Monthly Archives: May 2012

How not to taper

It wasn’t in my training plan, but when my hiking friend suggested yesterday that it was time to go all the way to Lake Angeles, I enthusiastically agreed!

We’ve been working our way up the Lake Angeles trail for several weeks now. The trailhead is at an elevation of about 1,850 feet. I’d never been to Lake Angeles before, so I had no idea of its elevation. But this trail continues up to mile-high Hurricane Ridge so I knew it had to be lower than that.

The first time I hiked up this trail, we encountered snow just over a mile out, at about 2,500 feet. I freaked out at the sight of a snow-covered log bridge and refused to go any further. Once the snow had melted at that level, we began hiking up to the log bridge a couple of times a week. We’d count the calypso orchids on the way up (I’m told that the 250+ that we saw were a “bumper crop” this year) and spend some time studying the changing water levels, which signaled lots more melting snow upstream. Once I even got to see this location in bright sunshine! A rarity in this forest any time of the year.

I credit this trail, with its continuous, moderate uphill grade, for much of the progress I’ve made with my running strength and my new ability to run up hills.

A few weeks back we tried to go further up the trail, but were stopped after another mile, at about 3,500 feet, by deep snow. We haven’t attempted it since, but my friend was eager to give it a go yesterday… which brings me back to the beginning of this post.

The weather forecast on my trusty iPhone looked great — partly cloudy and mid 50s. No sooner had we started up the road, however, than the skies turned dark and it began to mist. Being intrepid Pacific Northwesterners, we carried on. I at least had a hooded jacket, but my friend was in shorts. We did both have gloves, as well as food and a rudimentary emergency kit… we’re not totally crazy.

Lake Angeles is just over 3.3 miles from the trailhead. We hiked upwards through a steady mist. It was cool, but far too warm for snowfall. Less than half a mile from the lake, at the 4,000 foot level, we reached snow on the ground. At this point my friend would not be deterred, and frankly I was up for the adventure as well. There were lots of footprints from previous hikers in the snow, so even though it was hard to see the trail at times we knew we were more or less on course. I was wearing trail running shoes, and I found their traction to be excellent — better than the hiking boots I relegated to the back of the closet when I got these shoes.

A one point we had to bushwhack through small trees in order to avoid an area that had become an underground river running below four feet of crusted, icy snow. This was a bit scary at the time (and looking back now, it was probably a bit foolish), but we were awfully proud of ourselves for successfully getting through it.

Shortly after this spot, we did find a sign (the top was barely visible sticking out of the snow), so we knew we were still on the trail!

The lake was a mere 100 yards from here. Surprise! — it was, of course, iced over and mostly covered with snow over the ice. It was also foggy, raining rather hard, and quite cold there.

 We didn’t linger. We were both soaking wet by this time.

Coming back down the trail and once below the snow line, I couldn’t resist the urge to jog a bit on the more level portions. I can now say that I’m a trail runner… or at least a downhill trail runner. I have now actually run in my trail running shoes.

According to my GPS watch, our round trip hike of 6.7 miles involved 2,900 feet of ascent and the same amount of descent.  The actual elevation change was about 2,500 feet, and the rest was the small up-and-downs of a natural terrain. Subjectively, the whole way up is a constant, steady climb. But the way down was a great introduction to trail running!

No, this is NOT the right way to taper, days before a half marathon. However, it was an incredible demonstation to myself of how strong I am becoming both physically and mentally. I’ve accomplished a lot in the past couple of months, helped by a friend who is gently encouraging me to push my self-perceived limits.

Now, I think I’ll take it really easy the rest of the week. No more impromptu treks through snow fields.

Well, maybe a short, easy hike up just one mile to say goodbye to the last of this year’s calypso orchids…

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Place making on the Olympic Discovery Trail

This morning I did my last long slow distance (LSD) run before the North Olympic Discovery half marathon, a week from today. I ran west and east on the latter part of the race course for a total of 7.5 miles. This section of the trail had been closed earlier in the week. As I learned today, the trail was closed so volunteers could complete trail repairs and mark the asphalt surface with official mile markers. Marathon miles were spray painted in orange, and half marathon miles were yellow.

