Friday, January 24, 2014

Should There Be Drug Testing At Trail Races?


Should There Be Drug Testing At Trail Races?

Need the question even be asked?  Trail running seems to me to be one of the purest sports available.  Although there are many reasons to become involved in trail running, one of them has to be its simplicity.  A pair of shoes, shorts and a shirt, some food, and a good trail are all you need to be a trail runner.  Insert the word road for trail above and everything changes.  With roads come things like asphalt, manmade structures, crowded courses, huge corporate sponsors, and maybe doping-worthy purses.  How do performance enhancing drugs (not to be confused with experience enhancing drugs) enter the simple equation of trail running?  Since the question has been posed I’ll assume it has become a reality.  What follows is an attempt to break down the few potential reasons why someone might select trail running as a sport, and then take drugs to be better at it.   

Time on the Trail – Trail running is not easy.  We do it in part because it is hard, because we are unsure of our own ability to complete something so monumental.  We put in lots of hours . . . lots.  Performance enhancing drugs, on the other hand, are a shortcut to excellence.  These two personality traits (dedication and apathy) are in conflict with one another.  Why choose something so difficult to cut corners?

Fame – Most of us find fame in recognizing old race acquaintances, reading a race report on a blog, and maybe even achieving a personal best.  We enjoy reading about elite runners, and watching them in person is a real treat, but we all run the same distance.  My ability to recall the names of the people I meet at events is already poor.  How can I be expected to favor an elite runner I have never met?  Enrichment through fame is limited.

Money – I would guess that winning these races will not make one rich.  There may be free gear, entry fees and if one is really lucky, training in Europe on some shoe-maker’s dime (which would be amazing), but where is sustained wealth?  Using drugs, which cost money, to win belt buckles and usually small sums of money (if any at all) is counterintuitive.

Personal Success – Even in the absence of fame and money, success is tainted when drugs are used to achieve it.  Why run hours upon hours every day, spend a great deal of time planning with pacers and crews, only to ruin the purity of a win with drugs?  A really good runner, if he or she works hard, might be able to win.  If not, enjoy coming in sixth, 40th, or even last – the success is the journey taken to complete the distance.

Solutions are elusive, but here are a few suggestions:

We should separate trail running events into two classes.  We’ll have one class for Traitorous Ultrarunners Racing on DrugS, or T.U.R.D.S. for short.  RD’s can perform drug testing on the field of modified runners while crew members jostle for position at the aid stations.  For added excitement, they can include obstacles on the course and hang huge sponsor banners from the trees in some of the most remote stretches.  Then maybe it can be televised and all the runners can take breaks when they go to commercial!

Everyone I have ever met while trail running will choose the other class.  No need for a flashy name because none of us care much about such stuff.  We’ll be at the local race to see friends or a destination run to experience something new.  We will laugh together, experience snapshots of the Earth in its various moods, push ourselves in ways we never imagined, and in the process be renewed.

In truth, it seems to me the solution is much easier than drug testing.  Look each entrant in the eye, and ask them “Is there any place in the world you would rather be at this moment?”  Any reply other than an emphatic “No Way” is telling enough.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Running in Beauty - Canyon de Chelly Ultra 55K Race Review

There was a palpable excitement in the air at the inaugural Canyon de Chelly Ultra.  One hundred lucky souls had registered before it sold out in about 36 hours.  Among those gathered were Ultra winners, people who had been in magazines and films, and those destined to become part of Ultrarunning lore, but we had all come for a different reason.  We were drawn by a rare chance to run through a sacred canyon rich with history, culture, and tradition.  Canyon de Chelly, on the Navajo Reservation, has been home to many different native peoples over the last 4,000 plus years.  Each culture has left their mark – some visible, some hidden throughout the Canyon.  Many local families still call it their home, having practiced traditional ways of life for over three hundred years.  Self-guided exploration of Canyon de Chelly is limited to mesa-top viewpoints and one trail into the Canyon.  This run would offer us a glimpse of what most non-native people never get to see; we would travel past ancient ruins, spy petroglyphs and pictographs, see wild horses, and run on the same ground that has been traveled by indigenous peoples for thousands of years. 

