April 15, 2014

Growing Feet... At 41

This is the weirdest thing.

My sabbatical year, as you can figure by now, was devoted to running and enjoying outdoor adventures. Throughout this awesome time, I have gained several benefits from the increased mileage and number of races I've enjoyed. During my travel time alone, I have now completed 16 ultras and several other running adventures.

The benefits range from excellent health (My cholesterol was recently measured at 4.10, which I'm told is exceptionally good - and I don't come from a good family background) to great immune resistance to increased fitness and a recovery capability I'd never dreamed of. Needless to say, I'm pretty stoked.

But my increased running seems to have had another, totally unbelievable consequence, too. My feet have grown a size and a half! How is that even possible?

I started running, a couple years ago, as a size 7. I have to say, after about a year, I started buying size 7.5 shoes, but I thought I was just getting to like more toe room (I'm not a big fan of black toes). But as my sabbatical year went and I replaced or bought new shoes, I found myself getting size 8, then 8.5... up to the point that I am now a size 9!

This isn't some kind of subjective matter; the shoes I had originally brought on this trip (that didn't end up getting worn to shreds or donated) literally don't fit me anymore. Even the new shoes I bought earlier on the trip are too tight and ended up in the donations pile.

Am I the only one? Did I trigger some sort of dormant gene that awakens after a couple thousand miles and transforms our feet to suit our running needs better? I have to say, I'm dumbfounded.

Qui aurait cru que nos pieds peuvent grandir et changer de forme?! À 41 ans, après un an de course intensif, ma pointure de souliers a augmenté d'un point et demi!

April 10, 2014

Crown King Scramble 50K - Best. DNF. Ever.

«If you're hurt or injured, don't press on and make matters worse. Just know when to call it a day.»

Although it's not always easy, I try to live by my own advice. Mind you, I consider myself privileged because I run all I want and I seldom, if ever, get injured. Knock on wood, I haven't had any serious injuries for a couple years now.

But that comes with a little price to pay; I can't have an ego. Not that I want one anyway, but still, I like to keep up with my running friends and do well in the events I run.

So when my right knee started to hurt less than 2 miles into Crown King Scramble 50, the pinch I felt the most was to my pride. I was running with La Mariposa, and I was feeling very happy to be out in nature with my friend, about to experience a new part of beautiful Arizona. The morning was fresh and the day full of promise, but all I could feel at that point was disappointment and worry.

«What is it?» she asked, noticing my form had gotten weird. «My knee. It hurts. I'm gonna have to walk bits. Just go on, run your race, I'll see you at the finish.»

«No way», is what I got for an answer, and after a couple friendly «Andale, huevon», I gave running another shot. For about 300 yards. Things were getting desperate, and I knew I couldn't hope for a finish that day. I stopped at Nathan Coury's truck, less than 2.5 miles in, and looked at his passenger's seat. «Really?!» he said. «The day's just starting. Take it easy, walk bits. No worries. Make it at least to the first aid station, then see how it goes.» I returned his friendly smile, and went on.

The first aid station came, about 8 miles in. I hadn't run a lot, and when I did, I felt this shooting pain in my knee that I know too well. It's exactly like an IT Band symptom, except in my case, it's just my body screaming at me. Like a warning light on the dashboard. «If you keep going, I'm gonna mess you up.»

No one at the first aid station, including La Mariposa, had any pity for me. Most of what's ahead is hiking anyway, I was told, so no point in stopping now. Make it to mile 15, then you'll be at the bottom of the long steep climb. Keep a good hiking pace and you'll make the cut-offs, easy.

My buddy Richard
Ah, well. Walking didn't hurt, so I reluctantly kept going. I was really grateful that my friend was with me, even though it was turning her run into a leisurely walk while everyone else was whisking by. Soon enough, though, my other knee started to hurt, and then my hips. Walking was now painful, too, and my greatest fear, getting hurt, came to haunt me. Luckily, the mile 15 aid station was coming, and I told Maria I was done for good. I stopped and sat on a chair, massaged my legs in the morning sun and cheered on the other runners.

Soon, the aid station staff figured they had to do something with me, but no one was going in the direction of the finish line, where all my friends and El Capitan were. While they were breaking down, one of the local radio operators, Richard, showed up in his macked-out Rubicon. «Can you take this guy up the trail?». Richard just smirked. He pointed to his Jeep with his chin and said «The ride might be a little bumpy.» I smiled wide and said «Bring it.» Instantaneous friendship ensued.

Richard's macked-out Rubicon
We climbed in his Jeep and Richard gave me a preview of what his machine could do. We climbed rock walls, bounced off pitches and rocked left and right as we drove up to the next aid station, listening to French music and talking trail adventures. We picked up another tired runner on the way, Chris, who was more than happy to jump in with us and enjoy a little break. We all squeezed in the two-seater and we got to the third aid station before we knew it. I high-fived my new friend, thanking him for the awesome ride. «Chris will take you guys to the finish from here, I have to go back to work.»

