June 29, 2016

Check out my podcast with Marathon Runs

Before I ever met Suman of mruns.com, I saw a video that he posted of the start line of the Birmingham Track Club's Statue 2 Statue race. You never once see him in the video, but instead he holds the camera and scans all of the runners with almost all of them calling him by name and greeting him as he walks through the crowd. One of my favorite parts of life is looking back at little pieces of life's puzzle and comparing that to the picture you have now, which of course is still not what it will look like in the end. Back then I wondered who the face was behind the video. Who knows that many people at a race start line?! And who never turns the camera on themselves?!

In time I met Suman at the Southeastern Trail Series, where he and I have been the three-year champions for the long series, which is looking extremely iffy for year four -- for me more than for him. Suman continues to be the person walking through the crowd with the camera, at every single race. He's a steady runner who takes risks (like bumping from 50 to the 100-mile race during Lake Martin a few years ago), an information sharer and race documenter to the max, a philanthropist (supporting his home country Nepal through their recent tragedies with fundraising), and just a nice dude. So when he asked me to join him for his new running podcast, I was happy to support him. And, duh, I love talking. Check out the past episodes on his site. And if you have 30 minutes to hear my running story, check it out below.

Me and Suman in our year-three champion jacket.  Photo by Mruns.com. (of course!)


April 12, 2016

The Art of the Solo Long Run

This isn't like fine art, people. There are no happy bright colors or freeing paint splatters or exacting pointilism. I'm talking about the art of not crying into your third granola bar of the run, the art of not stabbing your emergency pocketknife through your eyeball on your fifth circle along the same boring road, and the art of being happy that no one was around to witness how you slipped on the flat gravel road and excessively rolled around in red dirt and then lay there for a few minutes absorbing your own awkwardness. This will not end pretty. Most likely you will avoid making eye contact with people for a few days after because you know what happened out there, and maybe the others will be able to guess.

For the sake of not driving my family crazy during my Vermont 100 (race coming up in July!) training, I decided to try and clear one weekday of work (between the hours of school drop-off and pick-up -- we have no public school busses here) for my long run. This replaces my usual Saturday long run. You know, Saturday long run with cheerful friends + bum around feeling only slightly coherent the rest of the day + eating all the food + begging for foot rubs and back walks from small children. Mondays have been the only day that have worked out so far, but it's nice to get the biggest run over with on a Monday and feel like the rest of the week is a quick-ish slide down from there.

But guess what. Mondays are the worst of all the days to recruit friends to run with you during the day. Because jobs. And surgeries (please bless that my Monday running friend recovers quickly!). So this week I had to run alone.

I know some of you don't care about running alone and even like being solo out there. And I like alone time every now and then too. But honestly if it wasn't for friends, I would have quit this sport a long time ago. Long runs are basically designed to give you a captive audience for your life rants and observations. Oh, and to prepare for races or something. But mostly to talk to friends, right?

Are you also a group run lover? Do you also dread slogging on trails or roads for five hours (or even five minutes) by yourself? Well, then this post is for you.

We're practicing looking at the positive side of solo running, for a few minutes. Then let's go back to hating it, which is only natural.

1. Take as many selfies as you want without shame. The shame will come later when you post them on a blog like this, but during the run, you can take as many selfie do-overs as you want, without all the pressure of getting it right the first time because no one else cares about that future Instagram post as much as you.

Take this picture for example. This was probably from a take three. Even with your closest running friends, two takes is the max. Three takes can only happen on a solo run. Ever.

If you do three takes, and this is all you get. Move on. It's just not meant to be.

Also, selfies are just rest stops. Get tired? Take a selfie. You don't have friends there telling you to stop at the top of a hill, so they can "tie their shoe." That's code for "hills are evil, and we should stop and rest at the top of all of them." 

2. Make friends with animals. You're alone now. And I mean that in the saddest way possible. There are snakes and spiders and unknown animals rustling in the leaves. I like to think that those unidentified rustling sounds are always the most venomous snakes scared of how much butt I am kicking on my run, so they are required by the laws of don't-freak-the-human-out nature to slither away. 

