Why do they run?
Wednesday, July 24, 2013
Postscript: As part of my duties as DBD Adventure Club Chronicler, I was recently charged with the task of researching the social factors inherent within the long distance trail running sub-group that seems to be thriving here in the Northland. The Club’s leadership, lead mainly by the Mallory faction, has become concerned about a couple members who seem to have been inexplicably drawn to these people and their strange ways. Fundamentally my job was to determine whether our boyz were being drawn in to a counterproductive cult or that these people have adopted habits and traditions that may be advantageous to the pursuit of adventure and thus should garner a more detailed study. The following is an abridged version of my report as submitted to the DBD Honor Board during the summer of 2103.
Why do they run?
Why do they run?
In an effort to understand that strange subcultural set comprised of long distance runners, two weekends past I covertly entered their realm. My primary goal was to make an effort to understand these people and their unusual ways. In other words, to initiate the groundwork to begin an unbiased anthropological study of the long distance trail runner. Now of course if you are an adventure cyclist, you are now asking yourself, “Why?” Below I shall try and convey to you my reasoning and then submit a justification.
To begin—Like you, Dear Reader, it is true that for the first forty-five years of my life I simply dismissed these people as neurotic and/or cautious skinny folk that ran out of sheer fright. Collectively, a subset of shy persons that discovered early on that if they were to survive in an often-nasty, “fight or flight”, aggressive world, they would have to learn to take flight effectively, efficiently, and to run far far distances.
In my world, like yours, other than occasionally beating up a flock of cross country runners on my way to football practice or duct tapping a troop of them to a flagpole during summer camp, I never really took anytime to interact with them. I vaguely remember that a covey of these stick-people were allowed onto our track team, but they were kept separate from the rest of us. While we all hung out on the track next to our high school, lounging on the big puffy high jump and pole-vaulting pads or played Frisbee on the lush grass infield, they were forced off campus, relegated to actually running in the local neighborhood streets. There coach, an English Literature major, too, was skinny and exceedingly shy. They all seemed to run as perhaps a herd of terrified gazelles would run when exposed on the grasslands of the Serengeti. That is, they ran as if lions were chasing them. Back then…I thought of myself as a lion. Of course I was a fool back then…I am just now figuring that out. Such is the curse of wisdom. Most people don’t obtain wisdom and if they do get a bit of wisdom, it comes when they are too old to apply it…
Essentially throughout my school dayz I came to view them as peculiar, but harmless, and so I left them pretty much alone. Sure, standing in the lunch lines, I stole their desserts off their lunch trays like everyone else did in both high skool and college, but that doesn’t count as real interaction. So apart from a few indirect contacts during my school dayz, my life’s path and that of the long distance runner was on completely parallel tracks. Now it is true that relatively recently I have been exposed to some impressive long distance “foot racers.” Especially when I first began competing in the Arrowhead 135 some years ago. But these hardy men were often times former weapons dealers (from France), wrestlers, or rugby players or the like that had simply decided to essentially hike the Arrowhead because they couldn’t ski or they didn’t have the right kind of bike. They really were not runners per se or at least I convinced myself of that…
All this changed last February when I encountered Dave Johnston of Alaska. Here was a true long distance runner and yet he was nothing like the stereotype I had conjured in my limited brain. Here was a Man’s Man that had beer bottles stashed in his drop bags, ate frozen bacon by the handfuls, and laughed a hearty laugh even in times of sheer exhaustion and desperation. He opened my eyes, forced me to look with renewed perspective at these people. He forced upon me the idea that perhaps I could learn something from these waif-like bipeds? Now in fairness, the good Dr. Buffington, along with Mr. Kershaw, have been extoling the virtues of long distance trail running in developing raw toughness for sometime, and my friends at Esko including Mr. Hexum and Mr. Smith were relatively honorable men and they ran long distances, but it took my eye witnessing of Johnston’s amazing effort along that 350 mile stretch of the Iditarod trail that forced me to seek a detailed and more studious accounting of the sociological forces influencing this subgroup of enduro-athletes. Could it be that the DBD has been wrong about this group all along? The aforementioned are all tough Hard Men as are the likes of John Storkamp, Matt Long, and the Lonesome Luddite…Are we as an adventure society missing out on a whole group of potential candidates for membership?
