Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Unacceptable Consequences

Question: After I frostbit my toes at Arrowhead in 2007 how long did it take me to recover completely?

It seems that some interesting stuff happened at Arrowhead this year. It was a tough year and that brings out the best and worst in people. Actually, it's one of the reasons I go. I want to see myself at my best and at my worst. I want to learn what I am capable of and where my limits are. Sometimes those limits are physical, but more often they are mental. Failure to make good decisions is a case of pushing yourself beyond your mental limits.

First off I should point out that I don't know all of the parties involved in the issues at Arrowhead this year. I know a few of them. Nor was I there.  I believe that some people made mistakes and that they were just that, mistakes. It doesn't mean that they are bad people. I don't think that they are “lacking in character” or anything like that. At least they haven't given me any reason to think so. If they are like anyone else at Arrowhead then I am pretty sure that I like them. I have made some big mistakes at Arrowhead myself.  Those mistakes were my fault and I think that I have owned up to them. I hope that others can do the same. Maybe not today, but after some thought.

When we enter races like the Arrowhead, TransIowa, or Superior 100 we expect a little adventure. We expect to come out of them with some crazy stories to tell. That's one of the reasons we do it. In a sense we want to get ourselves in a pickle and then get ourselves out again. We love to hear stories about breaking a bone and still finishing a race. The thing is that there are acceptable consequences and unacceptable ones.

Some acceptable consequences are:
  • exhaustion
  • soreness
  • mild hallucinations
  • using snow as toilet paper
  • blisters
  • a few days of limping around
  • eating lots of junk food
  • wear & tear on equipment
  • bruises and scrapes
  • accidents
We think that these things are okay and we accept that they will happen. None of them (except accidents) are particularly dangerous and we happily indulge in them.

Some unacceptable consequences are:
  • frostbite
  • dehydration
  • bonking
  • sunburn
  • drinking your own (or someone else's) urine
  • heat exhaustion
  • giardia
These things are unacceptable, dangerous, and there is no good reason that anyone entering into any of these races should have to deal with them. As one friend of a friend put it: “De-hy-dration. You did that to yourself.”

In a shorter race, even a 100 mile gravel ride or 50k run, many of these worries simply don't come up. You can push yourself to the limit and vomit from the exertion. That's okay. It's acceptable in those races. You can cut corners (so to speak), skip aid stations, dump your water before the final sprint, all that good stuff. You take a calculated risk.

Endurance races, races that take more than say 8 hours or take place in extreme conditions are different. You don't know what will happen. You must know yourself well, know the conditions well, and know the course well. Corners simply can not safely be cut. You are taking a calculated risk just by entering the race.

Arrowhead is billed as one of the coldest races in the world. Some say it is one of the toughest. I can't speak to that. I haven't been to all the races in the world. What I do know is that -30f is no joke. Things happen fast at those temperatures. They go from bad to worse without much warning. The first thing to be is prepared. Have plenty of food. Plenty of water. Know that you can use all of your required gear, including your sleeping bag and stove.

Some people have said, “if you stop at those temperatures you will die.” That is simply not true. If you went through gear check you have all the tools necessary to survive at those temperatures. When I got too tired to see straight at Arrowhead in 2011 I pulled out my sleeping bag and pad and took a nap at -40f. I was comfortable and it felt great. The same thing goes for your stove. I have never had to melt water from snow during Arrowhead, but I have done it in practice down to about -10f. It takes a long time, it's true, and you should be in your sleeping bag if it is especially cold out, but it can be done. Being prepared means having the equipment, knowing how to use it, and just as importantly being willing to use it. I said earlier on that making mistakes is a case of beyond your mental limits. Being unwilling to use your gear is being beyond your mental limits too.

If you read the reasons that I didn't go to Arrowhead this year you know that one reason, perhaps the key reason, was that I didn't want to be in a hurry. It sounds silly: I didn't want to go to a race because I didn't want to be in a hurry. Isn't racing about being in a hurry? No. Endurance racing is the tortoise and the hare. It is festina lente.  It is making the right decisions. If you are in too much of a hurry to do things right then you have failed.

One of the things you must be willing to do is re-evaluate your situation. If you are too focused on winning, on beating someone else, or even on finishing then you will not be willing to re-evaluate. If I had gone this year I would have had a 48 hour time limit that I set for myself. That might have been very realistic for me to accomplish on skis in a good year, but cold snow makes for slow skis. I had to rethink what was likely.  The only skier to finish this year finished in 54 hours and change. I have no doubt that he is a good skier. I also have no doubt that he had to re-evaluate his expectations. In the end 60 hours probably felt like a realistic goal and anything faster was gravy.