Talking to the animals is acceptable. Out loud, obviously. Thank them for keeping your park's food chain in order. Or for cleaning up -- that's you, goats. 

3. Use it as planning time. When I am bored on a run, I will sometimes use Siri to make notes and write down ideas. But Siri messes stuff up. So usually instead of a cool note like, "implement the foolproof plan for making a million dollars," Siri writes "plant the flower melon dolls." So I take that back about writing notes. With Siri at least. But make all the mental notes you want. But then immediately forget them, because that's how long runs work.

But sometimes someone will ask you for information while you are on a run. Like a friend messages and says, hey is there a trail race coming up? And then an hour later you run by this sign and take a picture. Because at least Siri can't mess that up.

4. Take new trails. For Red Mountain Park, there are lots of old mines that I usually skip because it only adds .05 miles and is not a great turn-around point. But when you're by yourself, you don't care about turn-around points. You just want to see proof that other humans do or have ever existed. 

Once upon a time, not so long ago. (Bon Jovi, street cred 101)

You also feel free to take less convenient trails, thinking to yourself, hey, let's switch things up -- this could only turn out great. And it looks like a trail, and you have even taken it before, maybe a year or two ago. 

It does seem like there should be a trail there, right?!

But then THEN THEN, you get into the middle of it and can't even figure out which way is up or down or sideways because what looked like soft, feathery grass from a distance is actually gnarly briars and maybe small trolls with daggers that are determined to claw the top layer off of your thighs (thank you, knee high socks for protecting the lower bits). I went from worrying about snakes hiding in the thick grass to wondered if I would ever see my family again. We had just read Shackleton's Endurance for book club, and after twenty minutes, I was beginning to panic and crave pemmican.

The devil is not in the details, the devil is in those thorns.

But when you make it out alive and bleeding, you feel more grateful to be making that 100th loop on the established trails. 

5. You go on your terms. When you run with a group or at a race, most runners feel required to use a socially acceptable level of modesty when it comes to human waste. I personally like to wear shorts that you can pull to the side when you need to pee. Even then, you have to wait for a good time, or a good tree or giant rock. But even that careful strategy can sometimes end poorly with a bad angle. A little uneven ground, and you might as well have just peed your pants. 

But you're alone for what feels like miles all around? Drop all the drawers. For as long as you want. Relax, take your time. This is actually the highlight of the solo run: zero-pressure waste brakes.

Pick any spot. No hiding required because you are alone, alone, alone ...

Oh, and that only works on trail runs. Not a good strategy in your neighborhood. 

6. Embrace distractions. So everyone knows that podcasts (my favorite), music (my favorite), and audio books (my favorite) are great distractions, but what about making up scenarios for things you encounter on the run?

Say you come across a spooky house in the woods.

Creepy house in the woods. 

The game is to decide what would be scarier.

Scariest scenario?

A. Looking in the front door and finding a bunch of old, dirty headless dolls lined up on a bed on the back wall of the house. And the bed has fresh white sheets, tucked in neatly. 

B. Seeing your own self standing in the window staring back at you. 

C. A bloody leg dangling out the front door and a slow scraping sound.

D. Walking through that giant patch of poison ivy to check out any of the above scenarios. 

I'm gonna go B., but that has always freaked me out to imagine myself somewhere creepy staring back at myself. Never smiling of course. But D. is a close second.


And before you know it, the brightness will turn to darkness.

Start of the run

End of the run.

Actually, reverse that. Then reverse that reversal. 

Because I think that is what it means to train for 100 miles. Expect everything, and don't expect anything. And embrace everything. But also nothing. If that makes sense to you, then you have probably run a lot of hours alone and are somehow happier because of it. 

But give me back my friends, please!

February 2, 2016

Who Is Adam (of Adam's Heart Runs)?

This article is also found in the Birmingham Track Club's newsletter: Vulcan Runner. Online registration (and guaranteed shirt) for Adam's Heart Runs closes Thursday. Go here to register. I'm race directing and planning to have a blast this Saturday, so I hope you come out and join us!