Of course the only accurate way to begin to understand a novel species is to live amongst its population. Therefore I resigned myself to partake of the Eugene Curnow Trail Marathon held two Saturdayz past. It is important to note that apart from my scientific curiosity, I was fired up to partake in this specific event because in doing so I would to be a part of the honoring of Eugene Curnow (who has recently died), as I knew him to a fine generous man and I greatly respected him.
Buffington and I met up ay my home at 4:15 a.m. and then drove in separate cars over to the finish line in Carlton, Minnesota (about twenty or so miles south of Duluth) with the idea that we would leave a car at the finish and drive the other to the start. Of course, there existed a flaw in our plan in that Jason would beat me to the finish by a couple hours even if I had a good effort. Such is the generosity of this amazing character. But to our delight, a school bus was waiting and so together we jumped on a bus that would ferry us back to the start @ Spirit Mountain, the ski resort just south of Duluth. This way, we both had cars waiting for us at the finish. It had rained all night and during the bus ride over we encountered torrential rains, but interestingly there was no talk of cancellation amongst the riders. No whispers of closing the trail were discernable, no laments pertaining to mud or slippage. No one seemed concerned about being fried by lightening. I happily took note of the fact that on one seemed to find the likelihood of sloppy, even grim conditions problematic. No one seemed dissuaded, and no one seemed worried. In stark contrast, had it been a normal mountain bike race in today’s era of meticulously groomed and highly maintained courses (like golf courses really), the race would have been cancelled and moreover, it would be likely that the manicured course would be closed for a week or more until everything was just right again…Note: Just sayin' I wouldn't want to be a guy trying to sell mud tires into todayz world of mountain bike racing when even the threat of a downpour causes a race cancellation...
The scene at the start was very unrushed and casual. People waited in line to sign up. There was but one category consisting of a 26-mile race, unlike the modern phenomena in many popular events where there can be a plethora of age (and even weight) categories, combined with different distances and course configurations; all designed to make as many people as possible feel like they are “champions.”
Highly fit, fluid, and sinewy athletic-types freely interacted with aging folks with misshaped joints and broken strides. Although it was clear from my physical attributes that I would bring up the rear, John Storkamp, a top notch runner and 2nd place finisher later in the day, engaged the author in unrushed, pleasant discourse ranging from our shared experience in Alaska to the whereabouts of Pierre Ostor. I saw many friends and acquaintances. People that I knew, but I never knew that they were runners. I began to suspect that I had been wrong about these people. I began to feel not unlike that of the Grinch at the point of his rebirth. In essence, young and old, fit and those in various stages of decline all seemed fired up and ready to tackle the same challenge. I’d say there were some hundred and sixty at the start. My heart grew three times in size as the gun went off to start the race…
Prior to the race, I had set a strict personal protocol to follow, which was based on two fundamental overarching rules: 1. Under no circumstances would I allow myself to get some kind of long lasting injury, like a torn calf, a twisted knee, or a blown Achilles Heel; 2. I would walk the steep downhills so as to not unduly stress my fragile, worn-out knees. To bolster Rule #2, I used ski poles the whole distance and found that they worked well in cushioning the impact during steep descents and was actually an advantage on the steep clay and muddy ascents.
I have found that if I start off walking for the initial twenty minutes of a trail running effort, my old joints tend to limber up some and I feel much better during and after. Therefore as the throngs of people took off from the starting line, I was left alone to ponder my inadequacies and mortality. This was a bit humbling for me, especially as a small group of well-wishers, perhaps half-a-mile from the start, cheered for me with accolades designed for a man in my tenuous position. They yelled, “You can do it!” and “All that matters is that you’re out here trying!”
After my warm-up period I began to do a bit of jogging. As the terrain became more rugged I began to catch up to some of the ancients of the sport. These were old old men and women. Several had to be in their seventies and many were in their sixties. One old codger’s legs were so bowed, gnarled, fused, and otherwise disjointed that they reminded me of the antiquated limbs of the famed Spirit Tree of Grand Portage. I felt inspired…for if he could do the miles then so could I and moreover this man was out there doing it at an advanced age…his love of the long distance game was uncomplicated and pure. “Unconditional love for a particular sport or endeavor speaks favorably of the pursuit,” I noted in my research log.