Well, I've gone on for too long here. In brief what I want to say is: someone made a mistake and that mistake led to unacceptable consequences. Once he put himself in that position he had to get himself out and perhaps he did the right thing then, in the short run, but the situation was totally avoidable and should not be celebrated.

Oh, and the answer to the question I posed: I still haven't completely recovered, even after 7 years.   

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Why I won't be at Arrowhead this year.

I have been going to Arrowhead every year since 2006. Since then I have finished four times, twice on bike, once on skis, and once on foot; DNF'd 4 times, 3 times on skis, and once on bike requiring a snowmachine rescue. Temperatures have ranged from +35f to -40f and trail conditions from a virtual highway to unbroken to bare earth or gravel in spots. I've seen pretty much everything and have nothing to prove.

This race has been a big deal to me and shaped my life entirely for the better (minus a couple of toenails). I am much more mature, capable, and happier than I was at the age of 27. I can't say that Arrowhead was solely responsible, but it taught me that I could do what I set out to do. It was the first thing I had started, struggled with, and completed. Prior to that I was easily discouraged and gave up at the first sign of trouble. I really didn't try very hard at anything. Nothing really seemed worth it or really mattered to me.

It's silly that a race without any tangible value could be the one thing that really mattered to me. Perhaps it is because it was my own goal; no one else had any interest in seeing me finish. One person actually told me that they would support me in anything I did except stupid things like the Arrowhead.

Biking the race told me that I could do it. I went in without any real training and finished. An accomplishment, but without meaning. Skiing though was what became my white whale. My first attempt in 2008 earned me the Myrtle the Turtle award for the last person to the halfway checkpoint. I dropped out there, but that award, just making it halfway was a real victory. The next year I resolved to actually train for the first time in my life. I made it halfway without trouble, but didn't have another 75 miles in me. 2009 with smarter training actually saw me at the finish on skis. It wasn't fast, but it was and is the greatest, most meaningful, accomplishment of my life. It sounds crazy, but it is; maybe my life is empty like that.

I say this because the Arrowhead is the reason that I am back in school. It is what showed me what work really is. It convinced me that I have what it takes to graduate. Of course plenty of people graduate without having to go through what I have. I don't know if it is simply easier for them or if they understood something that I didn't. Sometimes I think that the Arrowhead is a remedial perseverance class. Some of us just need to learn the hard way.

School is something that I failed at. I don't need to go back to get a job. I have one that I'm happy with. I'm not going for anyone else, even though my graduation will make some people very happy. Heck, I'm getting my degree in Philosophy, what more useless degree could I be getting. I am going back because it is something that I failed at and going back is a victory. Every day that I go to class, every assignment that I turn in is a victory. When I graduate it will be a victory. It will mean as much as the Arrowhead. It already does.

Aside from the personal victories everyone I know through the race is an inspiration to me. Everyone who toes the line and gives it their all, no matter how far they go, is someone I like and want to be around. Many of those people I only see once a year and I won't see them this year.

That is why my decision not to go this year is so tough. It is one of the three toughest decisions I have ever made. I feel sick making this decision, but I know that either way it went I would have felt sick. There just wasn't any perfect way out. Sometimes there isn't.

When I signed up for the Arrowhead last year I knew that it was going to be a stretch to do both it and school. I thought I would be able to miss three or four days of class without a problem. It turns out though that I have a lot of work to do. School is hard. I spend hours reading and writing every night in addition to going to class and working 30 hours per week. In particular, next week I have three short papers due, and an exam on Thursday. I was going to have to hurry the race along in order to get back in time for that exam. I know from hard experience that hurrying is not something you should do at -30f. That is the time for slow deliberate action. The race is 60 hours long and you have to be willing to take 60 hours. Hurrying is why I dropped out last year when I had a good shot at finishing. Hurrying is how I got serious frostbite and had to be rescued.

Skipping three days of class and doing a slap-dash job on a few papers and an exam won't cause me to fail classes. That isn't the point. The point is that I can either do both poorly or one well. If I could have done one well and one poorly I would have chosen that.