Adam's Heart Runs, you know it as the first race of the Birmingham Track Club's four-race series each year.


Who the heck is Adam? Why was he running or what was he running from? And what's up with hearts? When I agreed to be the race director for this year's Adam's Heart Runs, I knew basically zero about the race, other than that it supports the Birmingham Track Club, which I love, and it is held at Oak Mountain Park, which I also love. But learning the history of the race and especially more about the founder of this race was high on my list of must-dos to help me feel a more solid connection to this run and its purpose. 

Enter Dr. Adam Robertson, who I was fortunate enough to meet for lunch earlier this year. At one time a smoker turned avid runner and runner advocate, he played an integral part in growing Birmingham's running community. His motivation was to help others find an easy and fun way to stay active. "This was not about competition; this was about getting in shape," Adam shared. Living what he preached, during his tenure as emergency room director at Cooper Green for over 25 years, he would run commute to work, seven miles each way.

And even though he was a huge running promoter, he actually wasn't the race creator of Adam's Heart Runs. Around 1977, the race was started by a runner who soon moved to California for work. When it came time to hold the race again, Adam decided, "Well, I'll just do this for a couple of years until we can get somebody else." That couple of years stretched out further and further as Adam and his wife Ginni continued to direct the race for many years.

Adam's Heart Runs finish line. 

"Every year it was so easy to do because it was out there [at Oak Mountain], and we only needed one police officer at the corner. We measured it, and Rick Melansen certified it." Even though people tried to convince him to move the race downtown to increase the numbers, the simplicity of working with the park made the decision easy to keep the race at Oak Mountain.

Adam's Heart Runs start line.

"My wife did really well with the results. As the last person would come over, she would hand me the results. No computers. I just took a big circular clock that hung on the wall, and started it at 12, so as you crossed you could see your time." 

Originally the race was named Birmingham Heart Runs and was a fundraiser for the American Heart Association. When the Robertsons passed on the race directing torch, the track club changed the name of the race to honor Adam with the name Adam's Heart Runs. 

Speaking to how tight-knit the original Alabama running groups were, Adam shared, "Back then, everybody felt like they had to show up at every run. Nowadays there are people out there who run every day and never show up at a race. Which is good. The purpose of it to begin with was to get people to do it." 

Adam not only supported road running but was on the board at Ruffner Mountain for at least 20 years. During that time, he and his friends Bucky Wood, Vic Kelly, and Craig Christopher (who were dubbed The Ruffner Mountain Boys) held trail races that sound eerily similar to Race Against the Sun. "We had some red tape, and that was where you were supposed to turn. If you missed that, you were out of luck," said Adam about the simplicity of race marking for their Ruffner invitation-only race that almost got shut down. 

"We didn't realize that the coalition had already bought part of the mountain, and we were up there putting [the race] on when this guy walked up and said, 'What are you doing?' And we said, 'We're having a run on the mountain.' And he said, 'No, you can't do that.' So we invented the name Rufus McGrew as the race director, and we sent invitations to everybody each of us knew. Very formal with Rufus McGrew as the return address. Other people heard about it and asked if we could get them in. Before you knew it, we had a couple hundred people."

Proving even further that he has extensive knowledge of Ruffner trails, Adam testified, "You run 10 miles at Ruffner, it's close to 20 miles on the road." Truth. 

There were also white tuxedos and barrels of beer involved in his Ruffner race stories, so if you ever get the chance to meet Adam in person, you should definitely have him tell you about their Ruffner Mountain adventures. 

These days, Adam continues to better the Birmingham community by volunteering as the Crisis Center's medial director. 

