Us and Them --Mark Carroll (Orig. 2010)

To be very clear: I am receiving e-mails from early readers who are offering sympathy re: Mac's death. This is very sweet but Mac is a bit of a composite character. There is some artistic (I'm using the word loosely) license taken. Mac is absolutely based on a real guy. But that guy is still alive and running well and as cranky as ever....and he does love Shaun Pope. Who doesn't? Peace. --Mark
Oh, and while I'm at it...the Frank Shorter stuff in this article came from plenty of other authors, mostly Kenny Moore. I remember watching the race, but not in that kind of detail : )

 

Mac Tar died at 11:32 a.m. on Tuesday, September 26.

Well, his “clock time” was 11:32, but his “chip time” was 11:26. Mac had been a runner forever and ever and ever. He was kind of old but runners live to ripe old age unless they fall over cliffs or are killed by angry spouses. And so the funeral was crowded. In fact it was so crowded they had to use a wave start to accommodate all of those who wished to pay their respects. I arrived late and so I was placed in one of the later waves but, despite this, I was there when the honor guard came through and placed the thin silver mylar blanket across his coffin; an honor reserved exclusively for veterans…of many races. When the blanket was in place the most senior officer gave Mac’s widow a 3-inch piece of rounded metal that stated that Mac had completed a course that began on August 18, 1946 and concluded on September 26, 2010. It was his final finisher’s medal. Some of the mourners told stories of Mac’s many adventures. Some even risked telling a joke or two. Some of them simply stretched their gastoc/soleus muscle groups and sobbed. They each, in turn, passed the refreshment table, quickly downed a cup of punch, and threw the cup on the floor. They were who they were and so they did things in this way.

Mac Tar was a roadie.

Mac was always a roadie I suppose. But back then, back in my childhood when I met Mac, back when I had never met anyone like him before, back before Frank, and Bill, and Fred Lebow, and back before the Galloway-zation of his beloved sport, there really wasn’t any such term. Actually all runners were roadies…well almost. There were the track guys, but they mostly kept to themselves, wouldn’t condescend to speak to a road racer, and ran for medals, awards, and records. They ran for schools and when they graduated they were usually done. The track guys became cross country guys in the off-season…but they were trackies nonetheless. Other than this small sect nearly everyone ran road races.

Being a roadrunner wasn’t what made Mac stand out. The thing that made Mac stand out, the thing that made him unusual, the thing that made him fascinating and, well, odd, was the fact that he was a marathoner.

I remember as a kid my Dad would, twice a year, load me into our family car and we would drive to Medina to hoard up on meat at a packing plant there. Back then there wasn’t really anything in Medina and so we would drive into the country; Dad throwing Pall Mall butts out the window every now and again. It was a 25 mile round trip and Dad would always tell me that Mac could run to the meat packing plant and back if he wanted to. It was almost too much for my 8 year old mind to grasp. Mac lived just down the street from us and I would sit on his lawn mower in his garage and visit with him occasionally. He wore a very tiny bicycling hat and he had a lengthy beard. He also wore John-Lennon-Granny-Glasses. Unlike every other adult I knew, he was extremely thin. He would do bizarre stretching exercises involving very rapid movements and he would talk about how, out on the road, in that space between the physically possible and the physically impossible, during the miles that the body traveled mysteriously without fuel, he would have (and I’m using his exact language) a “mind blowing, freak-out journey” where he would connect with the universe through his acts of unexplainable endurance. My Dad liked him well enough and used to say “He’s OK … I wouldn’t loan him any money or introduce him to my sister…but he’s harmless enough.” My Mom, on the other hand, was scared shitless of the guy.

Mac had a handful of friends who ran marathons as well. They didn’t live near each other but they would meet at Eddie’s boat dock in Lakewood on Saturday mornings and race each other for 10 miles, after which they would do a ten-mile warm-down run. Mac once finished in third place at the Heartwatcher’s marathon in Bowling Green in a time of 2:38. Heartwatcher’s was considered to be one of the most competitive marathons in the Midwest, but it was nothing compared to Boston. Every spring Mac and his buddies would travel to the Boston Marathon where HUNDREDS of runners would practice his craft. I imagined it exactly as Mac described it; a gathering of practitioners of the art of super-endurance. Mac was known for having these abilities and for living on the line between the physical and the spiritual, and he wore the reputation well.

He was our town’s hippie-monastic-marathoner.

Then one day in September of 1972 Mac’s world changed a bit. Mom was out of town and so Mac was over at our house drinking cans of POC with Dad and watching the Olympic Marathon on TV. The field of Olympic marathoners, Mac explained, was loaded. The defending champion, a mysterious runner from Ethiopia, was back, and there was a guy from Australia who held the world record for the marathon and bragged of running so hard that he “pissed blood” after workouts. One guy from Great Britain had once won the BOSTON MARATHON (!) and came to the line dressed, head-to-toe, in a special metallic-looking outfit designed to deflect heat. There was also an American runner, Frank Shorter, who was running so well that the TV network decided to televise the entire race live. Mac explained that Shorter was terrific but he was really a track guy and shouldn’t be expected to compete with the marathon superstars running through the warm streets of Munich. To add to the drama, the network brought in Eric Segal, one of Frank’s classics professors from Yale, to describe the poetry of the marathon to the American viewers. Segal was a marathoner himself and explained the concept of “The Wall”. He told the story of the ancient battle on the plains of Marathon and explained, in a more poetic way than Mac could, that the marathon was a race of attrition. Runners would place the dial exactly on the line between cruising and overheating, and the last one to run out of fuel was the winner.

Segal was most famously known as the author of ”Love story”, a book-turned-movie-turned-box-office-runaway-hit. The most famous line from the movie was “Love means never having to say you’re sorry”.

At the 15 kilometer mark in Munich Shorter demonstrated that he must have been paying attention in Segal’s class as he unapologetically threw down a 67 second quarter mile, followed immediately by a 68, then another 67, then another 68. At which point he was 150 yards clear of the field. Mac was shaking his head at the tragedy. “You can’t do that man!” cried Mac. “He is blowing his glycogen out. He’s gonna run out of fuel and the big boys are gonna eat him up when he crashes into the wall at 20 miles”.

Surges like this, Segal explained, were common in the late stages of a marathon, but what Frank was doing was risky, may be too risky. This was the stuff you would see in track races. Frank was a track man and this was a mistake. Shorter seemed unconcerned as he ran the same pace as his chasers (steady five minute miles) and held his lead.

Three miles later he repeated his surge and doubled his lead.

And three miles after that he did it again and put the race completely out of reach.

Segal spoke poetically of the mysticism of the marathon but his words were in stark contrast to the ass-kicking that America was watching on the screen. Sure, Shorter was delightful to watch. His stride was perfectly balanced and smooth as silk …but then again so was one of Mohammed Ali’s knockout punches. Frank didn’t look monastic at all; he looked athletic. And with the race a foregone conclusion, and many miles to cover, the USA and the world were allowed to witness the flow of power that represented what marathon running could be. It looked natural. It looked attainable. It looked…beautiful. It looked like what humans, normal people, were meant to do.

Later that night my Dad put on his loosest pair of pants, and a green softball windbreaker, and went for a jog. So did millions of other Americans. Soon there were marathons and marathoners everywhere. A few years after Shorter’s win we had several marathon runners on my block alone. Heck, my old man could now run to the meat packing plant and back if he felt like it.

And at the same time America’s track guys, the only people watching the Munich race that comprehended why Shorter was surging, began to put in long Saturday morning runs themselves.

The marathon went haywire. It seemed like everyone in the world had an aunt or an uncle or a sibling who could run a marathon…and not all of them were slow. The track guys came in and turned the race into a stiff 20 miler followed by a 10,000 meter race.

Mac ran hundreds of marathons after that and he had many adventures. But he never really seemed the same. Something was now different and you could see it in Mac’s eyes. He was still a leader in his community but his community was now huge. He never turned bitter and he never stopped running, or being loved. But I believe that for the rest of his life he felt an emptiness that he couldn’t ever completely identify.