Some of last year’s mile markers are still dimly visible, and oddly they are not in quite the same locations. Some small vagaries in the measurement process put those seemingly constant “mile markers” in new places.

The trail is renewed each spring when volunteers patch the sections that have eroded, washed away, and/or been covered by mudslides. This section of the trail runs along the waterfront at the base of a high, rather unstable bluff. I do glance over my shoulder up at the bluff sometimes when I run… It’s perfectly ordinary to see water cascading down the bluff but I have not… yet… seen a mudslide in action. Place making is an ongoing process here. The bluff, it is said, recedes or “sloughs” at an average rate of a foot a year. This trail won’t be here forever.

Meanwhile, I’m happy to see those official mile markers spray painted on the pavement! It gives a sense of immediacy to the upcoming race, and it makes the trail into a series of places that are different from the usual places. The turn from near the mouth of Morse Creek to run west along the waterfront is now approximately “mile 9” (or 22 if you’re a marathoner). The heart quickens in a different way here now.

There were other new markings that required a bit of interpretation. What looked like gibberish on my westbound pass revealed itself quite clearly as “AID 12” on my eastbound return pass. It’s the site of the 12th aid station! I’ll smile at the memory of today, next week when I grab a couple of sips of water at that place.

I also noted a marker for the turning point of the 10k, as well as what I took to be the 4 mile marker for that race. It will start at the same time as the half and full marathons, but will run out and back from the place where the longer races will finish. Having multiple races along the same trail creates an overlay pattern of places that will be interesting for spectators in a completely different way than for any of the people running any of the races.

By this time next Sunday night, the trail will just be a trail again. But those spray painted mile markers will linger as reminders of the places that they were.

Last long pre-race run done

Yesterday, as planned, I ran the last 11 miles of the half marathon that I’ll be doing two weeks from now. I had a friend drop me off 11 miles east and pick me up at the downtown pier where the race will finish. With all your words of advice to “slow down,” “have fun,” and “eat something” echoing in my head, I really tried to slow down. I wanted to run at a pace somewhere in the 11:10 to 11:20 range, and I hit the first mile at almost precisely 11:10.

Then I began the section that is 5 miles of rolling hills — and it all seemed so easy. I kept expecting that I’d reach a hill that was steep enough that I’d have to do some walking, but that didn’t happen. I ran up and down every single hill, including the two extremely steep downhill-uphill stream crossings. I have never in my wildest dreams imagined running up the hill on the west side of Bagley Creek. I did slow down (I ran that mile in 11:46) but I never stopped running. Except for two off-the-clock pit stops (which I know will count for time during the actual race) I ran the entire 11 miles. I have never run more than ten miles without stopping before. I did get a little tired near the finish, but I ran mile 11 in 10:25 and finished feeling strong and healthy, with an average pace (11:03) that undershot my goal by about 10 seconds per mile. I’m confident that I could have gone another two miles and finished just as strong.

I was helped by perfect conditions. The temperature was in the high 50s the whole way, with light rain for the first half hour but no wind until the final mile along the waterfront. If it’s anything like this on race day, I should be fine. If it’s hotter (like last year), rainier (like 2010), or windier I’ll remind myself that I’ve run under those conditions before. I can do this.

Per Pete’s advice (thanks bfpete!) I did try two varieties of Shot Blok (with and without caffeine) starting at the halfway point. My stomach isn’t 100% convinced, but they are SOOOO much more palatable and easier to eat than those awful gels and goos. And they did give me a nice energy boost and give me something to think about for those last couple of miles.

This morning I felt a little tired and my knees were a bit cranky, but no more so than after shorter but faster runs. By tomorrow I should be fine.

So now it’s TAPER TIME! Hurrah!!! I’ll be doing much shorter, easier runs from now until race day. I’ll probably get antsy from the drop in activity level, but (so the theory says) my body will be storing energy and building muscle during this semi-rest time.

