Thursday, August 12, 2010

Lunacy, The Natural Progression?

It's impossible to know why people do dumb things. If we could understand it, we could stop them. And what defines dumb? For some, dumb is not knowing the answer to 2 + 2 (what is it?)? For others, dumb is wearing plaid pants with a striped shirt.

"Look, mister, there's... two kinds of dumb, uh... guy that gets naked and runs out in the snow and barks at the moon, and, uh, guy who does the same thing in my living room. First one don't matter, the second one you're kinda forced to deal with. "

That's from the movie "Hoosiers." That sort of defines dumb for me. I can laugh at dumb from afar, but when dumb comes into my living room, I'm kinda forced to deal with it.

In nine days time, I am running 100 miles. One hundred miles. Running. Sound dumb? Well, let's add in that all one hundred of those miles are above 10,000 feet. Dumb yet? How about over 16,000 feet of climbing included? Now that's dumb. And not even I can understand it. And I can't stop it. It's called the Leadville 100 Trail Run and 775 other people are doing it with me. Dumb.

I've always been intrigued with running. I can remember very clearly going with my parents to one of my brother's t-ball practices when I was nine or ten years old. The practice was next to the high school track and all I wanted to do was run around the track. There was something that drew me to it. It was "fun." This remained through my youth. I tried once to get my mother to start running with me. It was short lived, but I did get her to come out a few mornings with me when I was in grade school. I loved running the 600 yard run in P.E. class for the Presidential Challenge. And I was good enough at it to get to go to the district meet every year. I still ran for fun in high school and even ran track my senior year. For "fun." I was good enough to run a low five minute mile. I could run the 800 in the low two minutes. I have always played a multitude of sports that involved different forms of running and I ran to stay in shape through college and beyond.

It wasn't until I was 27 that I ran my first race. It was a 10K or a five mile, I can't remember. I don't remember what my time was, but I enjoyed it. It was a couple of years later that I felt the need to run my first half-marathon, which is 13.1 miles. It was 1999 and I was living in Kansas City. This race was called the "Rib Run." At the time, I couldn't fathom running 13.1 miles. I had no idea how to train for such a race outside of just running more. It was a big deal for me. On race day, I drove downtown by myself, wearing a long sleeve cotton shirt with a thick cotton shirt over the top. I ran the race and finished. I was super excited and felt that I really had accomplished something. I also realized for the first time what chaffing was (Note: do not wear a long sleeve cotton shirt with a thick long sleeve short sleeve for 13.1 miles). I don't remember my finishing time but I do remember when I finished that I couldn't fathom continuing on to run a full marathon, which is 26.2 miles. I was done. I had accomplished my goal and I was going to go back to simply running for fun and to stay in shape. And then two years later I moved to Colorado.

Colorado changed my life. It was the place that I was supposed to be living all along. It is opposite of Kansas City. Well, not opposite, but it has big mountains and long, single track trails that most people either use to hike or ride a bike. A trail in Kansas City is either a fancy name for a neighborhood street or a paved walkway near a mall. From the first time I saw the trails in Colorado, I felt like I had to run them. Some people called that dumb. "You're going to run *that*?" I sought out more and more trails. The feeling of being on secluded trails with big hills in the mountains is something that reminds me what it is to be alive. I had never seen or done anything like it before. Where I grew up, most of my runs were in populated neighborhoods. Near my parents home, on the "usual" route that I would run, there was a small park that had a 200 yard section of a dirt trail that went into the woods next to the park and out again. It was always my favorite section of my run. But in Colorado, entire runs were on those same trails, except these were surrounded by majestic views and they were more than a mile above sea level.

