October 30, 2014

A Thousand Times Over

Sometimes, you just know.

When it came to Blake Norwood, I knew from that first March 1996 handshake that I had a friend for life.

His quick smile, big personality, booming voice and comfortable manner set my fairly overwhelmed-at-the-100-mile-distance self at ease from our first conversation. The friendship that ensued grew over the coming years, bringing me back for a total of 17 Umsteads -- a stretch that includes 13 finishes at 100 miles and another four of at least 50 miles.

Umstead was Blake's brainchild, a gentle 100-miler created to give everybody with enough want-to in them a legit chance to finish. The original 10-loop course and its later and current 12.5-mile sister both turned out to be the perfect catalysts for me to erase my earlier hundo woes. The confidence I scored at Blake's annual party slowly, surely changed my life.

When I learned earlier this week of his sudden and unexpected death, my mind when blank. No. Please no. Not long after, however, the memories refilled it. So many laughs. So many times we flipped each other off at first sight (boys WILL be boys!!). So many encouraging words from him shot my way during some low point late in one of his races that kept me going.

Two stories rushed back to me almost immediately.

1998. Blake, multiple toilet paper rolls in hand,  tried to pace me, D.J. Reyes and Ben Clark as we headed out for our 10th and final loop because he needed to refill some porta-johns. Yes, we dropped him. And yes, I made sure to give him shit about it for years after.

The hurricane year. Blake at the halfway point screamed at me to put more clothes on. I, being totally my stuboorn-ass self, told him that I'd be fine in my polypro hat, cotton gloves and trash bag ... only to have the temps drop 38 degrees in the next hour, the rain blow sideways and me drop out 4.5 miles later.

So many, many stories. And Blake is somewhere near the center of almost every one.

Late last year, current Umstead 100 RD Rhonda Hampton put the call out that she and friends wanted submissions for a tribute book they planned to turn over to Blake at this year's race -- his pre-planned U100 swan song. I jumped at the chance and kicked her what appears below ... I am so glad that he got this and that he appreciated all our submissions.

----------------------------

Dear Blake,

How do you thank someone for giving you the opportunity to prove yourself to yourself?



That's what you have done for me with your Umstead 100-Mile Endurance Run.

I remember the 1996 Umstead like it was yesterday. My first 100-mile finish. 24:44. Moving through the night with the late, great Aaron Goldman, who was also chasing his first successful 100-mile finish after a decade of trying. Getting passed with one mile to go by my friends Andy and Shelley Wunsch as Shelley was about to become the female champ. Them asking me if I wanted to share the finish line. Me asking Aaron if it was be OK. Aaron saying sure. Me running five steps with Shelley after having walked for 10 miles straight and realizing that -- you know what -- sometimes you really can't run even one more step. But you can almost always walk one more. Ah, the first of many, many lifetime lessons U100 would dole out to this remarkably slow learner.

I have been fortunate enough to cross a total of 12 Umstead 100-Mile finish lines so far. Some a lot faster than that first one. Some a lot slower. Each journey has been worth every single step. I've made so many friends, had so many laughs, taken so many sleep breaks (hah!), eaten so many of your Myra's coveted finisher omelets and created so, so many lifetime memories.

My life is a much more rich existence because of Umstead 100. I owe you more than I will ever be capable of repaying.

Thank you a thousand times over, brother.

Bill

October 22, 2014

Why?

So many reasons.

Camaraderie.

Blessed stillness.

Precious focus.

Overwhelming peace.

The fire of inspiration.

The other-worldly calm that comes about in those self-directed moments of supreme effort.

Accomplishment.

The promise of power that unfailingly manifests itself on the other side of every single low spot.

The resounding sense of wonder.

The smile that lasts the rest of the day ... week ... month.

The gentle, easy joy of exertion. 

Why do I run, you ask?

To go up. And over. And through. And on. Again and again.

Why do I run?

Simple.

To chase — and some day, hopefully, catch — my very best me.

October 12, 2014

You Are Here

I hear you.

I hear you in the rustling of the leaves on a breezy climb up Little Bald. I hear you in my labored breathing whenever I'm pushing really, really hard on that nasty uphill near the top of Hankey Mountain. I hear you in the non-rhythmic click clack of loose rocks on a steep technical trail – especially after dark. And I hear your silky voice nearly every night just as I drift off to sleep.

I feel you.

I feel you in a calming quiet of an early morning run. I feel you with each footfall on a dirt trail. I feel you in the strain of those first several steps on the way to going really, really fast. And I feel you in the wash of joy that happens the glorious moment a finish line first pops into view.

I taste you.

I taste you in that metallic tingle that invades my mouth almost every time when I'm really jamming the accelerator to the red-line edge on a run. And I taste you with that first ice-cold post-run IPA.

I see you.

I see you in every on-the-run sunrise and sunset. I see you in every fog-covered on-the-run sky. I see you in each on-the-run fall trail. And I see you in nearly every dream.

Oh how I hear you.

You are that peaceful melody that urges me to go one more mile, one more race, five more pushups, two more planks. And sometimes as much as two more hours, even when I truly don't feel like it at the time.