It’s exciting to see that my hard work and adherence to my plan have yielded such great results so far. I’m really looking forward to this race — so different from last year when I ran for respite from caregiving and refuge for my anticipatory grief.

I now run simply because I love it. It makes me feel physically good, and it makes me happy.

I am earning this happiness, one step at a time.

Downstream transitions

My last post earlier today was completely focused on running, which is appropriate because with my local half marathon less than three weeks away, I am primarily focused on being ready for that race. This will be my sixth half marathon, and it will be the first one for which I have actually managed to stay with a training plan, get all the planned long runs in on schedule, and (I hope!) will feel ready, rested, and able on race day. My new post-corporate status has helped make that possible, but it’s also because I haven’t ever given up. Over the last three and a half years I have kept at this running thing, making the plans and honoring them, adjusting them when life circumstances required, learning to listen to my body, when to push and when to back off. One step at a time, one foot in front of the other, I have kept on moving.

Hiking and (to a lesser extent because I’m still wobbly) biking have been wonderful cross training experiences, and I really do feel the difference in my strength especially when running hills. But hiking is a slow, immersive, meditative experience that I’m really coming to enjoy for itself.

Over this past weekend I had the great privilege of hiking the former Lake Aldwell. Not far from my town an incredible, unprecedented transition is taking place. Two century-old dams are being removed from the Elwha River. It is the largest dam removal project ever undertaken in the US, if not the world, and it’s been in the planning/approval/funding process for more than 20 years. The intention is to restore the historic salmon runs (according to folklore, in the old days you could walk across the river on the backs of the 100-pound salmon) and to return the Elwha, much of which runs through Olympic National Park, to its wild river state. Scientists of every stripe have come here to plan and oversee the process of removing the two dams, draining their lakes while managing the 100-year silt accumulation, letting the river find new channels through the lake bed, and watching new vegetation reclaim the area (while keeping the invasive species out).

The removal of Elwha Dam, the lower of the two dams, began last September and was completed a month or so ago. I saw photos of the lake bed shortly after the dam was removed and really wanted to go there, but I wasn’t excited about sinking into mud so I’ve waited until now.

What I saw was otherworldly and wonderful. The river has indeed found its channel, and it is a meandering one that cuts through layers of silt, sand, and gravel. The most striking feature of the landscape is the tree trunks. These are the remains of gigantic old-growth Western Red Cedars that were cut and salvaged just before the lake filled. The stumps range from 4 to 12+ feet high depending on where they sit relative to the silt/sand/gravel beds. They apparently were burned at the time, but because this is a virtually indestructible wood, much of the mass is still there… after being cut, burned, and submerged for 100 years! Most of these stumps are ten or more feet across, and they are everywhere. The lake bed is a “moonscape,” eerily desert-like, but teeming with signs of life.

See those notches in the stump? Those are proof that it was cut more than a century ago, using old logging techniques that I am unable to describe to you (but you can probably google it).

While it may look desolate, I’m happy to report that life is definitely returning to the former Lake Aldwell. My hiking friend and I marveled at the large number of tracks left deeply and precisely imprinted in the fine silt on the west bank. We saw lots of elk (or possibly mountain goat) prints, but what really caught our attention were these prints:

We can’t decide whether these are coyote or cougar prints. Based on their large size (compare the shoe prints) and roundness (not elongated/oval) we think they are cougar, but my field guide book tells me you wouldn’t see claws on cougar tracks. However, my field guide may not take into account how thick and gooey the mud was when those tracks were made. If I were a cougar I might have extended my claws to keep from sinking too deep. What do you think?

After we hiked about half the length of Lake Aldwell, we drove up to the upper dam (Glines Canyon Dam). This dam is still intact, but Lake Mills is being drained at a rate of about one foot a day. The reason for this slow trickle is to prevent a wall of silt from rushing downstream to the fragile, recovering downstream riverbed. It will be nearly another year before the upper Elwha runs free. I couldn’t photograph Lake Mills because construction barriers have been put in place… but I could peek through.