As I progressed onward I came upon an overgrown boulder field that they call Jarrow’s Beach, which is named after a long time and noted local distance runner and athletic shoe storeowner. While the true runners apparently dread this segment as it forces them to walk or risk a broken ankle, I liked it as it gave me time to relax and to converse with a young guy that was also using ski poles. He had been born and raised in Gordon, Wisconsin and was using this race as a practice session to prepare for the Superior 100 Mile race that commences in early September. Like me, he was quick to declare his non-allegiance to the running community, but also like me, he seemed captivated by the community’s zest for a good challenge. He commented, “My plan is to see if I can do it.” I guess there is profound honesty in such a statement. I often tell my students that one of the great enduring questions in life is: “How do you know what ya don’t know?” Motivation, thusly, can be defined as the futile effort to continuously and proactively attempt to uncover things that you did not know. Can I go 100 miles on foot within thirty-eight hours? The young man from Gordon will know the answer to that question come early September and good for him. Yes or No— Either way he will be a better person for trying.
Upon leaving the boulder field, feeling good, I began to outpace the lad, so I bid him well and continued onward at about a thirteen-minute mile pace. It went on like that for most of the race. I felt much better than I thought that I would and since I had started dead last, I had the benefit of the illusion that I was going somewhat fast because I was passing a fair number of runners as I progressed along the route.
Now of course the fact of the matter was that the majority of the runners were ahead of me (I finished eightieth out of 150 or so finishers), and some were a couple hours ahead of me. The winner finished in approximately four hours while it took me six hours and twenty minutes. Another interesting aspect of the race was the fact that women were very well represented and were also very competitive (two were in the top ten). I think that it is an accurate statement to proclaim that women are much better represented in long distance trail running than in long distance cycling. According to my calculations, women represented about one-third of the total participants in this particular event.
I continued on and was impressed by the enthusiastic aid stations, where the runners were treated to a wide variety of foods, drinks, and good cheer. Everyone that I encountered along the trail was in good spirits as well, even those shuffling along displaying the telltale stiff stride indicative of one suffering from the dreaded malady known as “chapping.” I was one such soul and as the march extended onward so did the flaming intensity of the rubbing away of my tender skin surrounding my most sensitive private areas. Finally at the second-to-last aid station, I asked matter-of-factly if there was a first aid box available for my use. No doubt sensing my discomfort, the volunteer, (a paternalistic, no nonsense looking woman), handed me a huge jar of Vaseline and pointed me to a large tarp-like structure that was stacked to the ground to form a shield. The application brought immediate, if only temporary relief. Yet, I knew I could make it to the finish, so I just resigned myself “to sleep in my bed.” The end was near when I did start to experience some serious leg cramps, but such issues are usual for me so I soldiered on walking with a broken gait the last couple miles. At the finish Jake Boyce was there to welcome me. Jake is a top-flight cyclist, skier, rower, and I now come to find, a darn good albeit secret runner as well. The very next day, he rode in a local mountain bike race and did very well. It was most impressive to me…
As implied at the onset, empathy, not sympathy, was my quest. I am now confident to report that these are a robust people not afraid of challenge and that we could learn from them especially in their approach to completing long arduous travel over terrain, the like of which will not afford the use of a bicycle or ski. Perhaps one measure of the quality of a trail race is the degree to which the route is essentially unrideable or skiable. This particular course would have allowed one to ride substantial segments, but even so it would be a close match between a competent rider paired against a strong distance runner.
Perhaps another one, may be a fifty miler, is in the cards for the writer. All in the interest of preparing to ski the Arrowhead 135 come early February 2014.
Sunday, July 7, 2013
“A beverage as black as ink, useful against numerous illnesses, particularly those of the stomach or bowel. Its consumers take it in the morning, quite frankly, in a porcelain cup that is passed around and from which each one drinks a cupful. It is composed of water and the fruit from a bush the natives called Bunnu.
—Léonard Rauwolf, 1583, Reise in die Morgenländer
The Lutsen 99er did not disappoint. Yet things did not start out well for the author. Perhaps a bit of background or a brief digression is warranted to help explain the dire situation he found himself in as he made ready to ride his trusty Gunnar along a 99 mile course that begins and ends at the fancy Lutsen Ski Resort some ninety minutes of so northeast of old Duluth.