Early on during my Colorado experience, as I really started to ramp up my running, something inside told me that it was time to push my limits and see if I could do a full marathon. I have no explanation of why I had to do this, but it seemed like the natural progression. Again, I had no idea of what I was doing. I did seek out a training plan (there are many, many differing plans out there) and I announced to all that would listen what I was going to do. I chose the San Diego Rock and Roll marathon and enlisted a group of friends that seemed to want to embark on this test with me. I had never even met anyone who had run a marathon before, but soon after I announced my plan, I found many people who had done it. It seemed like everyone in Colorado had done something like this. At that time, I was in awe listening to these people tell me about their marathon experiences. They had run 26.2 miles during ONE run. They ran for over three and four hours STRAIGHT! As I trained for my first one, i could not conceptualize finishing my race. 26.2 miles seemed like an impossible task. How on earth would I be able to run for nearly four hours? I came up with a set of goals. in a very specific order:

1. Finish the race
2. Finish the race without walking
3. Finish in under four hour

To me, if I could do the first two, I could do the last. But I had no idea. On the registration form, it asks your estimated finishing time. I wrote "four hours?" There were going to be about five of us doing this together. My friend Aimee and I from Colorado and a few buddies in California. My good friend Sara was going to run with us and she had beaten me to the punch and had run the Big Sur Marathon just a few months previous. She was a veteran! I took it all very seriously. I basically didn't drink a beer for six months (what?). I stayed in on Saturday nights so I'd be fresh for my long runs on Sunday. It was madness! The race day hurdled towards us and finally we went out to California for the race weekend. On a side note, after six months of dedicated training, I found myself eight beers in at the Dodgers game just two nights before the race! A man has to live, you know. Anyway, we drove down to San Diego, checked into our hotel, went to the race expo and picked up our bibs and packets and headed out for our pre-race pasta dinner (at The Olive Garden, of all places). It was very, very exciting. We all were about to embark on a personal journey the next day. SO many people doing the same thing that I was doing. This marathon is one of the largest in the country, with well over 30,000 people running at once. I remember trying to go to sleep that night but not being able to rest in anticipation of what was to come. I kept telling myself that regardless of what happened, by early afternoon the next day, it would be over. Time moves forward. We all planned our very early morning wake up and out went the lights.

In what seemed like a blink of an eye, we were all up putting on our race gear, gulping down water and eating our bagels and bananas. it's just like a long training run, right? The one thing that I remember the most was the near-magical sense that I felt as I readied myself for battle. My shoes, shirt, socks (high red soccer socks) were carefully chosen. Someone told me once that you have to set yourself apart in what you wear so people will cheer for you. Write your name on your shirt, they told me. Wear something unique that sets you apart and will get you noticed. I can do that. I chose the high socks for fun and I also wrote something on the front of my shirt in memoriam of my father, who had passed away exactly three years previous to race day. I also wrote a movie quote on the back which I felt was appropriate for the event. "Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son" -Dean Wormer. It's from "Animal House." I thought I could get some laughs from other runners, which worked. As did the high socks. Those three things: the high socks, the dedications and the movie quotes, would become a staple in years to come.

We made our way to the start of the race before dawn. Good Lord, why do we have to start so early? We all found our place amongst the throng of those about to do something that most people don't do. I kept hearing the song "For Those About To Rock, We Salute You" in my head. The entire feeling was very, very surreal. The marathon seemed impossible. Almost superhuman. In my mind, those who had run a marathon truly had done something that seemed impossible to most. And I was about to give it a shot. Nervously, I waited with Sara and Aimee and finally, after the National Anthem, we were off. The beginning of a big marathon like this is a very festive atmosphere. The pack moves slowly past the start line, trying to emulate running, but it isn't until after the first few miles that people thin out a little bit that you can actually get into your groove. It was during the first mile, after we had left Aimee behind, that i said to Sara "we're running a marathon!" It didn't seem real.