Back here in town, another transition is being envisioned. You may recall that one of my goals for post-corporate life was to become involved in local community building initiatives. Well, I have found my place, at least for now, with the Transition Towns movement. This is an initiative that began in the UK and is focused on creative local response to environmental and economic threats. Transition initiatives emerge within communities in a grassroots fashion in response to this question:

“For all those aspects of life that our community needs in order to sustain itself and thrive, how do we significantly increase resilience (in response to peak oil), drastically reduce carbon emissions (in response to climate change) and greatly strengthen our local economy (in response to economic instability)?”

I’ve become a core member of a Transition Initiating Group, and we’re in the process of figuring out how to address this downshifting question in a way that uniquely fits our local small town — geographically isolated, with a dying/dead logging industry, millions of acres of protected wilderness, seasonal tourism, a short growing season, but LOTS of water. Our demographics range from Libertarian to Green, from Microsoft millionaire to retirees who are barely scraping by on Social Security. I don’t believe Sasquatch exists, but I know for a fact that there are homeless veterans living back there in the woods, and they do not want to be bothered by outsiders. All of these people, these voices, need to be brought into the conversation about the future that we are trying to initiate.

So it’s an interesting project, but it’s giving me exactly what I hoped to find. I’m meeting and working with people who may have widely differing perspectives but share a desire to thrive in the face of whatever future challenges we may or may not face. Whether or not you “believe” in whatever predictions one or another scientific model may make, isn’t it prudent to be prepared in case this or that worst-case scenario might happen? And even if it never happens, isn’t it a great thing to sit around a table with thoughtful people, sharing a meal and talking about one’s hopes and dreams for the future?

I think so.

It took vision and perseverence to make the Elwha River run free, and I want to lend my vision and perseverence to making my small town a freer, happier, more neighborly place to be.

Wouldn’t you?

“TSD” running: The pacing game

This is a really nerdy running post. If you’re not really into running and really obsessive about running statistics, you may wish to move on. But I hope you’ll hang in there with me…  

With the North Olympic Discovery half marathon less than three weeks away, I’m now doing longer, slower runs and focusing on maintaining a consistent pace over those longer distances. After working so hard to become faster it feels odd now to slow down, so I’ve created a new game to keep myself challenged and interested.

Friends from the Porsche Club or anyone who has ever done a time/speed/distance (TSD) car rally will appreciate the game. I’m setting out on a run of X miles, and I decide that I want to run a steady pace of MM:SS per mile. The object of the game is to get as close as possible to “zeroing” each leg (mile) of the rally (run).

In a TSD rally, scoring is done in minutes and hundredths of minutes. Each hundredth of a minute early OR late arriving at a checkpoint is worth one point. Hence 2 minutes early is 200 points, and 2 minutes late is also worth 200 points. You can’t make up for being late on one leg by being early on the next one. Generally, 5 minutes early/late (500 points) is “maxing” a leg; you can’t get a higher per-leg score than 500. If a rally has 5 legs, you will enter 5 checkpoints and your total score is the sum of the leg scores. [In addition to the requirement of being precisely on time at each checkpoint, in TSD rallies you must follow intentionally confusing route instructions and you don’t know where the checkpoints will be… but for the purposes of this post I’m ignoring those substantial differences.]

My inspiration for the pacing game was a 4-mile run last week. I didn’t set a goal pace, but just ran at a comfortable pace without paying much attention to my watch. I finished at an average pace of 10:39, but I was astonished to see that the difference between my slowest and fastest miles was a mere 2.15 seconds. So I dreamed up a per-mile scoring algorithm similar to the way rally legs are scored. Since my GPS watch records minutes, seconds, and hundredths of a second, I decided that each hundredth of a second would be worth 1 point. Hence 1 second early or late would be worth 100 points up to a maximum 500 points (5 seconds).

Using this algorithm on my 4-mile run and belatedly assigning a goal pace of 10:39,  I had mile scores of 5, 125, 90, and 125. As a seat-of-the-pants TSD rallyist (and a mighty successful one I might add… I have the trophies to prove it), I would have been quite happy with those scores!

Game on!