Well, that's a lot to try and say in one blog post, especially a long overdue blog post. I will miss all of you up in International Falls, at Melgeorges, SkiPulk, and Fortune Bay. Some of you I will see at Trans Iowa, some in Duluth later this year, some maybe not until next January, or not at all. I will miss the trees, hills, flat swamps, and the cold. The Arrowhead chapter of my life is not closed, but will have to wait another year.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Swim the Bridge 5k

A couple of weeks ago I swam my first 5k race. The race was Swim the Bridge at Saylorville lake near Granger. If you're familiar with that area you probably know the “mile long” bridge. We swam under that. It's very dirty and sort of smelly, but it's the biggest lake for 100 miles. It's what we've got.

People seem pretty impressed by a 5k swim, but it didn't seem like that big of a deal to me. In high school we used to swim 1200 yard warm-ups then do our workout then another 1200 yard cool-down. I'm pretty sure we did well over 5k every day. Sometimes more than once per day. I suppose all that experience swimming came in handy. I'm very comfortable in the water and know I can swim all day so there's no anxiety, even when I'm (sort of) far from land.

I haven't done much open water swimming though so that was new. In a pool you can stare at the black line at the bottom and not have to look up and see where you are. It's very easy. In open water, especially Iowa water, you can't even see your hand in front of your face. In order to see where you are and where you're going (and you have to, it's pretty much impossible to swim in a straight line without constant correction) you have to break stride (stroke?) and look up. It's even harder for me since, without my glasses, I can't see very well. Several times I couldn't see the next buoy and had to look for other swimmers in my vicinity to guess what direction to go. It gets doubly hard when you're told to turn at the first orange buoy and you're colorblind. Yeah, I couldn't tell the difference between the orange, red, and green buoys. For the most part it didn't matter, but once I did have to ask a saftey boater which way to go.

Several races (1.2 mile, 2.4 mile and 5k) all started at once so there was a bit of a scrum from the beginning. Lots of groping and getting groped going on. I didn't mind much as, again, I'm comfortable in the water, but I can see how it could be annoying. After the first 1.2 mile lap, when about half the racers finished their race, things got settled out and I was pretty much alone after that.

The first lap I did front crawl, but the second and third I did breaststroke. Breaststroke is much easier for me both because I can see where I'm going and it was what I raced from the ages of 8 to 16. I can swim breaststroke faster than a lot of people can swim front crawl and very efficiently too.

Afterwards I talked to a few people I knew and a few I didn't. A common sentiment was, “How could you get back in and go out for that last lap?” That was a little mystifying to me. Why wouldn't I? I signed up for 5k, I'm going to swim 5k. I never thought I wouldn't be able to do it.

Anyway, it was pretty fun and I think I'll do it again next year.   

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Midnight Madness 5k & 10k

A couple of weeks ago I did the Midnight Madness 5k and 10k races. For those of you who don't know about them these road runs are a big deal here in Ames. I had never done it for a number of reasons: I run that far several times a week so why pay $30 to do it? I prefer to run alone most of the time and this race has hundreds, if not thousands of people in it. The big deal seems to be the party afterwards. I am not much of a partier.

Well, this year a few things came together to convince me to do it. First off, a friend contacted me asking me to do it, offered me a new pair of racing flats, and guaranteed me a PR (I hadn't run a 5k race since high school and had never run a 10k race). Then just a few minutes later I ran into the race director (Captain Midnight) at a coffee shop (though his persuasive speech focused more on the party and less on the run).

So on the day of I laced up my new shoes for the first time, just minutes before the start. The race started and for the first half I wasn't sure whether it was the 5k or 10k race (I had signed up for both). I really hoped it was the 5k because I was going way too fast for a 10k. It was surprising just how many people I knew both running and among the spectators. It seemed like every 10 meters I was saying “hi” to someone. I guess when you've been in town for 17 years and a visible part of the athletic scene for 11 it shouldn't be a surprise. There were more than a few “what are you doing here” moments. Luckily it was the 5k and I finished with a time of 20:47. I wasn't sure what to expect, but it seemed okay. Faster than many, slower than some. It's all relative.

I had about half an hour to wait for the start of the 10k so I walked around a bit and ran into yet more folks I knew. One happened to tell me about the 5k Swim the Bridge which I'll be racing tomorrow and others asked about the Arrowhead (I was wearing the shirt). I knew I'd have to back off and run my own pace in the 10k. In a 5k it seems like I can pretty much go all out, but in a 10k you really have to let go of your ego and let people you know are slower get ahead of you if that's what they want to do. So I reined it in for the first 5k. In the second half I pushed to keep the pace steady. A lot of those people who had passed me in the first half started dropping back and walking. I was glad of my easy first half. I thought I might end up with a negative split, but that didn't happen, though it was close (I don't have my splits). My finishing time was 47:43 which I thought was pretty good. The shoes were great and didn't give me any problems though in such a short race they really shouldn't.