The last time I saw Mac we had a good chance to visit. And we had a lot to talk about. I had completed the Youngstown Ultra Trail Classic (YUT-C) 50 Kilometer run the day before and then drove to Cleveland to volunteer at the North Coast 24 Hour Run, which was serving as this year’s USATF National Championship. After having run the Youngstown race, failing to shower, and staying up all night I wasn’t looking or feeling well. Mac joked with the hospice nurse that I should “pull up a bed and get hooked up to the laughing gas”.

I told Mac about the 24 hour race but he was in some pain, or maybe just disinterested. I was unsure whether he wanted to talk at all and I was considering whether or not I should simply leave and allow him to rest. Then he asked about Shaun. Mac never actually met Shaun Pope but he did attend the Run for Regis 50 Kilometer Trail run last winter. He came to the race to see me run. Mac always said that I was “reformed” because I left my “Trackie” ways behind for the marathon. He didn’t quite get this trail running business, though, and wanted to witness the weirdness first hand. Mac caught one look at Shaun running far ahead of the rest of the field at Regis, protected from the ice and snow by only shorts and a T-shirt and an ear-to-ear smile, and became an instant fan. “That kid doesn’t see the need for those water bottles you seem to have developed an addiction to” he said, peering accusingly at my fanny pack. “Yeah, Shaun is amazing but if he crashes with no warm clothes or water he will be in trouble” I said. “Guarantees!” grunted Mac. “Everyone wants a guarantee. That kid guaranteed his success while he was training, so he knows he WON’T crash.” Mac saw Shaun as the real deal and he smiled when I told him that I was barely past the finish line, with most of an EIGHT MILE lap still ahead of me at YUT-C when I heard the siren go off and the crowd cheering for Shaun as he won the race. “See?” he said, “I told you that kid was the gen-u-ine article!”

I also told Mac some of the things that were bothering me about the weekend, and about the sport in general. For one thing there were now so many races that the competition was getting spread thin. Worse yet most of my friends were attending different races and we never seemed to see each other anymore. I told him that I was afraid that it was killing our community. Mac told me that he knew just what I meant. “It used to be” he recollected “that in a nothing race like the Rocky River 5 Mile you’d have to break 25:30 to get into the top twenty. What was your time that year when you came home from college and got third?” he asked. ”I ran a 25:45” I admitted “And I see your point. There must have been five other races in Northeastern Ohio that weekend”. Mac nodded “Well its even worse now. These days there must be 10 races each weekend in Cleveland alone, all of them 5K’s it seems, and you can win plenty of them if you can string three sixes together. It seems like having more races would provide more opportunities and lead to faster times, but when the fast guys never race each other they stop needing to be fast. Know what I mean?” I nodded “Yeah, I got 7th at YUT-C but if you threw all of the ultra-folks racing in Ohio that day into one race, like it would have been several years ago, I wouldn’t have likely cracked the top forty. Shawn won the race by close to an hour. Imagine what he would have run if he was pushed!”

I told Mac that during the Youngstown race I took an epic fall. I fall down occasionally when I race, I suppose everyone does, and Mac knew this. But this fall was a bad one. I tore up my elbow, scraped most of the skin from my shin, and for several minutes thought that I might have fractured my kneecap. As I was standing up I noticed that my very good friend Terri Lemke had chosen the exact same moment to take a similarly serious spill just ahead of me on the trail. The runner who was running between Terri and I simply sidestepped her and continued on down the trail. I had never seen this type of behavior in a trail race before and it made me furious. We have a tradition in trail running of looking out for one another. If a runner gets hurt you help. If a runner has no water you share. If it means that your race is slightly slower that’s OK.

We are who we are and so we do things in this way.

But this guy just ran right on past. “Its all of these roadies invading the sport Mac, they just don’t get it! There’s litter all over the trails as well. I volunteered at the Towpath marathon last year and you wouldn’t have believed it, thousands of paper cups everywhere. People just throw them on the course. And they all seem to complain if there aren’t trophies and expensive T-shirts. Heck, its 65 dollars to enter a race anymore because of the swag that the roadies expect. And there are so many of them that if you don’t register for a race several months in advance it sells out.” Then I realized that there are bigger problems in life and added “Sorry to whine.” Mac responded “Hey friend, no sense in breaking an old habit now; Not on my account anyway.” Then he smiled and said “ But I know what you mean. Back the first year your old man ran Cleveland they shut the course down after four hours. Now you got folks walking the thing in 7 hours and stopping to shop for dress shoes along the course. Do you suppose that they would have let our boy Shaun run at Regis if he didn’t have his money in quick enough?” Now it was my turn to smile “I don’t know Mac. Everybody loves Shaun so maybe, but a slower or less charming guy might get shut out in favor of a window shopper with a fast internet connection.” The nurse came back into the room to turn Mac and heard this part of the conversation. Mac winked at her and said “Well then this guy better stay near the mailbox because he hasn’t won a race or a congeniality contest in years.”

We talked for a while longer about running, then about friends, and family. After awhile I noticed the nurse giving me the skunk-eye and figured that was my sign to leave. “Hey, tell your Dad hi”. He said. I promised that I would. Then he said “About the roadies Mark. Forget it man. If they start to bother you spend that energy running. The track guys?… shit. And housewife marathoners attending aerobics classes at the starting lines of marathons used to drive me nuts. But after awhile I figured that as crazy as the world is, they might just as well be out running somewhere instead of sitting in a bar, or a crack house, or a prison. Everybody is a little bit fucked up you know. It just depends which flavor of weird you prefer.” I nodded “Its OK Mac I’m not all that bothered. I figure if I went from a trackie, to a roadie, to a trail guy I can become something else if I need to. I hear there’s a trail around Mt. Ranier that is like 95 miles. They don’t give T-shirts but the entry fee is free if I decide to attend.”

“I should have hit some of your trails Mark. If you go to Ranier you better bring that fanny pack along. But seriously dude, no aerobics at the start. A man does need to draw the line.”

I bought a house last spring that sits on my estate, which measures 1/10th of an acre. Sometimes I like to feel like I’m in the country so I burn sticks in my fire pit and look up at the stars, and think about life. When stars aren’t available I look up into the streetlights, and think about life. A few days after Mac died I was sitting by the fire burning pieces of a box spring mattress that wouldn’t fit up the stairs when I moved in. There were no stars out and some kids shook the streetlight so it wasn’t on. And so I looked into the fire and thought about life. I felt kind of bad about burning the wood pieces of the box spring. That was some lucky wood. I figured it could have survived maybe 50 years if I had left it alone. On the other hand if it had remained a tree it could have been toppled, of it could have lived hundreds of years. Who knew? I wondered if it would be better to be dead with a guaranteed future or alive with a chance of catastrophe at any time. There are some large trees in my neighborhood and I started thinking that the best thing might be to be alive but part of a very well established tree. Most of a larger, older tree would be made of inner wood…lots of rings. The wood on the inside of a tree did its growing years ago and now seems to be safe from the harm that a small fire, or a mild drought, or a kid with a crush and a pocket knife might cause. The wood on the inside would be safe. It would be alive but it would no longer be growing. It occurred to me that the world is full of people like this. And the running world is filled with runners like this as well.

Mac used to say that when it comes to success in running that “Maintaining is easier than attaining”. His point was that it could take years to get your training right, your aerobic level built up, and your racing skills honed. He said that after a runner hit this level they could actually do much less work, and virtually no experimenting, and maintain this level. Mac didn’t believe the old adage that we are either improving or growing worse, but never static. He told me that he knew plenty of folks who were, and are, static. As I looked into the fire I figured that these people would be the inner rings on a tree; alive but not growing.