Crazy Chris and his Trail Machine
A third fallen brother, Vance, was waiting for a ride, too. His face was pale and he looked like he was ready to call it a day. I figured we'd hop on some kind of pickup truck, but instead, we were pointed to a 4-wheel dune buggy-looking machine, which I later learned is called a Razor. There, another Chris waited for us, and he was smiling, too.

«Let me set up your guys' harnesses», he said, smirking. This guy looked like trouble, and I loved it. I called shotgun, not that I think any other guy wanted the seat anyway, and jumped in front, my camera in hand. So, instead of telling you how it went, let me... show you :)

My DNF ride absolutely made my day and allowed me to cheer on my friends and experience the trails they ran on. I got to the finish line dirty and grinning from ear to ear, excited with our trail shenanigans. It was an absolute blast, and a good reminder that whatever you do out there on the trails, including dropping out from a run, has always the potential to make you happy and enjoy a great day out with friends!

Post-race note. My knee's just fine. After 3 days of rest, I've been enjoying two days of pain-free running over all sorts of terrain. I guess my long drives from the days prior to Crown King kept my legs always in the same position and caused some sort of muscular unease.

Abandonner une course, ce n'est pas abandonner la vie. C'est juste prendre un autre chemin, qui peut se révéler aussi passionnant, excitant et mémorable que le plan initial:)

March 24, 2014

Epic - Ultra Marathon Caballo Blanco 2014

It seems every time Tom Norwood shows up at a race I'm running, something epic happens. Last time around, we shared an unlikely lifetime achievement after crossing the finish line of Josue Stephens' Hunter Gatherer 50, stride for stride, in overall 4th place and as 2nd men. 

Tom's epic moment
with Luis Escobar, in 2013
I can't even start telling the story of Ultra Marathon Caballo Blanco 2014 before I make sure everyone remembers Tom's feat from last year's race. He left a major mark upon the Copper Canyons running lore when he rose up from absolute despair on an Urique sidewalk, after receiving unforgettable words from our friend Luis Escobar, and finished his first-ever 50 miler against all odds. A victory Mas Locos and the ultra running world in general shared in absolute delight.

However, the only that that felt epic, this year, was Tom's stomach flu. After spending the two last days of UMCB race week in bed with a fever and an inability to keep any food in, he didn't look like half of himself. He'd already told me he wouldn't be running; his body felt too weak for the challenge. He'd stay with Margarita, our friend Margaret Schlacter, who was the event's social media journalist, and be the «Official Race Vehicle».

Tom was supposed to be
an Official Race Vehicle...
You now can understand my amazement when, at 5:30 AM Sunday morning, I saw him and my friend Scott Smuin show up at the starting line. His colours were back, he was smiling and looked as fresh as ever. «What the hell?!» I screamed, jumping into his arms. «Well, seems like I feel much better. I wouldn't miss this run for the world!».

I decided to take the start with another firend, Marc Seguin, who'd travelled all the way from back home with his Beloved, Shany, and who stood the chance of becoming Quebec's #4 Mas Loco. We'd shared numerous runs together and I was very proud to join him in the beginning of his Canyon journey.

The race started like every other time I've ran it; you're just standing there, smiling, taking pictures with friends and sharing a joyful moment and then every one starts moving. Fast. Before we knew it, we were running down Urique's main street and I was taking off on another UMCB adventure. My heart was full and my smile was wide.

My good friend, and Quebec Mas Loco #4, Marc Seguin
I shared several miles with Marc, until he somehow disappeared at Guadalupe Coronado, our first turnaround point. I guess he stopped for food, and I didn't notice he'd stayed behind until I was maybe half a mile ahead. Knowing he's a strong runner, I had the feeling he'd catch up with me sooner than later. In front of me, in the distance, I saw a very familiar silhouette; my friend Tom, running happily on the rolling canyon hills. Unable to refrain my enthusiasm, I darted ahead to catch up with him.

Tom is a great friend with a powerful, beaming smile. Just running alongside him makes me happy. We had tons of catching up to do, so we started talking enthusiastically while finishing the first loop, down to the bridge. When we reached it, we decided to stay together, as always, and share the whole run.

The climb to El Naranjo was playful and felt short. We ran with several friends and crossed others, cruising fast with the lead Raramuri. They were in a race of their own, but what was amazing is that everyone, from first place to last, was smiling. Running free.

The top mesa at Naranjo arrived quickly, and both Tom and I felt fresh and excited for the fast downhill 10K that lied ahead. We ate oranges and drank pinole, making sure we were fueled properly for a quick-paced, non-stop descent into Urique. Like two kids, we ran down the steep hills feeling like we were flying, revelling in the glorious morning sun and enjoying every moment we could spend running alongside our Raramuri friends.