Being a true temperance man, fully in command of all faculties at all times, I am committed to a strictly held doctrine that allows one to ingest fermented liquefied barley and hops only after being awake for five hours. Of course abiding by such a dictate necessities great sacrifice and will power. Yet many of my associates maintain that it is this strict personal adherence to such a severe mandate that affords me my youthful good looks and easeful manner, (whilst my critics claim that it explains my propensity for hitting my head frequently). As a kind of scaffolding to aid me in staying true to this austerely puritanical life choice, I do allow for and even rely upon the ingestion of copious measures of an ancient mixture of hot water brewed or percolated through the powdered form of the fruit born from the Bunnu bush, upon awakening from my nightly slumber. While I do occasionally wash my parts in water, I find its taste to be woefully inadequate in comparison to the fluids associated with both the brewing of the Bunnu fruit and the various grains of the Great Plains of these United States of America. Therefore for me, in terms of hydration, it is Bunnu in the mornings and malted barley and hops in the post-mornings.
Thusly I return to the problem I faced pre-Lutsen 99er—
I was forced to leave very early from Duluth last Saturday as I thought the race started at 7:00 a.m. (it actually started at 7:30). I had wanted to leave at 4:00 a.m., but I overslept ‘til 5:30 due to the night before and an overzealous barkeep @ Brewhouse and the sublime Oatmeal stout he was touting, and did not get on the road until around 5:40 or so. We have great Bunnu here at home, but I was in such a rush I took off without taking the time to brew up a thermos or to pack away a cache of malted grains (to be enjoyed only after the clock struck 10:30). It was just as I was leaving the Zenith City of the Unsalted Seas that I realized my crucial mistake. With growing trepidation, for my wellness was at risk, I made the rash decision to soldier onward for twenty or so miles to the small hamlet of Two Harbors where I was confident that I could find my morning drink, albeit in a cheaper, less virile form. Salvation was had at a Holiday Store at the extreme outer edge of Two Harbors. I stopped and ran into the gas station, poured out a large dark roast, paid the sleepy buxom malcontent at the counter and hastily headed back to my car. I was by now worried about missing the start (I have done it several times) but even so, I gave the Gunnar a second look as it appeared slightly off kilter. A closer inspection revealed that I had not adequately affixed the straps and thus the bike was in danger of flying off the rack. I made the changes, jumped in the car, and took off. Not long down the road, I sensed catastrophe. Instinctually, as I looked into the rearview mirror, I groped for my coffee to settle my nerves, but there was no cup. There was no cup of Joe cuz I’d left it on the roof of the car. The die was cast, I knew then at that moment that I was in for a long day…My only hope was to get to the start at Lutsen with time enough, so as to find a coffee shop or the like before the gun went off.
The problem was that at this point my whole system was in disarray for the morning coffee acts as the catalyst. It gets the whole process moving. Not unlike the fabled Lung Fish of the Kalahari Desert that can sit encased in mud, idle for months, even years, in a trance-like state waiting for that one day when it rains; nothing is gonna happen for that Lung Fish until it gets itz shot of rain, there aint gonna be any eating or darting about chasin’ other Lung Fish or anything else that Lung Fishes do until it gets itz initial water needs met. Such is the case of my innards as they wait for the life-giving Bunnu. Without the life-giving essence of coffee there can be no catalyst for movement. Without coffee there can be no activity, no life, no chasing around other humans. I worked hard to hold back the tears of a forlorn man. Ultimately, there was to be no coffee on that day. I lined up at the start as a zombie. I feigned a smile as there were many friends about and their positive vibes were contagious. The gun went off and I took off in the knowledge that I was in for a long day in the saddle.
