And so it was. Within the first half mile of the second loop, I had almost fallen twice and I was running almost two minutes per mile slower than my first loop pace. I realized, though, that the rest of the field would be similarly affected, and sure enough, I came close to holding my position in lap two (passed one person, and was passed by two). 

Finally, around mile 22, my watch, now four years old and used almost every day, gave a resigned beep and asked me to “please recharge.” I would run the rest of the race with no GPS data, time-of-day only. 

Ah well, not that important in the grand scheme of things. I knew generally what the mileage was, and I knew we had started at 7:40AM, so no problems there. All I needed was to keep drinking every ten minutes, and eating my 80 calories every 20. 

I came through the second loop and finished the race in around 5:39 elapsed, 11th place over all. That’s good enough for my best place in a 50k. It’s half an hour off my best time, and not the time I had hoped for going into the day, but it was a solid effort and I felt satisfied. 

Between Races
I felt better than I expected after my 50k. I was tired, sure, but I did not experience the same beat-down, I-don’t-want-to-run feeling I often have after other, similarly long efforts. I credit my training for that difference. 

Nevertheless, I only ran once in the five days between Hixon and Icebox. I wanted to run at least once, since that would give me an indication of how I was recovering, but I didn’t want to let myself push the pace at all, so I ran with the Thirsty Thursdays at Theo group. Every Thursday, they run around five miles around Theo Wirth park in Minneapolis, taking about an hour to do so, and follow that up with a beer or two at Utepils. 

My legs felt tired, but not beat up, giving me more confidence going into Icebox. 

I had a few goals for Icebox. First and foremost: have fun. Icebox is the unofficial end of the trail racing season in the Twin Cities area, and it tends to be as much of a party in the woods as a race. I wanted to treat it as such. Second: I wanted to run an ultra-distance. With the approximately seven mile loop, that would be a minimum of four loops. However, and third, I didn’t want to push too hard. I wasn’t sure how my body would react, so I told myself to do whatever I could on the day, and not worry too much about time or distance. 

Icebox 480

Despite forecasts of light rain, Saturday dawned dry and chilly (35 degrees or so) as I drove the 30 minutes from my door to Whitetail Ridge in River Falls. In other words: it was perfect trail racing weather. I got to the start area about 30 minutes before the race was supposed to start, collected my trucker hat, and set up my drop box in the start/finish/lap area. 

I was taking this race much less seriously than the Hixon, so I decided to just go out with a group and see how I felt after each lap. 

The first lap I shared with what must have been the second group of guys (the lead group went out far faster than I wanted to), and the lead woman. I knew a couple people in the group already, so the lap was almost exactly what I hoped for: an easy-ish run in a beautiful area with some friends. Even feeling relatively easy, though, we went through the first ~6.8 mile lap in under an hour. I had thought ~1:05 per lap would be an easy, sustainable pace for me. But my legs wanted to go for hour pace, so that’s what I ran. 

I say the pace was easy, but that’s not quite accurate. At no point during the day did my legs feel good. From the first few steps, I could tell viscerally that I had raced a difficult 50k the week before and that I was not fully recovered. Despite that, I found that I was still able to travel at a good clip. I had less power on the uphills than I often did, but the only hill I walked during the whole race was the steepest hill on the course, at the one mile mark. I decided before I started the run that I would always walk the steeper part of that hill, and I stuck to my plan.

I noticed something else in laps one through three as well: I am not sure why, but I was much stronger relative to other runners in the second half of the lap than the first. I would consistently catch people about 40-50 minutes into my hour-long laps (and laps 1-3 were all just under an hour, not counting my stops at the beginning/end to use the restroom, top off my water bottle, and grab some more calories), and would remain ahead of them until the start/finish area. 

Laps two and three were much like the first. My legs never felt good, exactly, but I could keep a good pace regardless. While the pack I ran with the first loop quickly disintegrated on the second, I started to catch and lap slower runners on these loops, each time getting a little mental boost from interacting with them. I continued with my very successful fueling strategy (drink at least once every 10 minutes, eat 80 calories every 20), and had comfortably settled into the day. 