At check-in, it was as if old friends were meeting for a surprise party – one planned to celebrate a pure love of running, life-changing experiences, and the existence of the Navajo people.  Whether we knew each other or not, the rarity of such an event immediately bound us together.  We joined pieces of hushed conversation to predict what excitement the next day would hold.  The first runners to arrive were offered a bundle of Navajo tea, and on the back of the t-shirts was a Navajo saying – “H)ZH+_GO YISHWO{” which translates to “MAY YOU RUN IN BEAUTY.”  We were in for something special.

Later that evening, the RD Shaun Martin spoke about course conditions and told the story of his emotional running experience that led to the creation of the event.  Shaun’s words left us with no doubt as to the unparalleled experience he had created.  In fact, this report would be incomplete if I failed to say that Shaun himself was a big part many of us were there.  He exudes kindness, a sincere passion for trail running, and a reverence for the Earth that is comforting and empowering.  Next, Navajo Park Ranger Ravis Henry provided some education on the anthropological history of the area.  We would be running through 4,500 years of Native American history.  Lastly, we learned about the Navajo tradition of running, and its intricate link to the story of Navajo creation, from Shaun’s father-in-law, William Yazzie.  Running is vital to life, he explained – and the race through the Canyon the next day was viewed no differently. 

The next morning we rose before the sun, the night’s chill still firmly within the dawning day’s grip.  At the mouth of the Canyon, the runners gathered around a bonfire.  We were offered Navajo tea, coffee and toascii (blue corn mush) for breakfast.  William Yazzie sang a Navajo song of blessing as we looked to the East – where the sun would soon peak over the rim of the Canyon.  We moved towards the start.  Shaun reminded us to yell and shout whenever we felt it; such is the Navajo way to let the spirits know of one’s presence.  He counted down from five, and we ran.  We ran as the early sun leaked rays of fire onto the massive canyon walls.  We ran past petroglyphs, wild horses, and ancient dwellings in distant alcoves.  We ran with friends old and new, and ran in solitude.  We ran through sand, mud and frigid water.  Once past the base of Spider Rock, a sacred monolith, we began the ascent of Bat Canyon – twelve hundred feet of gain in one mile of toothy trail to the mesa-top turn-around.  Shaun greeted us with a smile, and a reminder to contemplate the path we had traveled.  I turned, and for a moment was lost; I was looking back into my valley, my canyon, my home.

Back down the gnarly trail we pushed, moving nimbly from boulder to stone.  In the Canyon, the water crossings became a welcome respite from the warming trail.  Hours drifted by as we ran beside glowing walls of redrock, under cottonwood sentinels, and past smiling aid volunteers.  Everything felt right.

At the finish, Shaun was there to congratulate us and award each runner a family-made turquoise necklace.  Each in turn thanked him.  We refueled with veggie or mutton-stew and Navajo fry-bread.  Traditional jewelry, blankets, and moccasins were chosen by the top finishers.  The fulfilling experience was quickly over, and friends began to pack for their journey home.  Fortunately Navajos don’t really say goodbye – it is too final.  See you in the Canyon next year.

This review also appears in the Jan/Feb 2014 issue of Ultrarunning with minor modifications.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

GU Salted Caramel (Yeti) Review

GU Salted Caramel (Yeti)
I have never been a fan of electrolyte gels, no matter the brand.  The false flavors and unnatural consistency are difficult to stomach – just the thought of them on a long run is enough to make me want to gaarp all over the trail.  I stick with gelatinous chews, mostly by Cliff and Stinger, and the Hammer Perpetuem Solids . . . until now, that is.  Thanks to an FB post by a fellow runner, I have learned about GU Salted Caramel.  Hold on!  Caramel? . . . Salted?  I thought, I don’t care if it squirts into my mouth like a warm streak of duckshit, if it tastes like salted caramel, I am in.  I picked some up at the local REI to try the following day on a long run.  An hour out, I tore off the top, squirted half in my mouth and squished it around for the test.  I’d like to be buried waist deep in this stuff.  I now have a box of them stashed in my running drawer.  My wife and I have for years joked about taking a pocketful of cookies and candy on the trail during the holidays.  Now we can. 

Flavor:  Authentic.  While it may not be as luxurious as a home-made version with loads of cream and butter – I could squirt this on ice cream or chocolate brownies, and never know that it was an electrolyte replacement.

Consistency:  Perfect.  Some caramel is supposed to be semi-fluid, so it works.