The older I get and the more years that I run the more I believe that Mac might have been correct. I have noticed that all of my friends who are new runners, or at least runners who are new to trail running, are those who are doing the most extreme work. My newish running friends always seem to be those who are doing the crazy shit like running back-to-back 50K’s, or running with no shoes, or staying out for six hours in a freezing weather…maybe with only a T-shirt and a smile. These new runners, many of them new to the trails or, if you prefer “reformed roadies”, seem to be the hungriest. These individuals, like the outer ring of a tree, are exposed to the harshness and uncertainty of their environment, but they also seem to be the runners, the people, who are improving. I know far too many seasoned and accomplished champions of industry, or champions of the academy, or champions of immigration reform, or champions of the trail who would be inside by a fire talking about the old days and defending their ever encroached-upon turf while the newbies are out producing growth and sending up new branches. Even though Mac preached of the growth that comes from newness I think that he only really recognized its truth near the end. And I think he saw it in Shaun.

I don’t know why people always seem to divide into tribes. Why do we always defend the status quo? If we are actually improving then why would we ever miss the past? Maybe we are lazy and wish to exclude newcomers. Maybe we are hoarders of glory.

Then again maybe we aren’t so very evil. Maybe we miss the old days because we miss the exclusivity of it all. Maybe we just miss our youth.

October is prime marathon season and so it was recently time for the Towpath Marathon again. I was running it this time and I was running along pretty well, all things considered. It was, as expected, chaotic and crazy and you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting a cross trainer. Near the end the temperature started to climb and I started to lose it a bit. The clock was ticking and time is a worthy opponent, especially when a course lacks the accustomed adversaries: roots, rocks, mud, and hills.

And so I took a quick swig of punch from the table and threw the cup onto the trail. This was where I found myself and so I did things in this way.

Posted on April 13, 2015 .

Monkeys, Maize, and Marathons --M. Carroll (original May 2010)

Generally speaking corn does corn stuff.

It grows. It produces pollen. It lines nearly the entire 70 mile route between Delaware and Findlay. And because, for the past 6 years, I have routinely driven this route, I believe that I have come to gain a serviceable knowledge of corn and its doings. I believe that sweet corn is one of the surest signs that God loves us. During August I stop at roadside stands, buy corn, and eat 3-4 ears every day. I’m enthusiastic about August sweet corn because I know that in just a few weeks the corn will be gone… except for that stuff they have in the grocery store. Oh, I know that I can get corn in May. I saw some in Kroger yesterday. I know that that stuff is supposed to be corn but I also know that it is not the real deal. That corn is grown somewhere in Central America and I believe that it is insincere. God doesn’t get corn in Central America and he doesn’t buy it in the grocery store. I believe that God stops at a roadside stand in Ohio and loads up. And so I do the same.

Corn is noble. Corn is completely and utterly dependable. It is nearly always “knee high by the 4th of July”. Sometimes it is even taller. In July corn begins to change the landscape of Northwestern Ohio from an endless expanse of nothingness into a mini-woodland. From late July until early November drivers have to actually stop their cars at road crossings to check for traffic, because the corn obstructs the usually endless views in this part of the state. Corn makes this area, formerly the site of the ‘Great Black Swamp’, into a cozy and homey place. In the fall corn mazes pop up. Cross country races run between the partially harvested rows, and hunters begin a ‘secondary harvest’ of the fattened corn pilfering deer in the area.

And it happens this way every year.

Rotary dialed phones have come and gone. Hand cranked windows are no longer placed in new automobiles. I no longer need to get newsprint on my fingers to learn of race results and stock prices. But corn still does corn stuff. That’s comforting isn’t it?

I was thinking about corn as we came roaring into the Hickory Ridge aid station at the “Forget the P.R. 50K” a few weeks ago. I was thinking about corn because I noticed that the enormous cornfield visible from Hickory Ridge hadn’t been planted yet. In fact it hadn’t even been plowed. It seemed to me that it was getting just a bit late in the year for a cornfield to lay fallow and this caused me a bit of vague discomfort. But it didn’t cause me as much discomfort as Terri Lemke was causing me. And the discomfort that Terri was causing me wasn’t vague at all. Terri had her chin pressed against her sternum and was administering the anaerobic word of God to anyone attending her Sunday morning service. A pack of 5 of us held on, sucking wind on uphills, holding on for dear life on downhills, while Sister Terri testified. I had never, in my 33 years of running, been lulled into such a recklessly fast pace so early in a race. If it was too late in the year for a field of corn to lay fallow then it was too EARLY in the season, and very certainly too early in this race, to be pushing this hard. But we were pushing hard anyway, because this is what we have become. It would have been so easy to drop off the pace, have a Hammer gel, a sip of water, and walk a bit. But I couldn’t because I knew that this is who we now were, this is what we had made ourselves into.

I guess that developing our strange ability has been a PERSONAL evolution of sorts, although Charles Darwin would disagree that there is such a thing.

Darwin never said “Only the strongest of the species survive”, even though everyone thinks he did. He also never said that the smartest of the species survive. What he said was that the species that survive are those that adapt best to change.

Darwin never believed that an individual organism could evolve. He suggested that it takes many generations for a species to change its form. Natural selection involves the weeding out of some species as a result of the success of other species. The species with the greater advantage takes over that phylogenetic niche, forcing the less adaptable species into extinction.

Fundamentalist Christians tried, in the famous Scopes Monkey Trial, to outlaw the teaching of the theory of natural selection in public schools, by disproving Darwin. They failed. Even today, in some parts of the south, fundamentalists argue against such teaching in schools. They ultimately fail as well. But Sister Terry was doing one mighty fine job of proving Darwin wrong. I know she was beating the Devil out of me!

If human beings cannot evolve within their own lifetime then how on earth was Terri doing this? Terri was built for speed. She was an elite 5K and 10K runner in college. She would be the first to tell you that a 30 mile jog back then would have landed her in bed for days. Nowadays a hard and fast 31 mile run doesn’t even get enough respect out of Terri to earn a stop at the six mile aid station…she ran right through it! And if human beings cannot change then how does one account for the strange behavior of Casey Clark?

Casey was racing his first ultra marathon and he was doing it in style. Casey is one of my running buddies from Delaware. He’s not a newbie. He finished the Mohican 50 mile run last summer with another friend of mine, Scott Wolf. But they jogged and walked in that event. They grazed at aid stations, and more or less enjoyed the day. What was happening here was extreme. We were running the toughest 50K course in the Midwest and covering uphill miles at just over eight minutes apiece. Casey was breathing through his nose and looked perfectly at ease despite the 25 miles (!) that lay before us. Casey was a basketball player in high school. He can jump. I’ve seen him do it. And he’s fast. He’s a cross country sort of fellow and can lay down a nasty-ass kick when the occasion calls for it. But over the past few months Casey had turned himself into a fine and fit runner of long trails.

And that’s something, despite all of its glory, that corn will never do.

The comparison might seem unfair. Corn has no legs, which might put it at a disadvantage in a race. I’ll give you that one. So let us compare Casey to another runner. Let’s compare him to a Quarter-horse. No matter what sort of bounce Casey has in his legs he’d get his ass kicked by a quarter horse...for a quarter. Is this comparison still unfair? “Quarter horses are sprinters” you might correctly claim. Fine, then lets compare Casey to Secretariat. Casey loses again. But Casey would nail either of them in a 50K trail race, and here is the thing: A quarter horse will ALWAYS beat a thoroughbred over a quarter mile and a thoroughbred will ALWAYS beat a quarter horse over eight furlongs. And neither of them will EVER beat Casey in a 50K. These fine animals, in fact all fine animals, cannot change their form on the fly. Except one…

Casey could train for a few months and become a pretty serviceable 400 meter runner. He could also become a good miler. I’d bet he could get his jump shot back if he wanted to. Wilt Chamberlain finished a 50 mile race several years ago. Do you know how he did it? He trained hard and TURNED HIMSELF INTO AN ULTRA MARATHON RUNNER!

We are the only species with the ability to change our form to follow our chosen function. God gave us this gift to use. It’s a miracle and it’s a miracle unique to us.

Only us.

Isn’t that amazing?

The fundamentalists have it wrong. They needn’t worry. Evolution doesn’t disprove the existence of God. Pure happenstance wouldn’t produce a rule that exists for every species except for one. Maybe we need to stop thumping our bibles and start reading them. The Old Testament states that God favored mankind above all other creation. What greater act of favor could there ever be than to allow us freewill and couple it with the latitude to develop our own tools so that we can pursue our own dreams? What good would free will be if we cannot move in the direction that our will drives us? Perhaps no other animal has this (adapt)-ability because no other animal has been granted free will. We can become who we want to be.