For my 8-mile run last Sunday, I set a goal pace of 10:55, but it was a beautiful spring day, I was feeling great, and I couldn’t make myself slow down enough.  I maxed (actually “minned”) half the legs and finished at an average 10:52 pace. I felt strong and happy afterwards, so I didn’t feel too bad about beating my goal pace… but I vowed to do better next time!

For today’s shorter 5-mile run, I aimed at 10:45, only maxed (minned) one leg, was nearly perfect on mile 4, and finished at an average 10:42 pace.

I’ll do one short fun run later this week (most likely a Thursday evening beer run), and then I’ll do my final long run on Sunday, two weeks before race day. I want to run the last 11 miles of the half marathon route, which will include all of the killer hills and the final 5 miles along the waterfront.

Now I’m deep in thought, wondering what to set as my goal pace. I have run 10 miles at a 10:16 average pace, but without the hills. I have run 8+ miles of mostly hills at a 10:53 average pace. Both of those runs were hard pushes for me. So can I possibly put the two together? Surely there is a difficulty multiplier — but how large? Dare I dream of 11 miles at an 11:00 pace?

The last thing I want to do now is injure myself — I have been training perfectly up to this point. I’ve consistently met or slightly exceeded my distance goals for each week, while dramatically increasing my speed. Now I just have to put it all together and run a well-planned and well-executed race. I think I should probably set a more modest pace goal for this last long run, which (assuming I meet that goal) should give me the confidence to crank it up just a bit more on race day.

As much as I’ve come to simply love the run, love getting into a groove and watching the mile markers pass, I also truly enjoy playing these mind games with myself. I push myself to improve by setting these zany goals. If I didn’t do that, I’d probably still be plodding along on my treadmill… or I’d have sold the thing at a yard sale by now.

So I’m going to meditate about Sunday for a bit longer, because I want to set a pace goal that is doable, fun, and safe, while still confidence-building. After all, I sense another PR coming, and what will really matter on race day is my final time, not how well I’ve timed each of my miles.

What would you do? Push this last long training run and test the limits, or play it safer now and find out what you’re made of on race day?

Mile Markers

It’s the 9th day of the month again. Today marks eleven months since Kurt died. Although grief is no longer at the forefront of my thoughts every day, I still feel sad as each of these small anniversaries approaches. This one seems especially poignant because the next one will be a full year.

At this time last year, I was packing up our things and preparing to drive Kurt and our three cats home from Palm Springs where we’d spent the late winter and early spring. Although he’d been under continuing care (read: “endless chemotherapy”) from a local oncologist, he was clearly getting sicker and weaker. He told me when we locked up the condo and left on May 15 that he didn’t think he’d ever see it again. I said, “Of course you will!” I was trying to be strong and I so badly wanted him to be strong and keep fighting. Perhaps, instead, I should have encouraged him to talk about it, at that moment when he might have still been able to have such a discussion with me.

No, I won’t second-guess my own actions from that time. We all do what seems like the right thing to do at the time.

And the mile markers go by, one after another.

My favorite running place, the Olympic Discovery Trail, has both mile markers and half-mile markers. I don’t look at them much these days, but they do serve as reminders to glance at my watch. I keep getting faster. I’m still not quite sure why I’m getting faster, or how much faster this slow happy runner is capable of going.

Since I started running three and a half years ago I’ve now run 1,577 miles, which is 534 more than last year at this time. I’ve probably run a million steps, give or take a few thousand, over the past year. One step at a time.

I have handled hills, rain, and gale-force headwinds. I can go out now and run ten miles at a constant pace that I couldn’t have done for even one mile a year ago. The next day I’m not sore. I’m amazed that I can just go and do a run like that and feel perfectly normal afterward.

Life goes on. I am not the person that I was a year ago. I will always have “Kurt’s widow” as a deep part of who I am, but I am not only that person. Every step, every mile, every corner turned and bridge crossed, takes me further beyond the life we shared.

