Darling I don’t know why I go to extremes.
– Billy Joel
[Happy birthday, Sandy! To the best sister genetics can buy… even if you do misguidedly tout your climbing addiction over my running fetish.]
My 2013 was dramatically different than anything I anticipated at the end of 2012. From day one the year evolved not so much from one month to the next or one race to the next, as from one extreme to the next. It was, for example, the first year I’d race nothing shorter than a 25K (15.5 miles). If you’re interested in numbers, you’ll find them at the end of this post. But it’s largely by its outlier nature that I’ll remember my 2013 year in running:
Snowiest race ever: Nestled all snug up next to Canada in the corner of the country, January’s Orcas Island 25K was the archetypal Pacific Northwest trail race, with a generous helping of brumal fury thrown in to keep things interesting. The race started in cold rain and ascended into colder snowfall before descending to an even soggier finish line. The pristine whiteness of snow-covered Summit Lake was an unforgettable highlight. Even without the excellent company of Katie and three wonderful Washington wunning fwiends, this race would have stuck with me as the first time I’d ever raced in snow, falling or otherwise. Yet despite the wintry conditions, this wouldn’t qualify as my coldest race of the year. Because that singular distinction belonged to…
Coldest race ever: Antarctica. In March, Katie and I – along with nearly 100 other (insert appropriate adjective here) runners – set sail from Ushuaia, Argentina bound for Antarctica. As you might imagine, this trip was all about extremes:
– The opportunity was extremely unexpected, given that we were plucked off the waiting list at the last minute, three weeks before our flight would depart for Argentina.
– Our fellow travelers were an extremely diverse group, and an amazing cast of some of the most motivated and inspirational characters you could ever hope to meet. Among them were the former chief of security for Nelson Mandela, and a 14-year-old who went on to become the youngest person to run a marathon on all seven continents. The trip truly opened my eyes to what it means to be part of the worldwide running community.
– And the continent itself is extremely, well, extreme: unless you’re an astronaut working on the space station, there’s very little in life to prepare you for what awaits on the coldest, highest, darkest, driest and windiest continent on Earth.
As it turned out, race day was less extreme than we’d feared. In fact, I’d rather run in the conditions we did (temperatures in the low 20s with little wind) than on an average winter day in Buffalo. Besides, Buffalo is fairly lacking in penguins and glaciers.
My two blog posts on the Antarctica Marathon were picked up by Reddit and Metafilter, and “surreal” is what happens when you find yourself reading comments about your blog posted on another site’s re-blog. An abridged version of my narrative also appeared last month in the inaugural issue of Marathon Running, an online magazine available as a free subscription in the iTunes Store. Though I’m clearly biased, I recognize the need for a good interactive running magazine, and I’d recommend Marathon Running based on its eye-catching debut. Plus it’s free! Cheap at thrice the price, so I hope you’ll check it out. I’m eager to see what the publishers have in store for the future.
As it turns out, not everyone was so enthralled by our Antarctica adventure. Our recent holiday card featured two photos of me and Katie, one under the Antarctica Marathon banner and the other in front of the Hollywood sign. While visiting my childhood pal and his family back in Texas, their 9-year-old son asked us: “I saw your Christmas card [and here his eyes widened]… did you really go to HOLLYWOOD?”
And one last footnote on the Last Continent: on Thursday all 52 passengers aboard another Russian ship, which had been trapped in ice off the coast of Antarctica since Christmas Eve, were airlifted to safety by a Chinese helicopter. Most amusing was the ship’s name, which was coincidentally (almost) perfect for a floundering research vessel that found itself relying on Chinese competence: the Akademik Shokalskiy.
Most shocking race moment: April 15, 2:49pm EDT, Boylston Street, finish line of the Boston Marathon. Bombs exploded, chaos reigned, lives were lost, lives were saved, runners united, Bostonians rallied and the world rallied around them. I shared my thoughts the day after and the week after, with the solidarity of runners everywhere on display like never before.
Hottest race ever: Curiously, my next race after Antarctica would be much closer to home, though no less extreme. Held in the Cleveland National Forest on the hottest weekend of the year, the Harding Hustle 50K saw 40 runners toe the start line amidst predictions of record high temperatures up and down the West Coast, and the potential for a new planetary high temperature not too far from us in Death Valley. And the day didn’t disappoint. As my body struggled to cool itself over the last 20 miles, temperatures reached a reported 107°F on Santiago Peak, the pinnacle of the course. By the time I shuffled across the finish line over 6-1/2 hours after I’d started, the mercury had plummeted to a relatively temperate 98°F.
And as long as we’re talking extremes: six months earlier, during a training run on that same course, I’d run (literally) into a driving snowstorm that had forced me to retreat back down the mountain. A snowstorm… in Orange County. Have you ever felt like you were living in a video game?
Most mature first-time runner: I met 87-year-old Claire during an otherwise routine training run around the local marina. She appreciated my form, I appreciated her moxie. Our five minutes together stands as one of my most endearing memories of 2013.