That amazes me.

Twenty miles into the “Forget the P.R.” 50K I knew that I was into uncharted territory. I knew it and my buddy Luc knew it too. He was standing at the covered bridge aid station and, when he saw me, he gave me a startled look that might have meant “Kudos to you my friend. You are running well and I see that on this fine day your years of training have paid off handsomely and your ship has come in”. Then again, the look might have meant “You have screwed the pooch this time buddy. You went out to fast. You know it, I know it, and the 18 calories worth of glycogen remaining in your liver know it as well. Have fun on the climb to the fire tower”.

The reason they build covered bridges is to cross rivers. They tend to locate rivers in low lying areas, such as river beds. The reason for fire towers is to spot fires. They tend to place fire towers in the highest spot possible so’s a person can scan a lot of ground at once. Race director Rob Powell is a nice enough fellow and I’m sure that his decision to run us from the lowest spot in the park to the highest spot in the park in just over two miles was a simple oversight at best, and latent malevolence at worst. He would never intentionally try to hurt a person.

At least that’s what I thought when I started the climb.

Twenty five minutes later I crested the last part of the hill and found Rob, whooping, hollering, and doing his best impersonation of a 1970’s track coach, pointing to his stopwatch and howling for greater effort. Rob likes to give his racer’s their money’s worth and today he was holding his own Blue Light Special on lactic acid…and loving it! I felt like my head was going to explode. But it didn’t. And I felt like my legs would seize up, but they didn’t. Instead I took an enormous gulp of air, ran past the aid station (surely Terri wouldn’t stop here and so neither would I; I didn’t want to let my species down) and automatically switched the quads from concentric contractions to eccentric contractions as we began the long, winding, swoop back down the hill to the bridge. Throughout this section I tried to get myself to forget that I could not do this. The idea that I could not run this hard and get away with it wasn’t negativity; it was an historical fact. It was 53 degrees and I had never been able to do this. Both of those were facts.

Actually I love the run from the bridge to the fire tower. I like it even better when we run it in reverse and have a long downhill on which to recover and chat. I remember running this section during the Mohican 100 mile run in 1997 with a good friend of mine who was and is a recovering alcoholic. My friend told me some pretty harrowing stories of his life of addiction. When I asked him if he thought that maybe he had traded one addiction for another by becoming an ultra runner he paused for a long while and then told me that he didn’t think that it was that simple. He told me that he had become an alcoholic for reasons that no longer mattered to him. He also told me that the act of transforming himself from an alcoholic into something different, anything different, forced him to create a skill set that he had used to morph into a Christian, and a better son, and a caring lover, and a runner.

Over the years I have noticed that the participants in our sport skew toward individuals who have lived difficult and troubled pasts. Others have noticed this as well. I once read the work of a theorist who believed that depressed personality types self-select into endurance sports for the endorphins they provide. Other theorists paint this picture in a more positive light; they believe that perhaps endurance athletes achieve a state of Zen or an inner peacefulness through the act of running. I heard ultra running once compared to the act of self flagellation...the claim was made that we are masochists.

I’d like to suggest that my fiend came closer to the truth. I like to believe that possibly the reason that our sport is populated by a higher than normal percentage of individuals who have experienced psychosocial challenges is because these individuals have mastered the art of change. Darwin said that the species that survive are those that adapt best to change. Why then, shouldn’t survival sports be populated with change artists? And why shouldn’t those who have experienced stress also be among the best users of stress as a change agent?

Stress IS a change agent in organisms you know. I wrote the following paragraph in a very old and boring posting that no one ever read, here it is again:

In the body, stress is needed for growth. Without stress there is the opposite of growth; atrophy. As tissues are stressed, an inflammatory reaction occurs which leads to environmental changes including increased temperature, a lack of blood flow to the affected area, a buildup of damaging acids, an accumulation of waste products, and a lack of oxygen. This environment, though unpleasant, does have beneficial side effects. If the body is stressed, cells called osteoblasts spring into action and repair an area using collagen; a bony material which makes the tissue stronger. Osteoblasts only function in a hot, acidic, low oxygen environment and so stress is always needed to strengthen tissues. There is no growth without inflammation and no inflammation without stress. The next time the tissue is stressed it takes more stress to cause the area to become inflamed because the body is now stronger and more stress resistant. Continued mild stress applied to tissue being repaired causes it to form itself to new job demands. This process is known as remodeling. It’s a great system.

I wrote it then and I’ll write it again now: It is a great system. And I believe that it works not only for tissues but, metaphorically, for the mind and the soul as well.

The final mile of the “Forget the P.R.” race turns cruel. I arrived at the base of the North Rim Trail nearly 40 minutes ahead of my predicted time. Even though the race leaders finished over 4 miles ahead of me I was having the race of my life….all I had to do was keep it ‘rubber side down’, and I managed to. But the last mile of the race brought cramps into my inner thighs that felt like high voltage electrical shocks, my balance was thrown off and I repeatedly stumbled over rocks and tree roots. I had absolutely nothing left. None of it mattered, of course. I slowed to a crawl, lost a minute or so, and met a smiling Rob Powell at the finish for a hug.

The immediate joy of the finish line remained, but was soon accompanied by a realization that my race, as strong as it had been by my standards, showed a need for growth and change before I could expect to finish the Mohican Trail 100 Mile Run in two months. I would need to become patient; no more howling nasty words into the woods about poor old Rob Powell when I become tired of the hills. I would need to take care of the details; no running 12 miles with a rock in my shoe. That sort of thing produces bloody socks in a 100 miler. And I would need to learn to handle the slow trickle of poison that my body would produce better than I had in the 50K. Dehydration, low blood sugar, and swinging blood pressures make for a good post-race story when they happen in the final miles of a 50K but they make for sober sounding excuses when told by a runner seated in the back of an ambulance at a 100 miler.

My long winter runs with Terri had turned me into a better 50K runner. And I now need to leave those skills behind and change again if I am going to survive those same trails in June.

That’s OK though. I can change. I know that I can.

I have been asked to change so many times, and in so many areas of my life, that at times I can almost forget what my old life was like. I might be stronger and I might be weaker. I’m probably a bit of both I suppose. But one thing is certain. I’m here. I’m not extinct. I’m alive because I have been given a gift that allows me to change and to adapt. It is a gift that is so unique to us that I wonder if God even needed to warm up to the idea.

The Old Testament is chock full of stories of God telling us what to do. In the stories we routinely DIDN’T obey him, and then we were punished. And God didn’t mess around either. We aren’t talking about getting grounded or not being allowed to watch TV. We are talking plagues, boils, locusts, floods. And still we didn’t learn. God doesn’t seem to operate this way anymore.

This is going to sound blasphemous but I like to think that maybe God didn’t understand us.

Maybe God sat up in heaven and realized that we were different. So he took on the form of a man and came down to be with us. And maybe God then realized that being human is hard. After all, God is perfect. This means that everything that God does is Godly, which means that nothing that God ever does is a sin. And that’s absolutely perfect and unchanging…like sweet corn. But the problem is that if God never sinned then this means that maybe God was never tempted. Maybe God didn’t understand envy and greed and lust. Maybe God didn’t understand guilt. Maybe God didn’t understand stress. And if these things are true then God wouldn’t understand how we couldn’t follow VERY SIMPLE ORDERS, no matter how many times he punished us. I like to think that after God became man he understood all of these things. It seems like it. The relationship sure is different than it used to be, at least that how I see it.

So why doesn’t the North Rim Trail get easier after I ask God to allow it to? Why do families break apart if God loves us? Why do healthy young people die horrible deaths and wretched sinners prosper? Where is God at these times? Maybe God is practicing his new sense of empathy. Maybe God is cheering for us and watching us grow, and watching us change.

Maybe God is proud of us.

 

 

Posted on April 4, 2015 .

How the Cows Were Cool

 By Mark Carroll

 

The man in the Carhartt coveralls offered me a cup half full as I ran by. My acceptance of his offer was more an act of reflex than of thoughtful strategy.