My last post was about a bridge on the Olympic Discovery Trail, and it brought a question about whether this was an old railroad bridge. That particular bridge is a new one, but the trail is indeed on an old rail right-of-way, and some of its many bridges are indeed railroad bridges. After my run the other day I stopped to take photos of one of these; it’s just west of mile marker 5. Colleen, this is for you:

While on a bike ride back on April 27 I stopped in the middle of the bridge to look down at the stream. There was a bunch of wood and other debris caught in an eddy current and in the process of getting hung up on the downstream side of the bridge. I watched for a long time as a discarded green plastic bottle swirled around, each time looking like it might escape and float downstream, and each time becoming more entrapped by the debris. Each time I have crossed the bridge since that day, I have stopped to look for the bottle. Each time, it was still there.

Today the bottle was gone. There was still a debris dam there, but the green bottle had somehow escaped and floated on downstream toward the mouth of the stream a mile away.

Time passes. Things change. Mile markers approach and then fade behind us.

Life goes on, one step at a time.

Really scary bridges

While I was out running the other day it occurred to me that I would have two opportunities (going and returning) to examine the REALLY SCARY bridge that gave me so much trouble on my last bike ride. I thought that perhaps if I stopped and studied it, I might be able to overcome my irrational fear of crashing into the rail while attempting to ride across it. After all, this bridge is no big deal while running!

What I found is that there are several things going on that make this particular bridge so scary. Approaching from the west, it is a nice straight shot from a broad asphalt parking area — and in fact I’d handled it just fine when going that direction on my bike. Approaching from the east, it’s a different story.

The waterfront trail that I run most frequently is paved for most of its length. It’s a soft, thin chip-seal, which makes for a comfortable and pleasant running surface. Just east of this bridge, however, the trail makes a “temporary detour” around an old mill that closed about 15 years ago. Because this section is “temporary” pending final cleanup of the mill site (which may happen sometime this century), it has been left unpaved. Approaching the bridge from the east side, the trail is a combination of loose gravel and mud. It winds downhill and then makes a hard downhill left turn just a few yards from the bridge.

EXHIBIT A: Downhill left turn on gravel, approaching really scary bridge

So here I am, pedaling along, focusing really hard on simply trying to stay upright, because I haven’t done much bike riding in the last 30 years or more. I approach the turn, hit the brakes, try not to slide on the gravel, and hope I’ve got myself straightened out for the very short approach to the bridge. The bridge itself also runs downhill, and is only about 7 feet wide.

EXHIBIT B: The gaping maw of the REALLY SCARY bridge

I ask you: is that not REALLY SCARY?

But the funny thing is, once you are out on the middle of the bridge, if you take the time to stop (or if you find yourself coming to a screeching halt) and then look around, this is truly a beautiful place. This is Ennis Creek. Several years ago I was on a team that monitored water quality on this creek and another one nearer my house. I’ve scrambled around in the water at this location many times. This is NOT a scary place at all. I actually love this place.

EXHIBIT C: Ennis Creek from the bridge

Now that I have studied the bridge and understood the elements that make it so scary from my bike-riding vantage point, I’m hopeful that the next time I try it on my bike, I’ll sail right through. Or at least I’ll be able to laugh at myself for my obstinate, persistent irrationality.

There is a life lesson in this, of course. A really scary bridge is just a metaphor for all those really scary crossings that I have had to make over the past two years. A cancer diagnosis in one’s dearest loved one is a really scary thing. Watching helplessly as he endured one complication, one indignity, one setback after another was really scary. Realizing that I was going to have to get through the hardest parts, Kurt’s final weeks and days, without him being “there” to cheer me on as he had always done for me when the going got tough, was really scary. Saying goodbye to someone who was beyond responding was really scary. Finding myself alone was really, really scary.

He’s now been gone for almost a year. I can look back and know that I did everything as well as I possibly could have. I have crossed one bridge after another. I have learned to enjoy the view. Sometimes I still feel really scared, but I’m learning that I have so much life still to live, so many new adventures that I never thought would be within my reach, and a growing community of new friends who are encouraging me to cross new bridges.

I’ll get over this bridge, and others beyond it. Life does go on, and there is joy in the journey.

One step at a time!