From the Crisis Center's web site: 
According to the Department of Justice, 1 in 5 women and 1 in 33 men will be a victim of sexual assault in their lifetime. That is why we’re here - to help survivors of sexual violence and their loved ones heal from this terrible crime. No matter when it happened to you or your loved one, the Crisis Center offers help through our Rape Response and Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (S.A.N.E.) Programs. This includes:
  • Free and confidential crisis counseling 24 hours a day
  • Prevention education programs to schools, civic organizations and other public groups
  • Services for the victim’s family, friends, partners or spouses
  • Information and referrals to other services in your area

Advocates are available to accompany survivors of sexual violence during the forensic examination at the SANE facility or the hospital, to the police station, and to court. Advocates provide objective, knowledgeable, and supportive intervention on behalf of the survivor, making sure that she/he has the necessary information about each system to make critical decisions. The advocate provides individual advocacy to the survivor to ensure that her/his rights are upheld.
Along with the SANE program, the Crisis Center provides a crisis line, help lines for kids and teens, a senior talk line, support groups, and mental health services. 

In keeping with his running history, Adam assisted in planning the Crisis Center's 2015 5K fundraiser, called Just a Call Away 5K, which they plan to bring back to the community in August 2016.

So who is Adam? With what started as a desire to "just get people out running," Adam Robertson helped establish a race that has brought thousands and thousands of people to Oak Mountain State Park over the years. Insider tip: look for Adam on February 6th, this year's AHR race date. It's no surprise that he volunteered to come out and support the event, even 40 years later. 

January 19, 2016

Lookout Mountain 50: everyone should run this

Well, everyone who wants to run all day long, that is.

Getting there: We stayed in downtown Chattanooga so that my family could take advantage of all of the fun to be had there while I was running. Museums, climbing, good eats, places to watch Star Wars. It was a bigger haul than we thought to get to the race start from downtown, with lots of twisty turns for the carsick-prone. On the way out of the race, I actually almost vomited. Because I was trying to read texts on those curvy roads. Combined with race exhaustion, that was a horrible combo.

Race start: I picked up my packet the night before at the brewery, but they didn't have shirts available yet. No problem because they were at packet pick-up on the morning of. Everything was organized and fast, plus they had snacks and a fire. Neither of which I used but was grateful for the option. I dropped one bag in a pile to be hauled to mile 34 and dropped another in a pile at the start/finish, which we would run back through at mile 22. It was nice to be able to drop a larger bag at the start/finish. Because they don't have to cart them anywhere, they don't really care about the size even though it says they do on the site. I used that start/finish bag to stuff my jacket that I wore up until one minute before start time (because it was freezing!) and my post-race clothes, plus all of the things I would have put in a traditional drop bag.

Weather and clothes: The temp was about 30 at the start of the race, but I knew it would warm up quickly once we started running. The high was set to be 45 that day. When we were in the shade on the west side of the mountain, you didn't really feel that 45 degrees (frozen legs!). I spent some of the day without gloves, but I had to wear them at the beginning and intermittently in the middle. For most of the race, I wore a short-sleeve shirt, removable sleeves (arm warmers) that covered my hands, shorts, toe socks to keep away blisters, a buff around my neck, and my BUTS hat. Also sporting this pack and this watch, and in love with both. Once or twice, when the sunlight hit us hard for a brief moment, I rolled down my sleeves. In summary, we had the most perfect weather that anyone could dream of for this race. 

Frozen before the race start.

Comrades: A few of my friends from Birmingham were running that day, and I was able to spot one before the race (TJ!!).

About three minutes into the race, I ended up beside the other one (Bradley!!). Happy trail coincidence. We stayed together almost half of the race because we got in a long line of folks going down and up the mountain. It was perfect because we were both trying not to trash our legs in the first half of the race by getting too optimistic about pacing down the mountain. 

And besides the friends I already knew there, this race was overall so positive, full of folks there to laugh and have a good time. Maybe towards the front of the pack things were a little more buttoned up and serious, but I was running at a speed that enabled me to get on and off the party train several times during the race. Party train = multiple folks in row willing to chat it up and make jokes with total/semi strangers while potentially experiencing intense pain from ultra running. 

A damn long chain. 

Also of note, up to mile 22 the course felt somewhat crowded, and I wondered if it would thin out ever. It did for me after 22. Things spread out a lot, and I often ran alone with the occasionally seeing someone for a few minutes.