I was having problems that two ounces of sports drink weren’t likely to resolve. 

I craved an act of decency more than I craved any item at the aid station and this man, who had been standing in the breakdown lane for hours in a 25 mile per hour wind on a 21 degree day, provided a bit of hope to everyone who ran by. I wanted to tell him how much he was appreciated. I wanted to tell him that his acts, and the acts of others at times like this, when the recipient was riding the red line, were more valuable and appreciated than any offered during moments of physiological homeostasis. I wanted to tell him that he was one with the saints, and rescue workers, and hospice nurses. Instead I took the cup, broke a hole through the layer of surface ice with my teeth, snuffed an ounce of lemon-lime Gatorade directly into my sinuses, spilled the rest on my face, and gasped “Thansuh”.

“You’re welcome” said Lawrence Nightingale, “You boys are doing great. Two miles to go!”

“Boys?... Plural?... Who the hell…!??”

I thought I was alone. But when I took a quarter glance behind me I found myself staring into the eyes of “Dude in red”. He wasn’t always known to me as dude-in-red. Once, when I was young and the starting gun was firing, he was a fuller human being. He was one of many strong-looking runners striding out in the early yards of a fifteen mile road race on a winter day. He was polite and focused and completely in control. I stalked him for 9 miles, passed him with authority, and left him for dead. Those were the rules. Every child knows them. When you are shot you lie down and play dead. But this fellow, unlike the others, didn’t buy my act. He seemed to have a few grey hairs himself and he knew a bad thespian when he saw one. He knew how to race. And now he knew that I was weak; my insecure glance back and Gatorade-induced coughing fit provided evidence. I might be bought off with a lawn chair and a promise to fight another day. And he seemed to know that too.

We ran up a short but nasty little hill into the teeth of the wind. I was well behind the leaders with no chance for an award of any kind. Not that it would have mattered; the prospect of a trophy carries no vote in the congress of a racer’s mind. It was decision time. I had a forty yard lead on him. I decided that if he was to steal the suddenly all-important 7th place finish in this local race then I would make the bastard earn it. This, I realized, is why we came here today, dude-in-red and I, to race each other. We didn’t know that until now but here it was, clear as day. Every other runner was at a hopeless or safe distance from us by this point. It was just us and every move now was a fake. Look strong until the next telephone pole. Run this hill hard. Pretend the finish is just a few hundred yards away. He will see how strong I am and quit…then I can ease up a bit.

But he wouldn’t crack. He was the type, I began to fear, who would not ever give up. It was hopeless. But at this point the cards were all dealt. I couldn’t go back to acting like this wasn’t a race and neither could he. This was gonna be pain all the way to the finish. The Penguin and George Sheehan were nowhere to be found. Somewhere someone’s foot crunched poetically into the virgin snow of a wintry trail, somewhere hard bodies did crunches to loud rock music in a warm gym, and somewhere someone ate a sensible lunch washed down with a fistful of antioxidants. But they were not here either…just two middle age guys, with frozen spit on their faces, riding a hypoxic conveyor belt to the finish, each trying to gain an inch on their newfound opponent.

This is who I am and so this this is what I do…sometimes.

I was born with a congenital inability to sense the difference between a 77 mile per hour fastball and a 97 mile per hour fastball. My lack of skill in this regard made me a lousy baseball player but has saved me thousands and thousands of dollars. I love baseball. I don’t really understand it; I just love it. I like how most of the time nothing happens until suddenly something does. Then it’s interesting for a while until it isn’t any more. Just like running a road race. I cannot distinguish high quality performances from very high quality performances. Because of this I enjoy the Columbus Clippers, the AAA minor-league affiliate of the Cleveland Indians, every bit as much as I enjoy the tribe itself. For six dollars apiece I hit a bunch of Clippers games each summer. In fact shaving one or two of the A’s off the triple AAA classification doesn’t douse my enjoyment either. I like the Akron Aeros (AA-Cleveland) just fine, and I was a regular at the Delaware Cows’ (single-A unaffiliated) home games, until they went under a few years ago. 

I guess I’m easy to please; I also enjoy par-three golf, Mid-major NCAA teams, and those fake Twinkies that Little Debbie came out with for a while.

The Delaware Cows charged two bucks to get in and couldn’t draw spectators to save their lives. There were only about 20-30 people present at any given game and so we all got to know each other. Jegs Auto Parts once had a free hat day and when I went through the gate they handed me three of them because they had expected hundreds of people to show up, but only fifteen people did. I gave two of the hats away but I still have one and I love it. I really do.

They once had a special promotion called “Road Kill Day” and couldn’t draw flies.

OK that last line was just me joking around. The fans used to tell little jokes like that to each other at Cows games. The players Moms would bring extra cookies for us…and I’m not kidding about that. Those ladies could bake!

The truth is that everything about the Cows was wonderful. The quality of the baseball was very high. Of the 20 people in the stands, at any given game, a couple of them would be major league scouts. The players were typically college students who played for very prestigious NCAA teams. They left their egos behind and lived in the homes of local residents, earned very little money, carpooled to games in places like Lima and Zanesville, and would risk life and limb to dive for a base or a foul ball regardless of how hopelessly lopsided a game might be. They hosted skills camps for local kids, did a charity game against a team of Special Olympians, stuck around after games until the very last fan didn’t want to chat anymore, and stayed in touch with their elementary school pen pals in the off-season. And once or twice I saw a 97mph fastball (at least that’s what the speed-gun thingy said).

Last summer I spent 173 dollars on some great seats at an Indians game for my son’s birthday. It was wonderful; it was early in the season so there wasn’t any playoff pressure yet. But there weren’t any free cookies. And I didn’t get to meet a player. If I sent an e-mail to the coach he would likely not write back. And the league manager didn’t attend my church. The Indians game was on a Friday night and so there were 40,000 people in attendance.

It really is a shame that the Cows went under.

I once heard a comedian talking about our relationship with dogs. He pointed out that if aliens came down and observed dogs barking at us, leading us around, and forcing us to pick up their poop the aliens would naturally assume that the dogs were in charge. I wonder at times if the aliens might also assume, after observing things like cost/quality ratios and human relations why we wouldn’t simply flock to a Cows game and avoid the cost, traffic snarls, and overpaid arrogance of major league games.  

I’m not naïve. I understand that sports is an industry. I get that livings and fortunes are made and lost based upon sexiness, money, and marketing.  I also understand the desire to be part of this revenue stream. It’s a fact that has invaded nearly all parts of our lives.  But sports stop being fun for me when I group them with real-life American capitalism. Salary arbitration might be necessary at some level but I refuse to believe that it is the least bit ennobling. The goodness of sports is, after all, what is being sold to us, and that goodness exists outside of any effort to harness it. The basics of sports are there without year-round youth travel leagues, strength programs, personal trainers and free agency. The goodness of sport exists at all levels, from the World Series to the Delaware Cows, to recreation league soccer, to two guys challenging each other to a duel that involves running shoes rather than swords. And that goodness is entirely ennobling.

At the conclusion of my race with dude-in-red one of us crossed the finish line before the other one did. Then we both stumbled into the high school cafeteria/race staging area and lay flat on our backs and coughed, until one of us worked up the energy to come over and give the other a hug.

It’s the greatest thing about sports. The immediate intimacy and otherwise unacceptable social behavior that is allowed. I love that a couple of old dudes can 6:45 per mile each other into a near coma and appreciate that we both did each other a favor. I love that I can cheer for my kids at the top of my lungs on a baseball field, or a basketball court, or a swimming pool. And I understand but regret that I cannot do the same in the middle of one of their history tests. Nor can I yell positive helpful advice as they make a move to ask a girl out on a date, or do a vocal solo at a school Christmas concert. I cannot try to break a fellow physical therapist and expect a hug at the conclusion of the contest.

In real life we can be hesitant to accept an offer from a stranger standing by the side of the road, and might be embarrassed to accept the role of cheerleader and savior to the semi-public we are placed in positions to serve.