I briefly considered calling it a day at three laps, but opted to head out on lap four any way, knowing that I had enough in me to finish that, at least. Lap four was a different beast. I was really feeling the fatigue now, both from the day but more, I think, from the previous Sunday. I took one spill in the Hixon that just mildly torqued my left knee, and that started to make itself known late in lap three. I slowed down considerably on lap four, opting to walk while I ate instead of running. 

Mentally, I was still there and thinking that I might do lap five and see whether I might be up for more after that. Again, though, I had already decided that I would pull the plug when the day ceased to be fun. This was not a goal race for me, just a chance to see what I could do. Simply put: I was ready to have fun, but not to enter the pain cave.

So when I pulled into the start/finish area again after 1:15, almost 15 minutes slower than my prior laps, I checked in with myself. My form had started slipping (inevitably). My knee was hurting (see above form note). I had run around 28 miles, a week after racing 31. 

I gave myself some time to change my mind, and even called my parents about my brother’s birthday present. After that assessment, though, I decided that this was not the day to try and break my own distance record, but a day to celebrate just how well my training had gone this cycle, and look ahead to what I am sure will be a remarkable 2019. 

Self Assessment:

In all, I’d raced nearly 60 miles over two weekends, separated by just five days. That’s something I would not have even considered a couple years ago. More importantly, I finished the season without the malaise that sometimes settles in: there was no voice in my head saying I just didn’t want to run any more. 

Two weeks out from Icebox, I ran the UMTR Fall Fatass Frolic yesterday: 9.3 miles in 1:06 and change. I also bought a skate-ski setup, something I have meant to do for years. And this week, I think I might just start my own local version of Rickey Gates’s “every single street” challenge. 

Also, somebody did the Border Route in 25 hours, and I think I want to lower that mark. 

Sunday, November 18, 2018


Barriers are funny things, particularly when they are mental barriers. 

For the entire time I’ve been running, or at least, the time I’ve been keeping track of mileage, the 50 mile week has seemed like both a major barrier and a major breakthrough point. There is no reason that 50 miles should hold such esteem in my mind. 49 miles, seven miles each day, might make more sense from an aesthetic perspective, but from a training perspective there is no real reason that 50 miles is any different than 45 or 55. 

Nevertheless, it has always been firm in my mind as an almost mythic barrier. I have flirted with 50 mile weeks fairly regularly. I often surpass 40 in my training. Somewhat less often, I start to hit around 45 miles per week, usually in the lead up to an ultra. Rarely, though, have I hit 50 miles in the span of a week (I define a week as Monday-Sunday). 

The very few times I’ve reached that point in my training, though, there was no real momentous occasion to it. The 50 mile mark almost seemed to sneak up on me and pass me by. 

That is exactly what happened to me this past weekend. I had run 46 miles the week before, a total that was somewhat unexpected to begin with. I actually ran a good six miles shorter than I expected on my normal Saturday long run, after waking up and feeling tired and uninspired by trail running. To my surprise, after a leisurely 12 on Saturday, I got up on Sunday and ran a fast eight to close out the week on a high note.

This past week,I got a good start. After resting Monday, a day I take off religiously, I hit eight miles on Tuesday, complete with my fastest non-race mile in three or four years sandwiched in the middle of a steady-state run. Wednesday was easy and short. Thursday, I ran twice: six miles fast in the morning, and five and a half in the evening at a slow pace. (Thursday evenings I have started running trails with a couple different groups, which allows me both to socialize and to get some easy trail miles in when I normally would not). Friday was again easy and short. 

I went into the weekend with 27.5 miles on my legs, and no thought of hitting 50 for the week. 

Saturday, though my legs were still carrying a good bit of fatigue from the week, I ran a solid 16 miles out at Afton State Park. I stopped often, taking pictures of any mushrooms or fungi I saw, and chatting with the other runners sharing the trail on what was, after all, a gorgeous morning for a run. I even managed to pick up the pace for the last three miles back to the car. That was 43.5 for the week. 

Sunday, I still had no intention of hitting 50 for the week. 

But Sunday was Twin Cities Marathon day, and I ran around spectating. Soon enough, my watch said four for the morning, and my legs and brain said “why not?”

So I kept running until I hit just about seven miles. And the mythic (in my mind) barrier was broken. 