The first five miles were a blur and I was still running with Sara. I don't remember when it was, but at some point early in the race that I told Sara that I felt great and wanted to go faster. I picked up my pace and left Sara behind. Later, after the race, she told me that she was sure she'd see me again. She didn't. During a long race, after the seven or eight mile mark, most people find themselves in the group of similar speed runners and will more or less stay together for long stretches of time and distance. I remember running with a guy for nearly ten or twelve miles. We talked and passed people and people passed us. I felt very strong. We passed the half way point and I laughed to myself about my first half-marathon and not thinking that I could ever go farther than that. I was running easy and felt great. The miles clicked by and I just ran. I still had no idea what I was doing. I did whatever felt natural. I drank whatever they handed me at the aid stations and kept going. Eventually the guy I was running with had to slow his pace and I said goodbye and kept going. The great thing about your first marathon is that you truly have no idea about what is to come. It is all new. And now, after many years of doing this type of thing, I now know. And nothing that you do can prepare you for it. But in San Diego, as it is with all marathon, it comes slowly. And "It" is the pain. It's sort of like cutting yourself very, very slowly. It's not a sharp stab in the gut. Around mile 17 or so, my legs started to deteriorate. I have a very hard time running and drinking at the same time, so I am forced to slow to a walk through the aid stations while I drink the water or Gatorade or whatever. These walks would only last 20 seconds or so, but the farther I went, the more difficult it became to get my legs running again. It was almost like I would have to punch my quads to get my legs moving. But on I went. And it was fun! I was really, really enjoying myself. Never again would I run my first marathon. Never again would I not know what was around the next bend. Ignorance is truly bliss when you run a marathon. And I was truly ignorant. I didn't even know what energy gels (or goo) was. They gave them out at aid stations later in the race. I took them because they had them, but had no idea of why. I just drank whatever and even, at around mile 22, had some beer! The San Diego ParrotHeads (Jimmy Buffett fans) were out in force and had their own unofficial aid station. Since I, too, am a ParrotHead, I had to run to their side of the road and grab a cup of beer! This would be the last time for a very long time that I would feel good enough during a marathon to do such a thing at such a late stage in a race. Ignorance is bliss. My legs hurt but I still running. I wasn't crashing. I wasn't flailing. One of my biggest fears before that first race is that I would turn into that guy you see in the commercial who is trying to finish and his body won't let him. He turns into the guy who looks like he is leaving the bar after a long night of drinking. He can't control his body and tries to crawl to the finish while the medical staff is waved off. Not me. Not this day. I had no idea of my time. The watch I was wearing was way off. It had been for months. It had no stop watch feature on it and at some point the time was five or six hours from what it should have been. Every time I looked at it for months i had to do quick math to figure out what the actual time was. And I wore this for my first marathon. I didn't know what "chip time" vs. "gun time" was*. I was just out running with the finish line as my goal.

*Chip time is the actual time that you run the race. It is taken off of the computer chip that you attach to your shoe. There are mats at various points on the course that record your time. Your chip starts when you cross the start line. Gun time is the time from when the starting gun goes off until you cross the finish line. In a big marathon like San Diego, your chip time and gun time can be many minutes apart since it sometimes takes a long time to get to the actual start line after the race officially starts.

I can't remember the last parts of the race. It all blurs together. I just remember going past mile 25 and thinking that I couldn't believe that the end was near. I got very emotional as I got closer to the finish line. I remember turning a corner and seeing the grandstands and seeing the finish. There were so many people out cheering and I heard my name announced as I tried to "sprint" to the line. What I thought was a "sprint" probably looked more like a wounded duck, but I had done it. I was now a marathoner. I thought of my father and I kind of walked around in a haze as the tears in my eyes made it difficult to see. I've learned after many of these long races that I become very emotional after putting myself though such physical exertion. The enormity of what I have just accomplished hits me very hard at the end and I can't recall a race when I have not cried, sometimes very openly. It is uncontrollable.and something that I'll never be ashamed of. And I've learned that this is something that hits many, many other people (and in races of all distances. People who realize a dream of something previously thought impossible to them often hit an emotional release at the end).