In real life there are fewer opportunities to daydream, to display passion, to engage in acts of kindness…to accept help and challenges.

It only seems to happen in sports. It’s probably an indictment on our humanity, or maybe just our culture, that these things are limited in this way but let us rejoice that at least this one cup is half full.

Kathleen Norris wrote that the one thing that distinguishes a frontier is the precarious nature of the human hold on it. Can’t any sport, any history test, any romantic venture, be a frontier? Aren’t they already frontiers? Aren’t so many of the things we do in life an excuse for cheering, heroism, and acts of goodness, whether we take advantage of them or not?

I resolve to let my passions run toward those things in life that really elicit passion; the small things that have no market value, but make me human nonetheless. My normal work life might need to be dictated by some amount of sales and marketing. It’s the insurance premium we pay to live in a free market. But I resolve to believe that sport is more than the slickly packaged versions of things that already exist on every sandlot, every basketball court, every swimming pool, and every trail in America.

And if sports can be utilized in this way, maybe other things can as well. Maybe the beauty of sports lies in the example they serve of what we can be. The Cows were cool, and expanding upon their example would be cool as well.

From Sir-walks-a-Lot's-Slog-Blog

Posted on January 6, 2014 .

Werewolves, Teen Idols, and Us.

By Mark Carroll

I just finished a run under a shining full moon. It was a perfect reminder that fall is just around the corner. I love fall. I guess all runners do. Thinking about fall got me thinking about Halloween which got me thinking about werewolves and you probably have already guessed that thinking about werewolves got me thinking about Hannah Montana. Its all so perfectly linear isn’t it?

I recently had occasion to watch Hannah Montana’s movie. I can’t remember its name because I wasn’t paying close attention but I think it might have been called ‘The Hannah Montana Movie’. Anyhow, I thought that it was just going to be another poofy meaningless tweener movie such as ‘Secret Agent Cody Banks’ or ‘The Godfather III’, but boy was I wrong!

Warning: I am going to give away the plot to Hannah Montana’s Movie here so if you haven’t seen it and don’t want me to ruin it you should go see it before reading on.

OK. Well like I said I didn’t pay close attention but the movie is about these two girls, Hannah and Miley. One of the girls (Hannah) overcomes the debilitating handicap of a dreadful singing voice to become famous and rich for some reason that I missed. The other girl (Miley) is fabulously beautiful and fun but is still, for some reason, picked on and misunderstood by all of the other children. I absorbed all of this while folding laundry and keeping up on dishes and making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches mind you, but the end of the movie was a shocker….THE TWO GIRLS ENDED UP BEING THE SAME PERSON!!!! I kid you not!! I have no reason to lie to you. They were the same person all along!! No one could possibly have seen that ending coming.

So really, when you think of it, ‘The Hannah Montana Movie’ had essentially the same plot and story line as ‘Fight Club’.

I don’t know who wrote and directed ‘The Hannah Montana Movie’. I could look it up in about 2 seconds because I am currently on the computer. But I am tired from my run and from life so I’m not going to look it up. Instead I will simply assume that it was Quentin Tarantino.

We mustn’t be too hard on Quentin Tarantino for ripping off the plot of ‘Fight Club’ and using it in ‘The Hannah Montana Movie’. Divided personalities and dual identities are commonplace throughout the history of literature and the duality of man has been portrayed in every form of media from the caped crusader, to Judas, to werewolves, to the Phantom of the Opera, to Hannah Montana.

Take Dr. Jekyll for example. Dr. Jekyll worked very hard to earn his doctoral degree from a prestigious university. In so doing he took out cripplingly large student loans, spent seven years in a dysfunctional relationship with an undergraduate modern dance major, and put up with a scaldingly abusive dissertation chair. After graduation the poor chap whips up a little celebratory homebrew and turns into Mr. Hyde, a man who is lacking a terminal degree and is, therefore, fearful and loathsome. Don’t we all relate to Dr. Jekyll on some level? Haven’t we all dated a lithe, gorgeous, total-nut-job dance major who is too crazy to live with and too sexy to leave? And if we haven’t, haven’t we always wanted to?

You see, I believe we are drawn to tales of the two faces of man because nearly all of us are two people. We see evidence in the news all the time. The loving nanny who steals from the children she is caring for, the husband who, after 20 years of love and nurturing, tells his wife it was an act all along, the priest who has performed 40 years of kind acts while also abusing children.

School started back 2 weeks ago and we’ve been having fun. I gave a 4.5 hour long lecture last Tuesday on zygapophyseal joints. The students loved it and so did I. I put on a nice comfy necktie and stood under fluorescent lights and we talked about back pain. You should have been there. But you weren’t because you were probably doing your other life somewhere as well. I’m a pretty good professor. Hardly anyone at work knows that I run. Dave Essinger knows though. He’s an English professor at Findlay and he finished Mohican this year. I see Dave every now and again and we speak in hushed tones of mud and carbohydrates and also of a mist we saw rising above a river. Then he puts on a tie and teaches writing. Dave told me he reads this blog. In my professor life it scares me that an English teacher is reading this. But my runner side doesn’t give a hoot. I hope that runner-Dave is reading this and not writer-Dave.

So if I can be a professor I wonder what else I can be? I can be a bad singer I guess. I could be an alcoholic if I decided to but I don’t think I could be violent or abusive. I can be polite in trying circumstances and I can hold my tongue in a staff meeting. I guess I could be, or pretend to be, nearly anything I like. In my life I have been a lifeguard, a pizza delivery guy, a land-crew worker, a boyfriend, a dad, a husband, a business owner, an overnight “guest” in the Summit County Jail, an alter boy, a brave, a bobcat, an oiler, a physical therapist, a recipient of an eviction notice, a professor, a patient, a race director, a faculty senate chair, a philanderer, a spendthrift, an enemy, and a friend. But in all of these roles, I held the dual identity of runner. In fact on very nearly every day that I ever portrayed any of those roles, I also ran.

I quit soccer and I quit the trombone, I quit chewing tobacco and I quit buying Volkswagon Jetta’s. I quit boxing and wrestling and basketball and football. But I never quit running. And more to the point I never quit running hard. I did, progressively and by sad degrees, stop running fast but I never stopped running to the point of exhaustion.

So if I use to be all of those things and now I’m not…and if I could be lots of other things that I currently am not…maybe I’m really a runner. It’s the only thing about me that has lasted.

I think some of you may be runners as well. You are probably other things but I bet the running has lasted the longest…or will endure the longest. Not everyone runs for a long time though. Some people run for a few months, finish that 10K or marathon, get their silver blanket and medal and head back to the handball courts. God bless their hearts. I really mean that. I hope they enjoyed their time in our sport. But the lifelong runners, the ‘identity’ runners that I know are different. They all have one thing in common. They all have suffered and will suffer again. They don’t like suffering but they do see the value in it. They go to great lengths to avoid cramping, chaffing, hypoglycemia, and anoxia. They use intervals, lubricants, tinctures, and orthotics to be pain free.

And yet…

And yet they do suffer. They have suffered and I believe that in that moment of purest suffering, that piece of aloneness, they see clearly the one and only person that they are. No necktie can ease the pain, no pep talk can lift them, its just them and eternity.

And its beautiful. And its peaceful. And it can be scary. Once many years ago I shared the lead in a small but locally important race with a friend. With one mile to go I looked over at him, sized up his long legs and bouncy stride, told myself I could never outkick him, and proceeded to set a goal of removing every molecule of oxygen from his bloodstream with an increased pace. I actually relished in the pain I was causing him. After the race I was alarmed that I could be so cruel. I have also marveled at how defeated or how lonely I can be when suffering…and how much I can love life and love God.

Some people are cynical regarding the concept of a sinner having a deathbed conversion. I’m not though. I believe that some unfortunate individuals only have the alone moment that suffering can bring on the day of their death. How sad that they might learn who they are and change only in the last moments of their lives. And how happy for us that we don’t have to wait that long. We all have the darkness and lightness that come with and from the duality of man. But some of us can, when we want to, synthesize the two by burning away the superfluous. And when we do the real us emerges. And it turns out to only be one person after all.