Darkest race ever: August saw Katie and I hop in the car and road trip to Las Vegas for the E.T. Full Moon Midnight Marathon. The race is run (as its name suggests) under the full moon in Rachel, NV, 2-1/2 hours outside Las Vegas in the heart of Area 51. Although E.T. wouldn’t be my first nighttime race, it would be my longest. Unfortunately the novelty of moonlit solitude would quickly wear off, as my darkest race ever morphed into my…
Most painful race ever: Because on an otherwise pleasant (if sensorily underwhelming) evening, I misjudged a cattle guard crossing at mile 17 and felt my left ankle try to unscrew itself from my leg. But as nauseating as the throbbing in my ankle was, my brain throbbed even worse at the idea of a DNF (Did Not Finish) next to my name. And so, before common sense could rear its ugly head, I ran nine more painstaking miles to finish in under four hours and earn second place in my age group. Most importantly, I secured a sweet glow-in-the-dark medal of a stoic alien face that seemed to look at me like, “So? Was I really worth it?”
Running is all about managing fatigue… overcoming mental and physical exhaustion is the name of the game. But this was the first time I’d ever had to confront acute pain during a race – normally that’s a clear cue to stop running. And although I’d recommend many things about my 2013, running with the sensation of having a sandbag strapped to one ankle wouldn’t be one of them. Did I mention the medal glows in the dark?
The take-home lesson from my E.T. experience was that Las Vegas, with its vast human mazes winding circuitously through monolithic casinos, is the absolute worst city in the country to have a sprained ankle. If you think it’s an obstacle course on two good feet, try navigating it on crutches. Throw in the relentless electronic mating call of the slot machines, and again it’s like being in a bad video game, minus the extra lives.
Best race ever: “Best” is a wholly subjective term to be sure, but The North Face Endurance Challenge (TNFEC) Championship Marathon in December was a serious contender. Certainly it wasn’t the fastest marathon I’ve run – the 4,700 feet of elevation gain and loss saw to that – but it may have been my most consistent and rewarding effort ever from start to finish. In my first TNFEC marathon (and first TNFEC race since 2009), I managed a sub-10:00/mile performance and third-place age group finish. I chalk up my successful day to a healthy dose of Karno karma, and to the unbearable lightness of being in the Marin Headlands.
Surprisingly, the only statistic I (still) really care about – my overall race percentile – held steady at 91 this year, as I crossed the finish line 706th out of 7,633 total finishers. Meaning that once again, after all was said and run, I finished in the top 9% of all losers. That’s a status quo I’m happy to maintain.
Clearly these races and race moments testify to an unforgettable 2013. And yet the hands-down highlight of the year would have to be my good fortune in meeting and getting to know so many passionate runners – and excellent people – from across the globe, while continuing to live and run every day in one of the most consistently beautiful places on Earth. California may get singled out for its high cost of living and heathen mindset, but the rest of the country (to adapt the rant of Colonel Nathan R. Jessup) wants us on that seawall, it needs us on that seawall. And since moving here 20 years ago, I have yet to run a single mile on a treadmill.
Certainly extreme is in the eye of the beholder, and the potential exists for more extreme opportunities going forward, including longer distances, higher altitudes and faster finish times. In fact, my first test of 2014 will be one that even many runners would call extreme (or just plain dumb)… but to me it’s simply another new wrinkle in the fabric of a sport that never lacks for compelling challenges.
Like every year, 2014 will feature its fair share of personal goals and running subplots, and I’ll continue to hit them all hard. But as a disciple of the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) school of running, I’ll always defer to what for me has become Running Strategery 101: Just run. Sometimes too fast, sometimes too slow, sometimes just right. On hard pavement, in soft dirt, over the river and through the woods. No matter if my brain is melting or the rest of me is freezing. Just run, and the rest will take care of itself. And if we happen to cross paths on the road or trail, don’t be surprised if you see me smiling.
Looking ahead, my 2014 race schedule at this point resembles an EKG… long stretches of quiet interspersed with abrupt spikes of activity. The schedule will continue to evolve as new spikes are added. But for now the BC&H world tour will take us down to the Deep South next week and up the Pacific Coast Highway to Big Sur in the spring, as well as across the country to New York City and across the Atlantic to Berlin. I’m especially psyched by the prospect of running two world marathon majors in less than two months. But the most exciting part of my year may well fall in the space between races, and I look forward to sharing all the details of our new project when the time comes.
So stay tuned! Hopefully you’ll continue to follow along… after all, more than a few BC&H readers set personal records in 2013, and I can’t help but think that’s not coincidence. And for you non-running types, you never know – I may just convince you that a 30-mile run up and down hills really is the best possible way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
And so, with apologies to Billy Joel, actually I do know why I go to extremes – because they’re sure not coming to me.
Hope you hit all your goals in 2014!
FINAL STATS of 2013:
2,326 miles run in 235 days (9.9 miles/day average)
17 days lost to injury (sore psoas muscle after the Orcas Island 25K; sprained ankle at the E.T. Full Moon Midnight Marathon)
157.6 miles raced (including the Women’s Health RUN 10 FEED 10 L.A. fun run in September)
6 races (one 50K, four marathons, one 25K) in four states (CA, NV, OR, WA) and on two continents (North America, Antarctica)
Overall race percentile: 91 (same as 2012!) = 706/7,633 total finishers
3 age-group podium finishes (1/10 at the Antarctica Marathon; 2/20 at the E.T. Full Moon Midnight Marathon; 3/13 at The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship Marathon)
Fastest race pace: 8:02/mile (Portland Marathon)
Slowest race pace: 12:30/mile (Harding Hustle 50K)
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