With all my senses, I know that you are here with me. That you are my whisper of forever. And you never, ever disappoint.

Sweet, sweet Satisfaction.

August 25, 2014

Lessons

Man, did I have this one wrong.

And man oh man did I pay the price for it.

I went into my Wild Oak Trail 100-Mile solo supported adventure thinking that it was me vs. the mountains. That if I trained right, tapered well and drew myself up to my most full bad-ass stature at the start,  there would be no option other than the full four loops. My psyche was "Damn the details and full steam ahead!!"

That approach got me just two loops, with the final four hours washing away in the worst suffer-fest of all my running.

Some observations, a mix of erroneous and otherwise ...

• I'm not THAT bad-ass. It would have been bad enough if the critter who destroyed my FS96 drop point aid had just eaten the Fritos, but that critter also punctured the gallon of water I had there. So Pacer No. 1 and dear buddy Jack Broaddus and I did Miles 16-26 in the steamy mid-day temps on half a bottle of water. Oopsie. Didn't seem all that bad at the time. Didn't seem all that bad largely because I have a remarkable ability to ignore any signs my body is sending me (such as that slight burning sensation in my lower back) that things will be getting really, really hard in the not too distant future thanks to this boo-boo. Interestingly, the critter left my Ensure untouched. No need to dwell on the ramifications of that. Next time: A more critter-challenged container sans critter-attractive food. Plenty of room in my pack to carry bars and salty snacks and such.

• I'm not THAT bad-ass, either. Having the option to take the old-school portion of the trail that crosses North River or take the newer Shenandoah Valley Bicycle Coalition spur trail that adds about a mile to each loop but that keeps one's feet completely dry, I chose old school. An extra four miles might be an extra 1 hour plus across the entire four loops, right? Wow. An extra hour. I mean, that could mean the difference between 38 hours and 39 hours. Never mind that my feet would be completely dry the whole time and not as susceptible to blisters and ... (if you want to stop now and look up "stupid," I bet you find my mug nearby. Hopefully it's a flattering shot ... ). Next time: Take the bike spur. Keep the feet dry.

• It's just night running. Whatever. My Petzl Tikka 2 is A-OK for Umstead 100 and Crooked Road 24-Hour and Hinson Lake 24-Hour. It's not even close to OK for Wild Oak. Loop 2 pacer Dave Frazier (aka one of my dear buddies and also the Cold TWOT course record-holder) fired up his Princeton Tec head lamp and -- BAM -- now that's a head lamp. That thing emits more light than one of my Honda Element headlights. Maybe it's just me, but I'm thinking that I wouldn't have put myself in such a fix with my back if I had been able to see better and hadn't slipped 423 times during that foggy stretch after midnight. Next time: Use a real light system. And go practice with it.

• Back spasms suck, but not as badly as a 100-percent pain beat-down all the way across the lower back. I think I've only cramped up twice on runs in my life before this weekend. The third time back on top of Big Bald when I pulled up short after realizing that I was going off trail. ARRRGH SCREAM LIKE A GRADE-SCHOOL KID CALF CRAMP. No problem. Sat down. Stretched the toes. All is well. No way that's gonna happen again on this run ... until the final four hours, when my back essentially decided that it was gonna play a little game with me and see how many times it would make me throw up and sit down, in no particular order. Good news: I only threw up once. Almost within sight of the finish. Other news: I sat down a bagillion times. It never really helped, unless you consider that it made Frazier and I go so slowly that the sun actually came up as we were finishing the second loop. Next time: See above for critter-proof fluid placement.

• Four hours to go 6 miles in the dark and fog is a special kind of beat-down. I once ran an entire Wild Oak loop in less than 6 hours. I regularly ran one in 6:15. Thanks to the dehydration and the sleep factor and the remarkable Left Lean (yes, it does deserve initial capital letters!!), I took me 4 hours to go the final 6 miles. (Did I mention that Dave Frazier is a saint for staying with me? He is. And then some!)

• Hellbenders and Orb Weavers are amazing creatures. Thanks to my night out on Wild Oak with Dave, I can now identify both Hellbenders and Orb Weavers. I apologized to both Orb Weavers on the climb up Hankey for taking out their hard-earned work, although I was still pulling those sticky webs from parts of my hydration vest some five hours later.

What the hell is THAT over there? Fog-covered Lookout Mountain area. 2:15 a.m. Dave sees these eyes peering out from the left side of the trail. None other than a bobcat. Lying down. Watching us watch him. Stunning. Absolutely stunning.

• All I have to do is taper for Wild Oak, and I'll be fine. Haha! HAHAHAH! AHAHAHAHA!! I am at times a remarkably obtuse ultra runner. There is so much more to one of these back country ultra runs -- even with fabulous support crew Vince Bowman and pacers Jack and Dave -- than showing up to the starting line in tip-top shape. Details matter. Next time: Put out extra water. Lots of it. In thick containers. Without food in them. Get a real head lamp. Buy some hiking poles and practice with them.