Posted on December 2, 2013 .

Keep Your Piggies Toasty-Winter Running Tips

By Chad Heald

So winter is upon us…does that mean that we possum tuck our tails and head for our burrows?  Of course not!  We charge forth, ice-beards and snotcicles be-damned! Remember, that there is no such thing as bad weather, simply inadequate gear.  So, this post is intended to give you some suggestions for winter running gear which will help you make it through the long winter months so that you can be ready to roll when springtime comes around!

Traction: Obviously, running is best done while upright…which can oftentimes be challenging on icy snow-covered trails.  While a heavily lugged trail shoe may be sufficient in powdery conditions, if things are at all icy, you are likely to need some assistance.  Essentially, there are a few different options: the first is the Over-the-shoe “crampon” style traction likely provides the best traction in icy conditions.  Essentially, these are affixed to your trail shoes and typically provide a metal traction, which is superior to the traction provided by your shoes on their own.  Sounds great, right?  It is…to an extent.  While they provide great traction, anyone who has run with these attached to their shoes knows that snow can accumulate in them, adding excess weight with each footfall, and making it feel like you’re running with concrete shoes. Some of the major manufacturers of this type of product are Khatoola and Yak Trax.  The second option for winter traction is to “screw” your shoes…easy there tiger…we’re not suggesting anything tawdry here,  rather, you insert short sheet metal screws with hexagonal heads into the lugs of your existing trail shoes.  Here is a youtube video that walks you through the entire process.  This approach is lighter and certainly less expensive, and also works well if you are running on icy roads and sidewalks.  The biggest drawback is that you have to use a pair of shoes that you aren’t planning on using once the snow and ice melts, as you will be screwing holes into them!  Be aware, that there are also some folks out there that are making “running specific” screws for this purpose.   I’ve not used this product in any fashion whatsoever, but at least know that they exist.

Coat: Let’s face it, nothing will cut short a winter run faster than a wet, freezing, core.  I would suggest that of all the winter running gear you may look at, your money is best spent on a good running coat.  Honestly, there are some pretty amazing coats out there that provide great combinations of being water/windproof and yet breathable.  I’ve had good luck with coats from The North Face, Brooks and Mountain Hardwear but those are only the manufacturers I’ve tried.  I would submit that you want to look for a coat that is going to be waterproof, windproof and still breathable.  Fit will be a personal thing, but unless it is a truly frigid day, you will likely be able to get away with a single baselayer and your jacket if you choose wisely.  Do your research and look online for deals!

Base layer: You are going to want to have a baselayer that will wick moisture away from your skin.  Some folks swear by Merino wool, others prefer synthetic fibers such as Patagonia Capilene.  Either of these (and there are others) perform the essential task of wicking sweat and moisture away from your skin to help keep you dry and warm.   Most base layers are going to be relatively lightweight.  Talk to other runners and see what they prefer…and then do what seems right for you!

Insulating layer: For those really, really cold Ohio mornings where you are looking to run more miles than there are degrees Fahrenheit on the thermometer, you will want an insulating layer on top of your base layer and underneath your waterproof/windproof jacket.  I believe something fleece with additional wicking capabilities is our best bet here.  Polartec and Thinsulate are products which are certainly appropriate as an insulating layer.

Hat: I’ve always been a fan of Headsweats, but in any event, you will want a fleece or wool hat that can cover your ears.  There are hundreds of styles out there…go nuts.

Gloves: Gloves, mittens…gloves with a convertible mitten top…everyone has their own preference.   Personally, my hands get pretty chilly and I prefer mittens.  I’ve had the same pair of Brooks fleece mittens for about three years and they are great.  You do give up some dexterity in mittens, but they do keep your fingers warmer in my opinion.

Pants/Tights: What can I say…no matter how hard-core you may be, there comes a time when you’ve simply gotta accept that it’s too cold for shorts (unless you’re into that whole “frostbite” thing).  For those days, you’ll need a pair of pants or tights.  I have a basic pair of running pants from Adidas that are pretty comfortable and a thicker pair of tights from Mountain Hardwear that are nice for the really cold days.  Once again, do your research, look for deals online and pick the ones that are best for you! 

Balaclava/Neckwarmer: If you don’t mind looking like you’re heading to/from a bank robbery, a balaclava may be for you…essentially, these things will cover much of your head (think of the old school winter hats with the face cut-out…but only much more hi tech.  I’ve got one of these things, and occasionally will wear it…but usually when I’m fairly confident I won’t see another soul.  Once again, search online and you’ll be able to find lots of suggestions!  If you aren’t looking for full coverage, you may be interested in a Buff, which can serve as a neck-warmer, hat or balaclava in one.

So there you have it!  Some of my suggestions for keeping toasty during your winter runs…understand that for every brand mentioned above, there are probably ten others out there that make a competing or similar product.  Ultimately, you should shop around and find something which works within your budget and which serves the purposes discussed herein.  Some of my favorite runs have happened on mornings when everyone else is way too sane to venture outside.  I recall one run in particular a couple years ago with five other friends when it was 3 degrees out…during that 90 minutes we had all of Highbanks to ourselves and it was fantastic!  So don’t let the cold and snow scare you away…just be prepared and get out there!

Posted on November 24, 2013 .

Some of Our Favorite Running Spots

By Chad Heald

It is always fun and exciting to explore a new trail.  Something that harkens back to childhood and playing in the woods; that raw anticipatory response to a soon-to-be-had adventure. Thankfully, Delaware County is incredibly fortunate to have an abundance of options for trail runners (many of which you may not be aware)!  While we all have our favorite trails, chances are, we'd also love to hear where other folks in our trail running community get their trail miles!  So, in an appeal to you, dear reader, to share your fave running spots with the rest of us, we've put together some of our can't-miss trail runs.  

1) Delaware State Park (duh...): There really are some fun routes which you can take that are only limited by your imagination.  The most obvious choice is to park at the Marina and start with the Mink Run->Briar Patch->Lakeview->Bigfoot for a nice 10 mile out and back (you can download a trail map here) .  But have you ever started your run at the Dam parking lot and run the levee wall to the North or East?  There are some wonderful trails in the Wildlife area on the Eastern shores of the lake and are absolutely worth exploring.  Did you know that with a quick jaunt through the campground roads, you can access another 2.5 miles of dirt road?  If you are new to the park, please don't hesitate to post a request on Facebook or Twitter asking for someone to show you the ropes...chances are there are folks running there every weekend! Remember, DSP is over 2,000 acres in size, so there is plenty of opportunity to explore!

2) Alum Creek: If you live in Southern Delaware County or in Franklin County, chances are you are more familiar with Alum Creek for trail running, and with good reason!  On the Western shore of the lake, you have the Peachblow Road trailhead, which has several miles of nice meadow and singletrack.  On the Eastern shore, there is the Multipurpose trail with approximately six miles of meadow and wooded trails.  Additionally, you have several miles of mountain bike trails.  If you are up for a more technical and vertically challenging run, you can head to the Bridle trails on the Northern half of the lake.  Typically, it is easiest to park at the Howard Road boat launch and pick up the Winterhawk Bridle trail heading North towards the village of Kilbourne.  The trail exits into the small village of Kilbourne on the East side of the lake and you can pick it up on the West side of the lake and head back South.  Keep in mind, that this trail is only open on Sundays during hunting season and during the fall can be somewhat difficult to navigate (pay close attention to blazes, flags and permanent course markings).  Also, remember that horses have the right of way on the bridle trails.  If you encounter a rider, stop, step off the trail and ask how they would like you to pass.  No one wants to spook a huge animal and potentially cause injury to the horse or its rider!  A trail map for Alum Creek can be downloaded here.

