Thursday, September 20, 2012

Type two blogging

A cursory review of the “I just finished my first marathon” literature will find lots of people describing apparent life-changing moments.  People weeping with joy.  The best days of their lives.  Never again to meet a challenge in life, love, or career that can’t be met with the same dogged determination that carried them across the final six miles. Never to be forgotten.
I don’t remember it like that.  I don’t remember it like that at all.

Was I glad to finish my first marathon?  Sure, but only because I could finally do what I had wanted to do for some miles: stop running and, with that, hopefully, stop the pain.  I crossed the finish line of the Equinox Marathon in 2005, accepted my finisher’s patch with a vacant stare, and shuffled to an empty spot in the grass where I could sit.  Not comfortably, mind you.  If I tried to bend my legs, my hamstrings seized.  I tried to project an aurora of comfort and ease while grimacing, jacked at an obtuse angle.  Since I couldn’t stand back up without bending, I was effectively trapped, and ultimately resigned myself to concentrating on the ache in my legs rather than my increasing thirst which I could not attend to without rising.

I did not know it at the time, but I was having fun.  Type two fun.  Familiar to alpinists, type two fun is the kind that only becomes fun after being viewed through the haze of time.  Type two fun is usually no fun at all when you are experiencing it: cold, tired, afraid, maybe bleeding.  But once back at the bar with open beers, type two fun suddenly morphs into real fun, as you and your mates congratulate one another, exalt the day’s triumphs, and—here is the kicker—start planning to do it all again.  The amount of time it takes to go from suffering to thinking a second time around is a good idea is directly proportionate to the degree of type two-ness that your fun involved.  For me, the Equinox Marathon must have been pushing the limits, since it took seven years to once again think running the full course was a good idea.

But run the whole thing again, I did.  Last Saturday I lined up at the start with C’s family.  She, her sister, and mom were doing the relay.  Her dad was doing the full, perhaps a bit undertrained this year.  As he described it, the 26.2 miles of the race would be greater than the sum total of miles he ran to prepare.  I suspect if it hadn’t been the 50th anniversary of the race, he would have sat this one out.  But why let details get in the way of a beautiful fall day in Fairbanks?

I was hoping to run under 4:00:00 this year, but failed to meet that goal by a fair margin.  The opening miles were slower than I expected or remembered, and I felt sluggish for the first five or more miles.  I started to feel better as I reached Ester Dome and the trail pointed upward, but by the time I reached the half-way mark it was clear that sub-four hours was going to be a hard sell.  I plodded out the out-and-back, a section along Ester Dome of single-track and mining roads where you get to pass runners ahead and behind and see a good slice of the field.  With a high-five from C (who was running leg 2 of the race and starting the out-and-back section as I was finishing), I headed for the Chute.  Runners descend about 1,000 vertical feet in a third-of-a-mile down the Chute, a steep, rocky, and loose bomb down a section line.  Any hope of making up time died as the pounding cramped my left leg.  I pulled off to the side of the trail to stretch and try to walk through the discomfort, losing about 5 minutes as piles of racers tumbled past.

Luckily, I recovered pretty well from the leg cramp, and continued on my way, cautiously at first.  The miles kept going.  A little girl offered up mini-doughnuts at an unofficial aid station, which I gladly took but didn’t end up eating.  Do you know where her hands had been?  Why risk the GI distress!  Before long, the final descent to the finish line appeared, I came around the corner, kept running, and finished.  Final time: 4:21, good enough for a top-quarter finish in the overall standings and a top-third in my age group, but pretty far off of my goal.  Nevertheless, I was satisfied with the day.  I felt good at the end, could sit and stand at will, and had time for a hot shower and sauna before the rest of the family started coming across the line.  And it didn’t take any time to think that I could do the race again.  No type two about this fun at all.

Once home (a trip characterized by high-winds and sheets of rain), I was able to download data from my Garmin and carefully analyze the day.  It took awhile, but I did discern why I was unable to meet my goal time: I didn’t run fast enough.  Something to work towards, I guess.

A photographer posted some pictures from the event that he has made freely available (!i=2092604897&k=5zwkqsR).  I grabbed two of them.  The first shows off the fall colors on Ester Dome:

The second shows that, as sure as the night will follow day, if you take my picture during a race I will be scowling.  

Why can’t I just take a normal picture that makes it look like I enjoy running?  Maybe there was more type two to this race than at first I thought.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Going Deep

(Full disclosure: All of the photos below were stolen off of the web, and are of places I went long before I owned a camera or started taking pictures.)

So this long run I have planned is coming up in just under two weeks now, meaning, among other things, that part way through September I can start doing something with my free time other than running as a form of preparation for yet more running.  It turns out that distance takes time, and not just the time it takes to cover miles but also the time it takes to harden legs against prolonged abuse.  My training plan is pretty low mileage—averaging about 35 miles per week with higher peak weeks.  There are plenty of folks in the world who will tell you that anything less than 60 mpw may allow you to finish but not race a marathon, and others who are running 90+ mpw in pursuit of the coveted “personal best.”  Even still, I feel like all I’ve done all summer is work, run, cook, and pack lunches and snacks as I transition back to the start of the list and repeat.  With any luck, it will allow me to achieve my time goal at the Equinox, but we’ll see.

There was a time when I did other things.  I spent a good fifteen years self-identifying as a climber first, whatever the hell else I happened to be doing with my life second.  I haven’t done much climbing for awhile now, but that has nothing to do with running.  Prior to climbing, I was actually introduced to technical rope work as a caver.  My dad spent a little time in his college years poking into caves in southwest Virginia and beyond, and maintained an interest in caving as he moved forward with his life.  He took me on a few introductory trips once I was in high school and then turned my loose to the Virginia Tech cave club when I too wandered off to college.