Afterwards I got together with one of my cousins who happened to spot me when I was running. We ended up getting cake and ice cream with his girlfriend's family and missing the after-party. That's more my speed anyway. Will I do it again next year? I don't know. I had a good time and it is interesting to try and run fast rather than try and run far. I can see how someone could get into that. Maybe I'll see how fast I can do a marathon next year. Still I'm more of an ultra-runner at heart.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Books Read: June

Railsea, China Mieville
More good stuff from Mieville. Again I can see some folks not liking his stuff because of the suspension of disbelief required and breaking of convention that he loves to use. To me that makes it all better. Much of the time when a book builds suspense and it looks like there's going to be a big reveal at the end it just doesn't pan out. I as myself quite often with television and book series, can they end this well? What sort of ending would be satisfactory? More often than not I can't see any ending being up to the task. Some authors embrace this, think of the ending to Sopranos (which I haven't seen, but I know how it ends) some just fail, think of any series by Orson Scott Card. Mieville actually pulls it off. The end is sufficient to satisfy the buildup. That's a rare book.

Teachings on Love, Thich Nhat Hanh
I saw this at the library and picked it up. Then I put it down. Then I picked it up again. I think you can guess why: the title. It is not a very masculine title. It would be easy to feel self-conscious about carrying this one around. Not only am I reading a book about religion, but it has love in the title. I can't speak for everyone, but I think that in the culture I was raised in it is usually frowned upon for men to talk about love. I remember after going to a funeral for a good friend's father my friend told me, “When you get home tell your father that you love him.” She was very serious and sincere, but I didn't do it. Why? Because I was self-conscious about it. Well, the fact is I do love my father and I shouldn't be afraid to say so. I love you dad! There, I finally said it (well if writing counts) more than ten years later.

So, on to the book. This book is about love and love is about communication and understanding. Communication is the difficult part, at least for me (see above paragraph). Actually the understanding part probably comes down to communication too. After all how can we understand anything or anyone if we aren't willing to talk about it. I've had a few problems with this. With being self-conscious and unsure of myself. Afraid that people won't like me if they don't know me. Of course this is self defeating. If people don't know me they won't like me. Or at least they won't like me for who I am. Hold on. Here I am talking about love and using the word like. Is that fair? Man there's a lot of social baggage on that word 'love'.

Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz
This was the 'It' book a few years ago. All nerdly and literary. It got great reviews and I can see why, but I didn't like it. Much of the praise for the book revolved around it's use of nerd/geek references. Unfortunately, as I read it, those references serve only to highlight the main character's (Oscar's) immaturity and naiveté. Imagine that, geek references used to put someone down. Oscar is described as a fat nerd and is constantly trying to "get some" with awkward Star Trek inspired pick-up lines.  It's embarrassing and disappointing. If you want magical realism read Marquez. If you want a Carribean story read Gaiman's Anansi Boys. If you want geek culture read Ready Player One.  Maybe I didn't get this book.  I'd be happy to be wrong about it.  Feel free to tell me why this book is better than I thought.  

Knuckler, Tim Wakefield
I can't say why exactly I picked this one up. I had it written down as a book I was interested in, but I can't for the life of me figure out why. It's a pretty strange book, the first autobiography written in the third person that I've read. I suppose that's a nod to the fact that Wakefield didn't write it. A sportswriter did and it shows. It reads like a list of games scores and statistics. We never get to know Wakefield. He gets married has kids and devotes his free time to charities all with the vaguest of references. It's not at all like Andre Agassi's autobiography Open. That is a great book. Wakefield seems like a nice guy, a peacemaker, a team player, but unless you are a rabid Red Sox fan don't bother with this one.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Back to School

I announced a couple of months ago that I was going back to school. It was actually pretty hard to say. I've been thinking about it ever since I was kicked out 13 years ago. Honestly I don't blame them I was pretty worthless and not making much of my time there. Some semesters I hardly attended classes, much less did the assignments.

The incredible thing though. The thing that separates this time from every other time in the past 13 years is that I actually went ahead and did something about it. I talked to the Philosophy Department secretary and got the ball rolling. At first it looked like it was going to be an easy ride, now, after getting some bad news from the LAS College, it looks like I'm actually going to have to work for it. I suppose that's only fair. So ISU won't let me back yet. They don't trust me and who could blame them? I have to take some classes elsewhere first. Here again, I actually did something. I applied, and have been accepted at DMACC.