The course was varied, interesting, challenging, and seriously fun when it came to blasting through big puddles and fast flowing streams, but I was surly and incontinent for the first couple hours. Less than an hour into, I was still racing, still a man with a mission. I went to pass a guy on a rugged, grassy descent and cut him off in my panic to miss a boulder. No one went down, it was accident, and so he probably should have let go after I mumbled a half-hearted, indifferent “sorry”, but he loudly and profanely called me on it using an overtly aggressive tone and so I uncharacteristically aggressively returned in kind. The result was an escalating childish tick-for-tat shouting match that went on for more than a few seconds, maybe more, and then we got back to trying to stay on the bumpy course. I immediately felt stupid and foolish. I felt ashamed of myself. If you are reading this and you’re that guy, please accept my apology. If there can be any justification for my actions, please accept that it was the lack of coffee talking, not the usual happy-go-lucky me. The fact of the matter is that I was being a jerk and there ain’t no way to get around it. To conclude this sad chapter: Amid a throng of bike racers, conjure an aged, bloated, weighty, crimson-faced man squeezed into a blackish jersey (with flaming orange highlights), pressed into tight ratty red bib shorts, ranting away at some poor, youthful bike racer as the others look away aghast and you will begin to feel why I am embarrassed. Later, I told my buddy, Eki, that I was probably 80% in the wrong.
Shortly after my little inexcusable tirade, I came racing down a relatively steep incline and drove my front wheel into a basketball-sized boulder; by luck it was a glancing blow, a flesh wound. I did not go down as I was able to sort of ride it out by turning hard as I made impact, careening off, and thus staying upright; sparing my rear wheel. Yet there was no denying that I felt the wheel buckle on impact and so I waited (with dread) to hear that “POW” noise that comes with a catastrophic blow out. But inexplicably I did not hear that “POW” noise. Instead I immediately heard that high-pitch tweeny noise of a spoke breaking under the pressure. I pulled far over and off the course into a cluster of bushes, partly to not cause a crash as there were many in hot pursuit, but mostly to try and hide from the guy I’d cut off just a few minutes before (and those that witnessed my infraction and subsequent rant). Stranded, alone, and forlorn. As I dismounted, I remember thinking, as the cruel pestilence of summer fell upon me with unbridled bloodlust—Such is the providential righteousness and justice of the trail. "Upon a pillory - that all the world may see. A just desert for such impiety."—Or in short: I got what I deserved.
Initially as the merciless, albeit opportunistic mosquitoes, deer flies, and no-seeums had their way with me in devilish delight, I tried to twist the busted spoke around its neighbor, but it didn’t work as it kept hitting the brake caliper. So I was reduced to just bending the broken spoke back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, in harried fashion, until it broke off at the nipple. A particularly ambitious rogue, perhaps in pursuit of some kind of medal of valor, attached himself to my lip and gave me a bite so hard that I winced and slapped simultaneously. I was not able to determine if it was the slap or the bite, but the blood was mine. My brave enemy fell crumbled to the forest floor. Perhaps the account of its fatalistic heroism shall become part of the annuls of insect lore. A salty blood taste and resulting pain forced concerted action, I jumped on the compromised bike and took off, only to hear and feel and see that the tire was rubbing, rubbing, rubbing hard on the fork with every revolution. The buggy vanguard with fresh reinforcements seemed to revel in my despair, especially the fearsome deer flies brigade, which had taken me to a new level of feverish loathsomeness. I cared not for my future; my only concern was to get off the wet, marshy trail and away from my tormentors. Instinctually, for elevated thought was no longer within me, I sensed that my only salvation would to gain the higher ground in the form of a gravel road.
Rightly so, I took the busted wheel as a proper punishment for my transgression and yet I hoped that I’d be spared a full on DNF. The compromised wheel acted as a governor, allowing me to push hard with maximum effort, but with little speed to show for it and the certitude that in the near future, if things did not radically change, the constant rubbing would wear a hole into the tire’s sidewall. Finally I arrived to a gravel road. I rode up to the apex of a hill and with a wind blowing; the bugs went into hiding, providing me with a brief respite. I stopped and pulled off the front wheel. As I inspected the damage, Brian Hayden of Duluth (a former reputable road racer in his youth), in a gesture not unlike that of the Good Samaritan of Biblical fame, stopped and offered that he could render the wheel usable if I was in possession of a spoke wrench. Of course I had no spoke wrench, but he stayed anywayz and as the constant throng of riders came whistling by, we begged for a spoke wrench, ultimately to no avail. Finally I convinced him to leave me to my fate. And then shortly thereafter I too decided to try and limp the bike onward to the first aid station, where I hoped there maybe a spoke wrench and also a person able to use it as designed.