• It sure is special out there in those mountains. While I am still stinging from the indignity of falling so miserably short of my goal, there were so, so many hours of pure, unfettered one-foot-in-front-of-the-other joy being out there. I'll be forever grateful to Jack, Dave and Vince for helping me chase this dream of mine. This time, I came up massively shy. Yet oh, the stuff I learned. Next time: Plan some better. Be less aggressive. Take what the mountains give. Respect the place a bit more.

Will I dance with The Wild Oak Trail again? Yes. Yes I will.

And next time, I'll keep all the Fritos in my pack.














August 8, 2014

An Open Letter to The Wild Oak Trail

I see you.

Big and hairy and painfully steep and sometimes just a little more technical than I’m completely comfy cruising.

I see you.

Beautiful and at times breathtakingly peaceful, yet at other times incredibly demanding and just plain down raw.

I see you.

When I’m sleeping, you come to me in a whisper, your raspy tone that sounds like a tree groaning through the darkness, and you say, “Are you really sure you have what it takes?”

I see you.

We both know I’ve put in a lot of time out there with you across the past 20-some years and, although I’m not the regular that I was back in the day, I am familiar enough with you to be sure that four loops around your layout is destined to take pretty much everything I have to give.

I see you.

I’ve fallen on you often, thrown up on you, was nearly struck by lightning with you and came pretty close to getting washed down the North River once because I got cocky on you.

I see you.

Your white blazes and reflective trail markers and overgrown vegetation and sometimes slippery surfaces will ask much of me.

I see you.

You are in my head, and on my heart and – starting sometime around daybreak on Friday, Aug. 22 – you will be in my legs. All 32,000 feet of your up and down, provided I’m able to click off the entire 100-and-a-few miles of you.

I see you.

I’ve studied the minutiae and believe that if everything breaks right, I can finish four loops of you in somewhere around 38 hours. If everything breaks right. But just in case, I’ve cordoned off enough time to be able to hike and hike and hike some more to get four loops of you finished whenever it happens.

I see you.

Thanks to you, I’ve been running more hills, have had some monster training weeks, am paying more attention to recovery and am pushing a little harder on the strength work, yoga and core.

I see you.

My respect for you is so massive that I’ve rallied several of my closest running buddies to help me out. Their respect for you is so vast that they jumped at the chance to help me see this dream of mine come to fruition.

“Are you really sure you have what it takes?” you ask.

I think so. But I’m not sure.

That’s what we’re both about to see.

July 5, 2014

Beyond Grateful

Freedom.

Freedom that comes my way thanks to the magnificence that is movement. Freedom that happens when I get to experience a day jam-packed with mountain views. Freedom that’s borne of good, old physicality that sometimes leaves my legs sore and nearly always leaves my mind spinning. 

Need.

Need to jog the endorphins around 10 to 16 hours a week at a frequency that allows my brain to fully engage. Need to feel the fatigue in my quads on the steep ups and downs, and in my hamstrings and calves after the short, fast runs. Need to play with the push-ups and weights and pull-up bar and TRX trainer so as to take my upper-body muscles to failure and my cardiovascular system to its favorite panting place.

Hope.

Hope that my next big creative idea for work is out there somewhere waiting for me to run into it. Hope that I will make my way to another friend or two along the way. Hope that my 14-year-old will see the old dude out there getting it done over and over and over — and loving it more and more as time marches on — and maybe just maybe find his own calling in running or some other thing physical.

Joy.

Joy that floods my being on every long run. Joy that allows me to share my gifts of gab and endurance and mental weirdness with my regular running buddies and anybody else who happens to grace me with their on-the-run presence. Joy of reaching for a little longer, a little faster, a little more patience, a little brighter day. Joy of putting up a performance that surprises me. Joy of landing on a crazy new goal, then quietly striving in pursuit of it.

So beyond grateful that running found me.

May 21, 2014

Get Lost

Get lost.

Get lost in the effort. Three hours of runwalk before the workday begins. And 200 early-morning push-ups. And slow-motion pull-ups. And the bent-over breathlessness of all-out fast runs. And dragging yourself out of bed in the dark. And putting yourself to bed when normal people are just cranking up their evenings in the front of the TV.

Get lost in the joy. Experiencing the scenery and the rawness and the expansiveness of a solo run through the nearby forest. And the tick-tick-tick of your shoes brushing over the rocks as you climb and climb and climb your favorite single-track. And the breath-taking crash of the far-off waterfall that you know you'll be standing beside and feeling its mist on your face within the hour.

Get lost in your senses. Revel in watching your frigid early-morning winter breath rise up through your head lamp. And the sun peeking out. And the glorious full moon casting its knowing visage on all the world. Drink in the sounds of the birds awakening. And the rhythm of your gentle cadence as you shuffle down a crooked country road.

Get lost in your mind. Enter that second -- and third and sometimes even eighth or 14th -- hour of steady motion, that exquisite time when you peel back the veil, release your inner philosopher and become immersed in a magical place that is solely yours.

Get lost.

The most pure way I know of to really, truly get found.