Now it may not seem like a big deal to be accepted to DMACC. You might say, “it's a community college, they accept anybody,” but that's not true. They only accept people who apply. I did that. The first time around I didn't. I don't know if I even filled out any forms to get into ISU in 1996. I know I had a chance to be in the honors program and I let it slip because I had to write a 300 word essay. Yeah, I had a pretty acute case of Entitlitis. Of course I also felt like I was going to college because I had to, because what else would I do?

Several times in the past few years I've said something like “College is harder than running a 100 mile race.” I believed that. It certainly looked like it on the surface. A race like that seemed like a sprint. Less than 48 hours. College will be maybe two years of work. But if I look more deeply I see that I run (or bike or ski) at least an hour every day to prepare for a race. If I put even that much work into school I expect it will be easier than I am worried it will be. I see that my old views on this are something like thinking that finals are all there is to college. Finals are certainly a big deal, but if you didn't prepare all semester how could you expect to do well? Or even finish?

Actually, I was a little surprised how few people commented on my goal of going back to school.  But if I think about it I think I've let enough people down in this arena that they didn't want to get their hopes up.  Thank you to those people who did encourage me though.  Who told me that I could do it. 

This time I'll be working for it. I don't know if I have a better idea of why I'm going to school, at least career wise, but I do have a better idea of what I want from it. I want to prove that I can do it. I want to put it behind me. 

 I'm actually quite anxious (and by that I mean eager) to begin.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

A couple of non-race reports

Relay IA

In early June I did a relay event across the state, 339 miles. It's similar in format to relays you may have heard of: Hood to Coast, Ragnar, etc. Most teams had 12 members ours had 7 at our best, 5 at our worst, so we each did a lot of running. Those of you who know me know that I'm not much of a team person. I can work with a team, I did, but it's not my preference. To subsume my own opinions and submit to the team is not something I like doing. I put up with it and don't complain (much) though. Sometimes, because I'm not terribly outspoken, people assume I like to be in a supporting role. Not true. There's a reason I like events like Arrowhead and TransIowa, you're forced to rely only upon yourself for support. No one else there to bring you up...or down.

The running part of the event was good. I'm not used to road running, I race and train primarily on grass and singletrack, so my knees weren't quite ready for the pounding they got. Really it wasn't too bad. I developed a blister early on and my right knee gave me some trouble the second night, but all things considered I think I did pretty well for ~57 miles in three days.

Speaking of mileage I think I'm the only one on the team who didn't have a GPS watch to tell them pacing and distance. I don't wear a watch. It doesn't matter to me what my time is and carrying a watch won't make me faster. I get that if you train with it you have another way to pace yourself, but I prefer doing it by feel.

You might get the idea from this that I hated it and that's not true. I certainly had my struggles, but I made some new friends and came away with it feeling appreciated. I would consider doing it again, but right now it's not a high priority.

Relay IA photo by Chuck Fritz

Gravel Dude

You probably remember that I was going to do an “Ironman distance” triathlon for my birthday. Well I tried...sort of. I was pretty nervous going into it largely because I had invited other people to join me. I didn't know who was coming and the directions I had written up were untested at best. I was also concerned about some knee pain that I had developed during Relay IA and then exacerbated during a gravel/mountain bike ride two weeks earlier.

In the end only Matt Scotton (TransIowa vet. and Relay IA teammate) showed. We did the swim at Peterson's Pits with a last minute change to keep the course within the approved swimming area. I hadn't actually been swimming since doing a few laps at a health club in Finland more than a year ago so I wasn't sure how it would go, but it turned out pretty good. Apparently having been a competitive swimmer from ages 8 to 16 is an advantage.

After the swim we set out on the bike course. We had a nasty headwind out of the NW and got rained on as we approached the Des Moines River valley. Soft gravel, headwinds, and a stupid hilly course forced us (okay, me) to shorten the ride to 80 miles, but we still had fun.

I shortened the run to a 13.1 mile half marathon, partially to save my knee and partially because I just wanted to be done before midnight. It turned out to be a pretty good course and I was feeling pretty good for the first nine miles or so. The last few miles were rough on me though. I hadn't been eating well and it caught up with me. I finished with a pretty epic bonk.

By the time I was home (thanks for the ride Matt Scotton) I couldn't decide whether to shower, eat, or pass out. It was even tough to start eating as the first few bites were difficult. After that I started to gain some strength and recover. It's a good reminder not to get into that energy deficit area. I think maybe I worked harder than I thought.
The Bike of Theseus at Peterson's Pits