Not long after I had started up again, Dave Cizmas came by me and offered heart felt assistance. Dave is a young and strong bike racer endowed with a most impressive physique that was sculptured in part by lifting engine blocks as a child. In any event, he told me that I’d better “fix’ the wheel before I tried to go much farther because if I stayed on track with the status quo, I would most probably wear a hole in the tire before I got to the aid station. His manly remedy involved slamming the imperfection out of the wheel “with great vigor” into the ground in an effort to force a righting of a wrong. A kind of “Might makes Right” approach to the problem. He was with his girlfriend, who was doing very well and had a chance to finish high up in the standings, so I told them to keep going and to forget about me. As they rode away, I took the wheel off the fork and slammed it against the ground with all the force I could muster. I placed it back on the fork and was surprised to ascertain that I’d “fixed” it good enough to minimize the rubbing. I was off again in search of the first aid station.
Shortly thereafter I arrived to a bustling aid station. I spied an Erik’s Cycles banner and made for the mechanic that was manning a mobile bike shop. He was in the process of fixing another bike, so I left mine and went over to a table full of great snacks including peanut butter and jelly filled raisin bagels. By the time I’d consumed a couple of the bagels, he was ready to assess my situation. Within just a few minutes and the deft use a spoke wrench, combined with a techy tensioner gauge, he was able to straighten my wheel to near perfect. As I thanked him and began to pull away, he warned me that the wheel would not be very strong and to therefore ride “soft” through the trails. As a testament to his abilities, the wheel held up very well, it did become a bit wobbly as the day progressed, but the rub was gone and it got me the rest of the way to the finish line.
In any event, whilst I wrestled with trying to lie in the bed that I’d made for myself, real men were out there racing. Three of the very top guyz (including 2nd place Lillie, 6th place Bush, and 10th place, 47 year old, Tom Meyer) all forgot to bring more than one gear and suspension forks to the dance, but they seemed to do just fine. Thatz weird, I hope someone sets them straight on the necessity of possessing all that techy, expensive stuff if ya wanna go really fast. Locals Eki, Mike Bushey, and Shawn Miller all put on great efforts. As implied above, my buddy, Tim Ek, finished in 5th place overall in an outstanding 6:21. This race effort for Eki stands as a measure of the potential he still holds, look for continued success for this man in his prime. Expect further high finishes for this humble cyclist. Mike Bushey was right there as well in 7th place. Eki conveyed to the author that Mike Bushey put on a well-planned clinic in terms of how to ride a rigid bike fast and efficiently. The amazing thing about Bushey, who is a highly accomplished mountain bike racer; he is just a neophyte when it comes to endurance racing. Apart from being a fine cyclist, he is a gentleman of the highest order.
Todd McFadden, the seasoned, albeit ageless phenom, may have won the whole thing had he not had to deal with a leaky tire. The good news is that after two efforts at plugging the hole, he used with success a new innovation in cycling technology; it is called a “tube.” Still the delays cost him and so he had to settle for a top eleven finish. Whilst on the topic of new and exciting innovations in cycling technology, rumors have it that some of the leading bike companies are coming out with high-end race bikes affixed with just a single front chainring! Also, (note: this cannot be substantiated by brand administrators at this time)—Just as Specialized took the lead in the development and refinement of the 29er, Specialized has created a kind of “clown bike” designed around very wide rims and tires. Apparently this wider “fat-bike” design will be used by those interested in riding on snowy trails. But I digress…
My buddies from a recent foray in Alaska were all there at the race. The indomitable, yet ever cheerful, Dan Dittmer was right there with McFadden. While Ken Zylstra and Mike Criego turned in admirable times. Other noteworthy performances included a high finish by local academician Dan Glisczinski, bean-counter Bart Rodberg, and the jovial duo of Don Jahr and Chris White. It would be amiss to also not mention the champion of the 60-to-Death category winner, Mark Wilhelmson. Greg Ames on his own hand-man bike turned in a good effort, as did Rudy O’Brien on top of his beautiful titanium Carver.
In closing, it all worked out and they even had a fine brew at the finish line. I still love bike racing…but I be a mess without me coffee in the mornin'