I waited around at the end trying to recover while I waited for my friends to celebrate our accomplishment. I didn't immediately know my time because of my screwy watch, but would find out later that I ran 3:46, which made me very happy. Not only could I do this thing, I could do it fairly well. My friends did all finish and we celebrated that day and night (as much as you can after such an event). We were all very, very tired and all very, very sore). As I found out, the pain one feels after a marathon is nothing like the pain one feels the day after and the day after that. Walking would be a chore for a few days. But eventually the pain subsides and I was left to bask in the memory of what I had done. I can't remember a time in my life when I was so satisfied in something I had done. I was now in the marathon club. That was it. I did say at some point after that race that that would be my first and last. I had done what I had set out to do. And I've said that exact same thing following the next ten marathons that I did. No lie. My wife now knows not to listen to anything I say immediately after any of my races.

The next year a bunch of us went to San Diego again to run the same marathon. This time to raise money for Leukemia research and to support our friend David, who was suffering from the disease. David and his brother Bart made it out there and it was a very emotional experience doing this for him. For me, who was a seasoned veteran of exactly one whole marathon, I took the race lightly. Hey, I had done this already. Easy, right? There is a quote from someone that says "The marathon can humble you." I was humbled. Much different experience than the year previous. I remember passing the half way mark and thinking "wow, I don't remember feeling this bad at this point last year." It was a struggle. My good friend, Jim, who I would probably beat 99 out of 99 races of any distance, passed me with less than a mile to go. He said, "come on, let's go- finish together." I couldn't do it. I was so ill and hurt that I let him go. He'll always be able to say that he beat me. And he does. Often. But I finished, this time in exactly four hours. A much, much different experience. No beer during the race this time. And I said immediately following, "Never again."

The next spring I finished a half marathon in Denver and saw a girl wearing a shirt that said "Pikes Peak Marathon- America's Ultimate Challenge." I asked her what that was. They have a marathon on Pikes Peak, which is the most famous of Colorado's fifty four 14,000 or higher peaks? Apparently, yes. The race, I found out, is from the bottom, which is at around 6,000 feet, up to the top, which is just over 14,000 feet, and back down again. 26.2 miles. A marathon. Most all on single track trail. That's crazy, I thought. But something inside me told me that I had to do it. They had a half-marathon version, which ended at the top, but I couldn't fathom that. If I'm going up, I might as well go down. I got some information about it, enlisted my friend Sara again (who needed some talking into) and signed up. It was just like training for my first marathon. Same exact feeling. No idea what I was getting myself into, no idea how to train other than run a bunch and an excitement of once again entering the unknown. A seemingly impossible challenge. That August of 2004 we did it. And now, not only did i have three marathons under my belt, I had just finished what was billed as "America's Ultimate Challenge." I was done. Where else could I go.

Over the next three years I would run marathons in Estes Park (America's Highest Paved Marathon), Durango, Fort Collins, Pikes Peak again and Denver (twice). All in high socks (now it had expanded to mismatched various striped colors), all with movie quotes and dedications. I ran several half marathons, five mile races, 10Ks, eight and sixteen mile trail runs and a flurry of other races and overnight team relays. All the while enjoying the greatest single track trails in Colorado.

Around 2005, I first had the thought that I wanted to run the Leadville 100. I wasn't that serious about it, but actually started training for it (not knowing what training was for such an event). That was short lived as I broke my back in a skiing accident a few weeks after training had begun. I was out of commission for about four months that year and actually did three marathons that summer/fall, but thoughts of Leadville were left behind.

I guess that ever since my first marathon, especially when I learned about Pikes Peak and got more into the Colorado running scene, I have had a kind of "what's next" mentality. I've never been one to rest on what I've just done. I always want to feel like I am moving forward. That I am looking ahead for whatever is coming next. I've never been one to do things half way. Full throttle is the only way that I know how to lead my life. If I do it, I want to do it big. If you know me, you know that that is true. After all of those marathons, the natural next step, for me, was ultra-marathons.