The course: Stop what you are doing right now, and put yourself on the email list for this race. It is so gorgeous.

As you head out from the start, the sun is just starting to break its way through the trees while you pick your way carefully past jutting rock faces on the right and steep I-better-not-trip-here-or-I-die drops on the left. Sprinkled throughout the rocks and trees are loads of baby waterfalls. Some that you can easily jump over, and some that take a little more effort to avoid soaking your shoes.

Sunrise on the way out.

Once you come off the single track, you wind down some wider service roads to the bottom of the mountain. There was actually another race the same day as Lookout Mtn 50 that made some intersections a little confusing (for the easily confused, like me) because our flags would go one way and a giant arrow would point the opposite way. Just enough of a juxtaposition to make you go hmmmmm, say what, and maybe pause for effect.

Off the single track.

There's an aid station at the bottom of the mountain that gets you fueled for the climb back to the start line at mile 22. It's seven miles from that aid back to the start line, but two of those miles are serious hikers. For my Birmingham friends, think Yellow/White connector, only longer.

Once you go back through the start (yay for a drop bag with lots of snacks), you head out in the opposite direction for some new trails. So the race loops one direction and then back in the opposite direction for new trails. Between the start line and Lula Lake were some of the muddier spots along the course and some water crossings that required me to get my feet wet. No choice but to jump in! 

But the reward is Lula Falls and the best snacks of the race at the Lula Lake Aid Station. The waterfall was breathtaking, especially when you are already out of breath to begin with, and the folks at this aid station were hilarious and helpful. Around this point, runners started running towards us on the trail, which is the first time I realized that this portion of the race is an out-and-back. I had read the aid station descriptions before the race, but didn't put those pieces together that the aid stations they were describing were the same ones from before. So it is clear for everyone in the future of Lookout Mountain-ing, the second half of this race is an out-and-back. Do not be confused when runners start racing towards you on the trail!

After the race, I kept seeing pics of folks climbing a rope, and I could not figure out where the heck the rope was on the course because I didn't remember climbing up one. Thank you to the course photographer for solving that mystery. Turns out I opted for the hands and feet option because I never noticed the rope. Ultra marathons, ultra focus. Do not let yourself be distracted by frivolous things like ropes!

If there is any course where I didn't mind an out and back, this was it. When you hit this overlook of Chattanooga (and beyond!), you have to, I mean HAVE TO, veer off trail and take a minute to enjoy that view. Another breath taker! 

From there you wind through very soft single track and a tiny section of asphalt road to your next drop bag. Which means more snacks! And a contemplated change of socks, but I decided to skip changing them because at this point I felt so close to finishing, although it was still hours away.

Next up was a circle around some private land that makes you feel like you might be the only person left on earth. Once you get around that loop, you are back to the aid station with your drop bag and headlamp, which seemed unnecessary because I had some high hopes of getting back before nightfall (did not happen!). 

From there, you just retrace your steps to home. When I realized this, my mind immediately started to categorize what I would see next. The soft Hobbit trails, the see-forever overlook, the massive waterfall, the Jedi trail, the creek that you have to get your feet wet in, the muddy low trails, the red rolling hills, back to the finish! It all seemed so simple, like playing connect the dots with my memory's trail markers. 

Stopped again, for another deep breath and a panorama this time.

The brightest spot on the way back was definitely the Lula Lake Aid Station. Again, shout out to them for making it fun and being helpful and having hot soup. 

About to ugly cry? Over seeing an aid station with happy people. And soup!

Thank you, happy aid station volunteer, for turning my headlamp right side up before night hit. It is highly likely that I would not have figured that out at mile 45. Brain mush at that point.

More mental trail markers. My family was watching the new Star Wars while I was running, and I still have not seen it! The shame.