In the grand scheme of things, obviously. 50 is just another number. But the mere act of running that much in a week has done wonders for my own confidence in my training. More than that, the relative ease with which it happened (there was no special scheduling, no particular addition of miles or runs), and the two relatively low-mileage days in the middle make me think I could do it again. 

And maybe do even more. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Flow on the Border Route

I have a problem. 

It’s the night before I’m going to try to complete the Border Route Trail, a 65 mile wilderness trail across the north woods of Minnesota and through the BWCA, in a day. I drove up from the Twin Cities today, and between Memorial Day traffic and road construction, it took me an extra hour and a lot more frustration and energy than I anticipated. Then I got to Grand Marais, where my wife and I were meeting up with the rest of my crew (my family), in the middle of a bike race.

It’s not surprising, then, that I don’t feel that I am in the right headspace for a long day on a relatively unknown, and notoriously difficult, trail tomorrow. 

I have a plan for it, though. Over dinner at the Gunflint Lodge, while I let my parents and wife hold up the conversation, I retreat into my own head, repeating over and over again in my head “Take what the trail gives you.” 

I continue that mantra throughout the next few hours as we get the last details in order and organize all the gear for the next day. I keep the phrase rolling through my head as I tossed and turned throughout the (short) night, even as my brain shows me, in vivid detail, all the ways that my run might go wrong (would undoubtably go wrong, as my tired brain would have me believe). 

Fast forward a few hours. It’s 9:00AM. I last saw my crew over an hour ago, 11 miles into my day, and I’m now several miles into the BWCA. It’s been four and a half hours since I started my run, and I’m starting to record some thoughts on my GoPro.  I can hear the surprise in my voice later when I say “I’m now 41/2 hours into my run. Funny, it doesn’t feel that long.” 

And it didn’t. Clearly, despite the day before and the limited sleep, I got into the right headspace, and I credit my resolution to “take what the trail gives [me]”, and then to stick with that mantra even when the trail wasn’t giving me the pace I wanted. 

At that point, though, 4.5 hours and some 16 (plus one accidental extra) miles into my run, the trail was giving me what I wanted: sub-15 minute pace while I was running. The navigation was not too difficult, for the most part, but it required my constant attention, both to keep on the trail and to keep from injuring myself. The trail itself told me when it was safe to run, and when I was better off walking. 

The one time I stopped to what the trail was telling me, I put my foot into a hole left by the dislodged roots of a deadfall, and nearly put an end to my attempt. But even that only shook me out of my groove for a matter of moments. 

Simply put, at this point in the day, I was flowing. Time passed easily, and the miles passed smoothly under my feet as I alternated between walking when necessary and running when possible. 

I have never had a flow experience last so long before. For a good three hours, maybe more, I moved steadily forward, time passing without much note taken, and making steady progress. I was even making up time on my “slow” splits, despite the technical nature of the “trail.” And even though I had gotten only a few hours of sleep, gotten up at 3:30, and been on the trail for some six hours now, I felt easy and strong, and more than anything, simply happy to be out in such a beautiful area on a gorgeous, if warm, spring day. 

Then came the alders. My experience of time reversed in an instant. From hours passing like minutes, the minutes started to feel like hours as I had to force my way through the intertwined branches of these blasted shrubs. My attitude soured in an instant, and I fell behind my splits for the first time all day. 

After the section with the alders, I never really got back into a flow state. I kept tabs on my pace, and despite feeling pretty solid and being in a good mental space, I was still slipping back on my goal pace. Not by much (I ended up averaging 18:40 pace, and my cutoffs were at 18 minute pace), but it was enough for me to realize that I was not going to make my self-imposed cutoffs. 

And I was ok with that. But I did get into my head “my crew will be worried.” So I didn’t slow down at all, and in fact ran my fastest pace since Magnetic Rock at mile 33 or so. This was a section of portage, so it was a much nicer, smoother trail than any other section I’d run that day, but I was still pleased that I could run well with so many difficult miles under my belt. 

I have never slipped into flow states that easily before, or for that long. I credit being as ready as I could be physically for the challenge (thanks to this book), and for a few mental tricks and techniques I learned from this one. 

Now, after the BRT, I finally picked up a book on flow, and have been reading it (slowly). Much of it confirms what I already know, but I highly recommend it, and hope to use it coaching my own athletes, once I get that going.