3) Highbanks:  We know, Highbanks isn't what you might call a technical trail running experience (with the exception of the .4 mile Wetland spur), but what it lacks in technical singletrack it more than makes up for in hills!  It also happens to have miles of well groomed incredibly runnable trails.  We typically park at the Krueger Nature center.  From there, you have access to enough trail to easily string together a 10+ mile "loop," and use your car as an "aid station" if you are doing multiple loops.  You also have nice bathroom facilities, and water fountains (seasonally) on the big meadow loop.  A trail map for Highbanks can be downloaded here

4) Delaware Preservation Parks:  If you aren't from Delaware you may be unaware of the incredible local park system which we have available to us in the form of the Delaware Preservation Parks.  The Preservation Parks, presently consist of eight (8!) beautiful preserves, each of which has their own trail system, adequate parking, bathrooms and water fountains (seasonally).  Understand that these trails are not long, but they are immaculately maintained and a really nice change of pace, particularly if you are interested in running loops (loops!).  Once again, you have multiple opportunities to return to your car so no need to carry much in the way of aid.  Our favorites are Gallant Woods Preserve (Trail Map here)  where there is a nice 1.5ish mile loop through meadow and woods and Deer Haven Preserve and the adjacent Havener Park  trails, where you can easily put together a 3-3.5 mile out and back (Trail Map here).

5) Mohican/Cuyahoga Valley National Park/Hocking Hills: The equivalent of Disneyland for trail runners.  Too many options to really review here (they may each get their own blog post:)  Needless to say, if you are going to be making a running pilgrimage to one of these parks, put a post on the facebook page(s) and chances are you can find some company! 

So there you have it!  Some of our favorites trail running spots...not an exhaustive list, but certainly a good start for anyone new to trail running.  We hope to see you out there soon! 

Posted on November 18, 2013 .

Trail Running For Newbies....by Anne Pistone!

Road Marathon Season is over (at least in our part of the country) and during the "off season", I know many runners try out different ways to keep fit. Many runners have talked about trying out the trails.

 

I thought I would take the opportunity to impart a few bits of wisdom that I have learned over the past couple years of trail running. (Just remember, I am NOT an expert. I am NOT a coach. I am simply a mom, who loves to run in the woods.)

     If you can, go on your first trail run with an experienced trail runner.

     Your pace will be slower on the trails than on the road. Don't worry, it's   NORMAL!

     Trail Running is peaceful and quiet, leave your iPod at home and just enjoy the beauty of your surroundings.

     Talk to any trail runners you know, we all love to share tips and take people out into the woods!

     There WILL be walking. There is no shame in walking. Sometimes, it's the only way to get over/around/through a particular section. 

     Think about buying a pair of trail shoes. They offer more traction and often times more control over your footfall than your road shoes.

     Start in lower mileage than you're used to. Your legs are going to work harder on the trails than they do on the road. 

     Be prepared for rolling your ankles. Your ankles will just keep getting stronger. 

     Don't be concerned about mileage. Start thinking in terms of time (minutes/hours).

     When you want to pass another runner, make sure you let them know you are coming up behind them. Pick your own phrase, but make sure they know you are there. 

     If you are passing someone (after you've told them you are), greet them! You never know when you'll make a new friend.

     Personal space! Make sure when you are following someone, especially on a downhill, give them at least 10ft of space. That way, if/when you fall, you're not taking others out with you!

     You will get muddy! It's a trail run, it just goes with the territory. You'll get used to it. 

     Always have a towel in your car and a change of shoes for the drive home. (see above)

Most of all? just ENJOY it!

 

About the Author: Anne is a stay-at-home mom to two wonderful boys (6.5 years old and 4 years old). After kid #2 was born, she decided to run to lose weight; thinking five miles would be a good distance to aim for.  Several Half Marathons, 2 Marathons and an Ultra Marathon later, she still hasn’t quit. When she’s not running in the woods, you can find her shuttling the kids or chasing them around. Also, you can find her on www.thisrunningmomslife.com or follow on Twitter @runningmom2boys.

GUEST BLOGGERS ARE WELCOME HERE!!! Have a submission you would like us to consider? Send it along! We love this stuff!!!

Posted on November 13, 2013 .

2013 Playin' Possum Director's Race Report

Many Firsts at the Playin’ Possum 50K

By Mark Carroll

Individuals or small groups can generate ideas and even implement them. But when a community embraces an idea special things can happen! Ohio is well known for our Ultra-running Community. We have some of the best runners, running clubs, and events in the nation. But most of those events have been hosted in the northeast or southwest parts of the state. In fact, as unlikely as it may seem, Columbus, the state capital, and its 1.8 million residents, had never hosted a stand-alone trail ultra marathon. This vacuum created a need; races and the training runs leading to them can be the best way to breathe life into a trail running community. Out of this need the Playin’ Possum 50K was born.

During the training runs leading to the main event friendships formed and goals and ideas for future adventures took shape on the first snowy, then muddy, then overgrown trails. Astonishingly, we had a 100% finisher rate; every single starter finished! This is a strikingly rare occurrence in ultra distance running. Furthermore, the event raised $4000 for Special Olympics of Delaware County Ohio. The money will be used to transport athletes to events, to purchase new uniforms, or to send additional athletes to the annual State Summer Games.

Several misperceptions were broken on race day! First, there are large numbers of trail runners in Central Ohio; the race sold out is advance of race day. Also, most runners were shocked at how beautiful and runnable the trails in Delaware State Park are! The course traverses an area dominated by a man-made lake that was formed by creating a dam in a river valley. Thus the course ran through woods, along trails that were dirt farming roads thirty years ago. Abandoned hedgerows, fences, and stone building foundations can be seen in the woods, but only if a runner pays close attention. This old farming valley is now home to a nationally renowned bird sanctuary. It is possible to see deer, beaver, osprey, blue heron, bald eagles, red fox, bobcats, coyotes, and yep, possums in an area only 20miles from Ohio’s largest city. The area is flatter and more runnable than other areas of the state but the runnable course created an opportunity for a newcomer to dip their toe into ultra-distance running waters. Fifty three individuals ran their first ultra at Playin’ Possum! They were joined by a truly elite group of local runners who set records that may last for years.

Ultimately what we will remember most about the race was the overwhelming generosity of spirit that we noted as the race evolved. We decided early in the planning process that we would not solicit sponsorship from any running shoe/apparel store. We wanted this event to belong to the entire running community and we felt that the best way to do that was to be an independent entity. With full knowledge of this policy, and knowing that no public recognition would be granted, several local running stores donated use of a finish line and clock, aid station supplies, and word-of-mouth advertising support. They simply care about their sport and recognized that we do too. It was pure, simple, generosity. The swag-bags were filled to overflowing because of similar generosity from well-wishers happy that trail ultramarathoning had come to Columbus. Similarly, Ohio has a number of races that are hosted by local running clubs or individuals, rather than corporations or professional race promoters. These races exist to raise funds for charity and to build community among trail runners. Several of these individual race directors are friends of ours and, sensing a shared value system, came to the aid of our new race, as did MANY individuals from the large and thriving Cleveland ultra running community who came down on race day to assist. These individuals simply wanted to make sure that runners new to trail running could see how cool it is when a community comes together for a “club-style” event that is not being run for profit, but, rather for the benefit of the runners.

The race was evidence that mountains aren’t needed for a successful ultra, nor are corporations or professionals. It was proof that trail running can exist in any place where there are people who want to meet and play in nature, and that events are best when they are the result of generosity and collaboration. Trail running is alive and well in Central Ohio. It turns out that it always was and always will be. It was just laying low, like some sort of animal that isn’t dead but simply acts that way…I won’t provide an example. But I think you get the idea!

 

Posted on November 11, 2013 .

Rocks and Roots training run (11/3/13)

We were so pleased to see so many members of the passel yesterday at the Rocks and Roots training run held at the Peachblow Rd. trailhead at Alum Creek State Park.  Thanks to Jeff Henderson and Fleet Feet for hosting the run.  It is truly exciting to see the growth of and excitement around trail running in Central Ohio, and we are so happy to be part of building that community!  In the upcoming weeks and months we will be posting a schedule of our training/course familiarization runs at Delaware State Park.  These runs are about getting in good miles with good people and building community.  Remember, if you're not making friends out there, you're probably doing it wrong!  Please don't hesitate to let us know via Facebook and Twitter of any runs you are planning in the Central Ohio area!  See you on the trails!

Posted on November 4, 2013 .