I got to the clearing and rolling red hills just as the sun was setting. Another spot to stop and take it all in. This was the point where I thought, I could keep running. If I needed to. Not that I wanted to, but physically, my sore ankles were still functioning. Although my toenails all felt like they were going to fall off, but I was sure that had already happened and was not worried about it after hour eight. Plus I hadn't gotten gut sick, which is a Tailwind trail miracle. 

But even though a mile out I felt like I could keep going, as soon as my feet crossed the finish line, I was majorly done! Like sit-down-and-not-move-for-a-few-days done. But immediately my kids were like, we want a snack, can I have a frisbee, give me a doughnut. So I changed my dream of not moving for an hour to hobbling away after a few minutes. 

My race: My finish time was around 10:30 for the race, and I was super happy with that because it gave me the qualifying time I needed for Vermont 100, which I just registered for this weekend! Sticking with a pack of runners for the first half of the race to stop me from going out too fast worked perfectly and is a strategy I've been trying to use more often. Because most all of the humans try and go out too fast and burn up their legs too early. It's in our programming somewhere. 

Even better than decent feeling legs was the fact that my stomach did not revolt at any point. I drank Tailwind (which I put in baggies to pick up at the drop-bag points) the entire race and ate snacks and gels and gummies in addition to that when I felt like it, eating early and often and making sure to grab something at every aid station plus have something on me to eat in between aid stations. The hot soup at mile 42 was so baller. Thank you again, Lula Lake Aid Station. Pretty sure I will never again taste such heavenly saltiness. Ultra hunger makes food taste so amazing. Or sometimes so horrible. Either way, so I'm glad it went the amazing way.

For my family, I turned my phone on airplane mode between aid stations to save battery life so that I could text them and let them know where I was along the course and when they needed to come back and pick me up. Also, it gave me the chance to send them lots of awkward selfies, like this!

Uh, what, huh. I'm tired and climbing a hill. Holla back.

And thank you to all my friends who sent texts and messages. I read them during those long hill climbs and laughed. And maybe cried too. Because I cry happy cries when I run over 30 miles. 

Summary: Do this race, everybody everywhere! You will not set any speed records, but you will at least have a chance to be entertained by nature the entire way. If you let yourself. But don't go out too fast! It is so easy to do, and you need your ankles for some muddiness later. And try and get lucky with weather like we did, because I don't know if I would have loved it as much in freezing rain. And you get a warm hoodie at the end from Wild Trails, and for that, I will always love them. As a recovery activity, definitley go to Rock City and be slightly weirded out by the gnome caves and gardens.

Bonus: I ended up not losing any toenails even though my first and fifth toe toenails on both feet felt like they had been ripped off with the teeth of an angry adult shark on meth.

Bonus takeback: Literally five minutes after I hit publish, one of my toenails fell off. I cannot make this stuff up. Well, I could, but I didn't. And I have the scratchy old disembodied toenail rolling around on my bed to prove it. 

December 24, 2015

How long it takes to run 100 miles

From sun up to sun down, that's how long it took me to run Lookout Mountain 50 this weekend. During the race I kept my family updated with pictures like this.

And this. 

These pics said something like, hey family, I'm alive enough to use my fingers to operate a camera and mentally aware enough to switch my phone into airplane mode between aid stations to save battery juice and still crazy enough to be smiling even though my pinky toenail is slowly detaching itself from my left foot with each painful step. 

I was sending texts from stops along the route because I never expected my family to try and meet me at aid stations or follow me around the course. Mostly because they had things to do, like watch Star Wars and swim at the hotel pool. Plus, I want my family to still love my running, and forcing them to stand around and wait three hours by an aid station in the woods to see me for ten seconds isn't the best way to inspire run love. 

But even without being in the middle of the trail action that day, my kidlets took notice of what went down. 

1. That their mom ran so much that she needed all hands on deck for feet and back massages (as long as they did not touch the toenails!). 

2. And that running 50 miles takes All. Day. Long. 

In the spirit of observing things, my son Creed used all of the wisdom he gleaned from Lookout Mountain 50 to calculate how long it's going to take me to run Vermont 100 this summer. 

The accuracy. The emphatic hand. The addition. This kid is my hero.