Around 2006 or so I wrangled my friend Donnie into running. I don't remember how it happened, but one day I took him out to Apex Park in Golden for an eight miler. He lagged behind and I would wait at intercections or run back for him and get him to the top of climbs. Something inside of him came alive. He had never, ever done any major distance running as he was a college wrestler. His experience was much like mine when I first moved to Colorado. It was as if he had been asleep his entire life and now he was awake. I had never really had a running partner as I preferred to do most of my runs alone. Besides, not many of my friends wanted to go brutalize themselves in the hills on the weekends. Donnie was different. Soon, he wanted to do some races so I took him down to run the eight mile portion of the Greenland Trail Races. I was training for my second Pikes Peak that summer and he tagged along as best he could. We ran a half marathon together and then he did a fifteen mile mini-marathon as I ran the Fort Collins Marathon. Finally, in October that year, I paced him for the first twenty miles in Denver, his first marathon (I also paced my wife for the first thirteen for her first half marathon). I ran the full marathon and Donnie finished ten or so minutes behind me. All of a sudden, Donnie began to take off on his own. I had moved to Boulder and we couldn't run together as much. The next thing I knew, he was signing up for a 50K in Moab! It was in February. He talked me into it just a few weeks before the race even though I had not done anything more than ten miles since the marathon the previous October. I figured I could go and slog though it. It was actually a thirty four mile race. We drove to Moab and we showed up with a mild snow fall and sub thirty degree temps for the start. Immediately he took off and I didn't see him until the end. I had no expectations for the race other to enjoy it and finish. I read nothing about what to eat or drink or pacing or anything. I just did it. It was tough but I don't remember it being brutally tough. I took it slow, finished in seven hours or so and didn't feel nearly the pain that I felt at the end of marathons. Donnie had become a running machine and he was planning on running Pikes Peak that year. I had created a monster!

I got married in the late summer of 2008. I began talking about wanting to run Leadville shortly after our honeymoon. To train for something so large, it not only takes a major personal time commitment, but a major family commitment. I needed my wife to sign off on it due to the fact that the "heavy lifting" portion of training cannot be done right outside my door. Long drives up to higher elevations and long days away on the weekends would be necessary. My wife, Rachel, was on board. But then we found out that we were expecting our first child! Which was great news for us, but the due date posed a problem: August 15. This was within a week or so of the 2009 race and the possibility exsisted that I would train and then not be able to run the race. It didn't take long to decide that I should postpone my goal until 2010. Plus, I wanted to be supportive of my now-pregnant wife and all that that entales.

Our daughter, Avery, was born two weeks early, on August 1, 2009 (I could have done the race!). A beautiful baby daughter! I had no regrets of not taking the risk of signing up for Leadville and possibly not being able to do it. I did train during the summer, though. In August, just two weeks after Avery was born, I went to Leadville to pace Donnie, who had already run a fifty mile race and was going to run the hundred. This was supposed to be MY race! But I was excited for him and got a true sense for what the race was about. I did end up running a marathon in Newport, Rhode Island in October that year. My tenth marathon. The goal was to try to qualify for Boston. My previous best was just over 3:20 in Denver in 2007 (when I paced my wife and Donnie). My qualifying time for age 41 was now at 3:20 and I thought that by going to sea level, doing my long runs and speed work and really focusing on nutrition (three things I had never really done religiously before any of my races), I could do it. I was ready for this marathon more than any other marathon I had done in the past. The problem was that when we got to Rhode Island, where my mother-in-law lives, there was a terrible storm that had settled into New England. A Nor'Easter. We arrived on a Wednesday and each day I would check the weather channel. Not good news. Sunday was to be the worst: Temps in the low 30's, driving rain and 50 MPH winds. And they were right. On race morning, my friend Matt and I shuffled to the start in a sideways rain and took off. It was brutal. I know brutal and I've been in brutal and this was brutal. I was cold and wet and running dead into a wind that nearly knocked me over. No Boston for me. I finished in the second worst time of my life but was simply happy to be able to take a hot shower and move on. I can now always say that I ran a marathon in a Nor'Easter.