We agreed to take a couple minutes in Urique. I had to re-lace my shoes and Tom wanted a little bathroom break, so we spent maybe 15 minutes in town under the shade of Mama Tita's front porch. We took off as the late morning sun was rising, along with the heat. Tom was running strong and, for a while, I felt like maybe he'd leave me behind. I felt a little weaker than I would've wished for, but it wasn't too late to avoid a crash. I ate more calories and drank generous gulps of water, and started feeling better and better, all the way to the La Laja bridge, which marks the end of the road and the beginning of the beautiful trail to Los Alisos.

The riverbed section was done in no time and, as we started the steep switchback climb to the trail, I accelerated a little. I felt great and strong, and made sure to tell Tom... who didn't answer. I turned back and realized he had lagged behind a couple steps. His face had changed a little, too. «Are you all right?»

«I'm OK. A little tired. I don't feel super strong.»

«Take it easy, amigo. I'll wait for you on the top of the hill.»

Earlier, on the way from Urique
I kept going, leaving my friend to his thoughts. I was looking forward to a little shade at the aid station on top of the switchbacks, and would use the time Tom would take to catch up to empty my shoes, which had filled with loose sand. My plan worked great and, by the time Tom reached the top, I was all refreshed and ready to go. We still had a rough stretch ahead, the one I call The Oven. A steep canyon wall of red rocks that slowly take in sun rays and radiate them back at the runners.

This is where my friend hit his first wall.

Progress became slow, and his steps got shorter. He felt dizzy and nauseous, but I pressed him on so we would clear The Oven and get to the shade. This probably didn't help, because his energy faded quickly, until the point we had to stop. We took a little breather and tried to start moving again. After several minutes of stop-and-go, Tom gave me the look I didn't want to see.

«No, man. I'm not going. I'm staying with you. Take your tim-...» but he raised his hand at me. «Dude. I'm going back to that river. I told you. Just go.»

There was no arguing. His eyes talked the loudest. He was tired, he was sick. He was done. Saddened, I turned and moved ahead, reaching Los Alisos in a couple more minutes. I waited for my friend there, but he wasn't coming. After some more minutes, I took the decision I didn't want to take, and started going back down on my own. I really wanted to finish the race with my fr- «TOM!!!»

I wasn't 100 yards down the trail when I saw him. The Happy Badger, El Tejon Feliz. He who refuses to quit. He was walking slowly, but hell, he was walking! «I'm so glad to see you!!!»

He was still a little pale, but he looked way better. I sat down on a rock by the trail side, and refused to move an inch before he joined me. After trying a couple times to get me going, Tom smiled and promised to take a decent break at the aid station, then come back down to continue together.

We spent the whole way down trying to figure out a way for him to eat and drink sufficiently and to get back some energy for the last loop. This segment to Urique, we agreed, was the stretch we would use to piece him back together so that we could finish happy and strong. Things looked great for a while, with even some running stretches on the road back. But soon enough, my friend was on the side of the road, sicker then before.

«I don't think I can do this», he said, looking defeated. «You stop this right here!», I yelled back. «We're going to do this together, and we're going to finish this together, a'ight?». My failed drill sergeant routine, at least, made him smile and we kept going, slowly but determined.

Before reaching Urique, I started fearing Tom would call it a day and tried everything I could to make him feel better. «Give it a good thought, and tell me something you would really, really like to eat right now.» He gave it a minute and said «well, this little shop in town has watermelon smoothies. I think I'd like that.» «I'm on it!», I yelled, running ahead. «See you in town!»

Aaaaaah. Watermelon juice.
I got to the shop, happy I'd had the wits to put some money in my running vest the night before. I bought the smoothie and made it back in time to see my friend get to town. He didn't look great, but the sight of the cold drink seemed to make him happy. A lot of our friends had finished their race and were at the Plaza, cheering other runners in. They gave Tom a real boost and made sure we had all we needed for the obvious long haul to Guadalupe and back. At this point, there was no running anymore and our progress was slow at best. But we were moving, and we were together.

It took us several hard hours to get to and back from Guadalupe, with numerous stops on the way. Tom was really sick, all the way, and none of what we tried seemed to make him better. Every step he took was hard, and not a single moment in that last stretch gave him a break. But he pressed on, kept moving and never, ever lost his determination. Badgers, you see, don't ever quit.

As we had done before, we came closer and closer to the finish line, stride for stride. As before, we'd drawn on each other's energy until we savoured the incoming victory. We celebrated the memory of Caballo Blanco, who had brought us together, and we celebrated being alive. We finished in the arms of our friends, exhausted but satisfied.

It was a great day to be out there.

It was an even greater one to share it with my friend Tom.

Five colors - and a beautiful gift -
which mean the world to me

Meanwhile, my friend Marc had an epic day of his own, with his Shany covering over 40K to get to him and pace him to his finish, hand in hand. She'd never ran anything more than a half marathon.

On court souvent des ultras pour se découvrir et explorer ses limites. Parfois, on court un ultra pour atteindre celles des autres, et les aider à les dépasser.