The Virginia Tech cave club was an active group of students and locals, situated with access to some pretty amazing cave systems, including caves with substantial in-cave vertical.  But once you start talking vertical caves in the lower 48, you start talking about TAG.  TAG is a karst region centered on Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia.  Hence the name.  The area is characterized by a number of pits, surface and sub-surface, that make it something of a vertical caving playground.  The crown jewel is Fantastic Pit, a 586 foot drop in Ellison’s cave, the deepest in-cave drop in the lower 48 (exceeded by a pit in Alaska—everything  is bigger, and apparently deeper, in Alaska).  But there is a lot more to the region than just Fantastic.

Fantastic Pit, Ellisons Cave

The region hosts the annual TAG Fall Cave-in, a coming together of cavers in a field to cave by day and socialize by night.  I first went with a guy named Brian.  We packed his circa eighties-era Mazda RX7 with plenty of rope, sleeping bags, and, given the size of a RX7, likely little else.  By day we bounced surface pits with names devised to evoke respect and awe—Valhalla, Neversink—and those with names more mundane, but no less impressive in the flesh—e.g. Stephen’s Gap Cave.

Stephen's Gap 

Valhalla (Caver, barely visible, on rope ascending in yellow about half-way up for scale.)

By night we admired the bonfire from a safe distance.  The TAG Fall Cave-in bonfire was, at least at the time, truly epic.  A dedicated crew was in charge of piling timber to heights requiring a crane, dousing the whole with any number of different petroleum byproducts, and stuffing the nooks and crannies with fireworks, widely available from giant outlets as soon as you cross south into Tennessee.  The fire crew wore t-shirts with photos of a prior year’s burn, flames leaping into the sky made all the more impressive once you realized that the tiny silhouette in the foreground was not a person at all but a telephone pole.  It turns out that the local utilities had seen copies of that picture and stepped in to limit the height of the structure in subsequent years.  The fire was, nevertheless, something to behold, and made just a little dangerous by the fact that a bottle rocket could suddenly ignite at any time and fly in your direction.  I assume the bonfire remains central to the evening events at modern day cave-ins, an assumption supported by the fact that the online cave-in FAQs state that pictures of the bonfire are only allowed before noon.  I can only guess that is an attempt to keep documentary evidence out of the hands of the current regulators.

The following year, a TAG caver named Mike (I think?) moved to Blacksburg to go to graduate school.  Mike was part of a dedicated group of Atlanta based cavers that spent significant time in Mexico exploring and mapping huge cave systems, and he thought nothing of heading to the TAG region for the weekend, all in the name of training.  No surprise, he offered to lead a group of us from Virginia to the cave-in that year.  We teamed up with some of his other friends and picked up where Brian and I had left off, bouncing pits.  

We also headed further underground to do some in-cave drops.  One such trip was to Surprise Pit in Fern Cave, a 400-foot drop.  As is the case with a number of caves, the entrances take some hiking to reach, and in the case of Fern the hiking took us straight uphill.  One of Mike’s buddies (name forgotten to history) was in his thirties—maybe older.  Like Mike, this guy spent time in Mexico on trips better characterized as expeditions.  He was pretty focused and pretty intense, and while happy to show us around, he looked at the weekend as simply another opportunity to train.  As such, he volunteered to carry the rope up to Fern (or simply though is he let any of us carry it we would slow the whole operation down to the point of hopelessness).  Sufficiently burdened with 500-feet of static line, he faced the hill and started to move.  We fell into step behind, a group of six or seven total.  Gaps opened almost immediately.  I don’t remember how long we spent grinding uphill, probably somewhere between 30 and 60 minutes.  I do remember reaching the cave entrance second only to Mike’s friend.  He looked at me as I approached.

“You’re pretty fast.  Do you do anything to stay in shape?”

Stay in shape?  I was, what?  19?  My body ran on enthusiasm and hormones.  I gave him the honest answer: “No.”

Mike’s friend thought on that for a second.  “Just wait.  You’ll have to in time,” he said, and went on getting his gear together.

I wonder now to what degree the 19-year old me could have gotten up and around the Equinox course.  Fact of the matter is Mike’s friend was right, and I have lost the ability to safely jump off the couch and attack real athletics.  As a consequence, I too train.  Luckily, I take pleasure in it, and regardless of the result on race day, can sit back and reflect on a season executing a plan without missing a single scheduled run or inviting injury.  That, alone, should put me in better position than 2005.

(Surprise Pit, Fern Cave)

Incidentally, we did try to bounce Fantastic Pit on that second TAG trip.  Four of us opted to try on our last day, all tuckered from a good week of hard caving.  To get to the Fantastic lip takes a little bit of time underground, including negotiating a 100-foot plus drop.  We got to the pit, conveniently and permanently (at least at the time) rigged to rappel by a local rope company (PMI).  Chummer, called such to distinguish him from the other Dave in our party, went first.  Water levels were high.  Where he should have been rappelling free and dry, Chummer found himself in a full waterfall, at risk for bone-crushing hypothermia.  He changed over and ascended back to the lip, and we called it a day.

I rode back to Blacksburg with the other Dave.  As, I believe, can only happen to the young, we pointed the car north expecting to be home in about eight hours, but ended up in Kentucky, as evidenced by the giant “Welcome to Kentucky” sign we flew past.  Kentucky?  How does anyone survive their youth?