Leadville was still in the back of my mind. In September of that year I had planned on running for 24 consecutive hours to raise money for my good friends Chris and Jen, whose first child, Winston, was born with a rare disease involving malformations. The financial tole on them is gigantic and I wanted to do something to help. The only thing that I could come up with was running for 24 hours to signify the 24 hours of around-the-clock care that he needs. We called it "24 For Winston." I figured that my training for Rhode Island would get me though the mileage that I thought I could reasonably do in 24 hours. I mapped out a course that took me from Boulder to Denver and all around the area. Some very good friends helped out by being my "crew" and running different sections with me. This would be my test to see if Leadville was something that I could accomplish. I ended up running 85 miles in total with very liberal rest stops along the way. Since this wasn't a race, I didn't push it. The difference here was that I would often stop for 20 minutes or more to eat, sit down, talk to friends, etc. In Leadville, rest stops are used only to refuel, change clothes, etc., and get back on the course as soon as possible. The event was a huge success as we raised over $10,000 for Chris, Jen and Winston!

Taking care of an infant takes a lot of work. Any parents can attest to this. It takes coordination, cooperation and communication with your partner, selflessness and sleeplessness. I wasn't even thinking about Leadville. But as winter slowly turned to spring, the thought kept coming into my head, especially when I thought of the Winston run. It had been five years since I first thought about the 100 and got derailed with my back injury. I was close to committing the year previous and I had the internal itch that I know so well. But there was no way that I could do this race without the full sign off of Rachel. We both knew that it would keep me away on many summer weekends with her home with Avery. It wasn't until late April or so that we really began discussions, but finally Rachel agreed that I should do it. It turned out that it would have been much easier to train while she was pregnant than it was when we and a new person in our home, but I didn't want to risk getting to the end and missing the race. And so, in early May, I ramped up my running, read all that I could read and signed up for the 2010 Leadville 100 Trail Race.

And so, after many weekends away, nights spent in resting up for the next days training, more miles than I've ever done, including a 50 mile race in Leadville in late July, I am now sitting on the cusp of the unthinkable. And I have the same exact feeling that I had before my first half marathon, my first marathon and before my first Pikes Peak Marathon. I can't really conceptualize in my head finishing the race. I can't believe that I am about to put myself through something so large that I can't get my mind around it. Those who have done it, to me, are superheros. The untouchables. I am well aware that we only get once chance at life and my biggest fear is getting to the end and not being able to say that I got the most out of it. Continuing to push myself to the limits is one way that I know of, for certain, that I am doing just that. In nine days I will line up in "downtown" Leadville at 4:00am with 775 other crazies and will try to accomplish the unaccomplishable. Is it dumb? Most people say yes. But for me, it's life. Am I ready? "The hay is in the barn," so to speak. Hopefully in ten days time I will cross the finish line and, as Steve Prefonatine once said, be "well satisfied." And plus, I have to finish. Rachel says that I can't try this again until Avery goes to college.

If you want to read an in-depth report about the 24 For Winston run I did, go here:


Amy Gitchell said...

You are a lunatic. A longwinded one at that. But, it appears you are an excellent writer. It is an article/essay, not a blog post, and with someone (i.e. me) to edit it, you might be surprised who would publish it.
Where's your 24 for Winston story?
I like the chip explanation. I don't know what pacing is (I mean outside of the Pickle).
This is a great piece for non-runners to read. We don't get it. Runners already know what you're trying to convey.
Fine tune it and send it in to ten publications. What's the worst that can happen? Break your back, spend time in jail, be a Cubs fan?

Jennifer Bertrand said...

Fun read, Fletch!! Dare I show it to Chris Bertrand? :) I find it very impressive how you all manage to complete those runs!!! (Right now in my life, I have not hit the awake point and cannot drive that far!) Run Forrest, Run!!!!

Anonymous said...

Chris, what a good writer you are. I am proud to have you for a son in law, and the only reason I worry is because you're worth it. I want you there for you, Rachel, and Avery for many years. Yah, I know, it's a "mother's" perogative to worry, but no injuries allowed.
A candle will be burning. God go with you...Love, Lydia