Price:  $1.35 – and well worth it.  On sale they are $0.99.  While I do not need an incentive to run, these sure are a nice bonus.  I get to do one of my favorite things, and eat something sweet while doing it (another of my favorites).

Packaging:  The best on the market as far as I am concerned.  Trail runners, while typically not concerned with what others think, still like to identify with something cool.  The Yeti on the package shows that GU had an epiphany while creating this packaging. 

Monday, October 21, 2013

I Am A Runner

I am a runner.

First I was a kid. I still act like one sometimes. Then I became a husband.  Marriage is easy compared to what came next. Parenting. As rewarding as it is, being a parent feels like a crapshoot – we never know how our actions will affect our children. Somewhere in there I went to school and became a lawyer. My dad always told me that “the law is a jealous mistress.” I find it to be a means to an end. My mistress is the trail. She is the one who lures me away from my family. She is my weakness. I am a kid, a husband, and a dad – but without knowing the trail, it is not possible to truly know me. 
I am not that good at running. I used to be a heel-striker. Now, I am mostly a mid-foot striker. Rarely am I a forefoot striker, but I like to read about those who can do it for effortless, endless miles. When I get tired, which is often, I go back to heel-striking. I do not run fast, and will never win a race, but I have never dropped. I am a “middle of the pack” runner. It’s okay with me.

When I first started to buy shoes for running I was intimidated, and always asked the assistant what he or she thought about the different shoes.  Now, I find that their comments show a lack of knowledge about ultra running. Most shoe companies don’t even make a 2E or 4E trail shoe, so it doesn’t matter. I blow out the side of the “extra-wide toebox” in the first few hundred miles of use, or I cut the shoe open and put tape over it to accommodate my feet. I recently found the perfect shoes – let’s hope they do not modify them anytime soon.

Once I started running Ultras, I learned that walking is acceptable – now I walk too much. It is pretty stupid to walk during a 10-mile training run when I don’t have to, but I like it. I do it because I get to appreciate the trail I am on and stay outside for an extra 5 minutes. I get crabby when I do not run for more than a day or two, unless I am in the middle of nowhere, with my family, enjoying nature. Even then, on vacation, my family notices a difference. They tell me to take a run. So I do.

My left pinky toe is totally inadequate for running. It likes to slide underneath the next toe over, cycling through blisters all year long. The only time I do not get the blister is when I have a callus formed from a previous blister . . . drained, refilled, and slowly formed over the past week’s runs. Sometimes blood wells up underneath the gummy callus, and I get a new blister, but a clean sewing needle can fix anything. As long as I can run the next day, I feel right by my treatment. After I run in the pouring rain or through a stream, my callus sloughs off, and the process begins again.

Running in the Midwest is like raising children – I am fascinated by the current stage of Nature, but am always ready to see what’s in store next. Of course I enjoy Fall. It offers crisp, clean air and the turning of the leaves. It is when the Midwest really shines. Winter here, while difficult to come to grips with, is a quiet meditative time. Seeing hoarfrost envelope dead leaves still clinging to prairie grass is a gift not many receive. And never do I feel as resilient as I do during the post-run thaw. The Spring brings new smells, vibrant colors, and the shedding of layers. That leaves the summer humidity, and it . . . . well, it helps me relish the other three seasons. 

I live for the long run. It is an opportunity to experience a full range of emotion in a 5 or 6 hour outing. I am invincible yet downtrodden. I experience moments of genius tempered by stupidity. I am the meaningless game changer. Running is more than a bit of a head game. Anyone who tells you differently has never run outside their comfort zone. It is good for my head.

When I feel like I can run no more, I gather strength from almost everything around me. I store power from those who doubt the sanity of the long run, the stranger who gives me a thumbs-up, and the couple who, although they have seen me many times throughout the years, still will not wave back or say hello. I collect energy from the man who smokes on the trail and the older gals who ask me to slow down so they can run with me. I really get a charge when people tell me it is unhealthy – it makes me want to run even farther.

After a really long run I occasionally need to curl up in the fetal position and lie on the floor. My legs ache, my blisters throb, and my stomach churns.  Every part of my body is alive. I make childish jokes about how dumb I have been to think I could run so far and not feel pain. My wife offers no sympathy. My kids bring me water, poke fun at me, and fill me with love to get me back on my feet again. Each of them truly knows me. They approve of my mistress.  They know I need to run – it is what I am.

I am a runner.