Monday, May 27, 2013

In God's (Trail Running) Country

When I was researching Portland, for a possible move here, as you can imagine 'where to run' was pretty near top of the list of priorities. Wikipedia, Mens Health, numerous Oregon web pages all called out Portland as one great city for running and being outdoors. Included on those webpages, websites and blogs was Forest Park, and the Wildwood Trail, a 30 mile long park with 70 miles of trails which runs from Downtown to the outer limits of the city. I thought maybe that it was the usual tourist booklet info, promoting highlights, which in reality would be less than the sum of the parts.

My first few months here, as I got more adventurous (takes me a while!), I went further into the trail, onto Dogwood, Cherry, Holden, Maple, Trillium, and the many other interlinking trails. But wherever I ran, I crossed, ran on or saw signs for Wildwood. It's the one trail that runs the length of the park, from the Oregon Zoo just out of downtown to Newberry Road 12 miles (on the road) north, but as it undulates, twists and turns 30.1 miles of trail from end to end.

New York can keep Central Park, I'll take Forest Park and the smaller but more 'tourist' focused Washington Park any day. With those runs and talk of someone recently running 8,45 for an end to end to end run (ie to the end and back again!), the Memorial Day weekend seemed like a good time to at least see if I could get from the Zoo to the end 30 miles away, all the time hoping that the advertised bus service was working at the end of the trail! Now the trail head is 3 miles from my house, and it seemed a bit of a cheat to get a MAX train from home to the Zoo, miss the 300m climb and start on top of a hill. So I jogged slowly to the start of the trail, said a few words to my iphone (aka video camera) and jogged off. The first 10km or so I know pretty well and its typical of the trail - not very technical, beautiful canopied forest, birdsong and a mix of hikers, dog walkers and runners. After an hour or so I passed another runner who asked 'how far are you going?' To the end i replied. 'Me too' he came back with. So I wasn't alone on this Saturday ramble. It was good know.

As you get deeper into the Forest, the hikers thin out and you are left to your thoughts and the company of birds and an ipod! I wanted to run this pretty minimalist, so had my ultraspire pack with 3 GU gels, an energy bar and a wind jacket for the end. No water, as I figured the streams would be regular enough. I didn't really want to know how far I had run so kept my Garmin on elevation which never reached higher than 300m and only occasionally dipped to the 100m's. You pretty much seem to run on a ridgeline albeit an up and down one. I took to measuring my progress by the firelanes you cross. There are 15 between the start of the trail and the end. Each one with a map of the forest, a 'you are here' arrow and distances! The Wildwood Trail is well marked and you touch maybe 50m of tar to cross roads, otherwise its all trail, oneway. As the firelanes ticked by (slowly!) each new section had its attractions, maybe a small waterfall, or a narrow fern section. Sometimes soaring pines, often sunlight piercing through the thick canopy. And always birdsong.

I was hoping for around 4 hours 30 mins for the trail and tried to keep an easy pace, stopping at streams for water and my 3 GU's, otherwise running every step. As you get to the outer end of the park the foliage changes from dense forest to almost open meadow, and you see the sun properly for the first time. The last section between Germanstown Road and Newberry Road is a beautiful mixture of all the elements of Wildwood - forest, firs, pine, ferns, streams, meadow, soaring trees and soft, forgiving trail. 

Eventually I popped out of the trail onto Newberry Road to two cars, a scrawled '30 1/4' on the Wildwood sign and absolutely no fanfare. I did a little whoop' and sat down on the step. 

I guess when you run alone 90% of the time you have to take what you can get satisfaction wise, and just sitting on a wooden step after 5 hours of running is a pretty simple pleasure. I know that when I now run any section of Wildwood, any part of Forest Park, I can remember that I have run it all, in one shot.

I'm sure there are better, and certain more 'normal' ways to spend a Saturday, but that 5 hours was pretty special; to leave my door and run, bar the first 2 miles, on (SINGLE TRACK) trail for over 30 miles, safely, with mountain water, at no cost, and then get a $2,50 bus home, is not something I will ever take for granted, but will also take advantage of while I can. I picked The Farm 'Groovy Train' for my crappy youtube video as it felt like a bit of a groovy train ride on a single track of forest trail.

"Perhaps the genius of ultrarunning is its supreme lack of utility. It makes
 no sense in a world of space ships and supercomputers to run vast distances
 on foot. There is no money in it and no fame, frequently not even the
 approval of peers. But as poets, apostles and philosophers have insisted
 from the dawn of time, there is more to life than logic and common sense.
 The ultra runners know this instinctively. And they know something else that
 is lost on the sedentary. They understand, perhaps better than anyone, that
 the doors to the spirit will swing open with physical effort. In running
 such long and taxing distances they answer a call from the deepest realms of
 their being -- a call that asks who they are ..."
- David Blaikie

Friday, May 17, 2013

Into Thin Air

It's a truth that writing a blog is easier when you have something positive to talk about, hence the two week delay in writing about my Collegiate 50 miler experience!

Saturday May 3rd was my first race above sea level in the US. In fact the first time I'd even been above 2000m, let alone run there. It was supposed to be my Western States qualifier; the Collegiate Peaks 50 miler, but in the end it only qualified me for a portion of humble pie. I underestimated the effect of 2400-3000m running, and got my butt kicked. I quit, I bailed, I DNF'ed, whatever you want to call it. It was a two laper, therefore not difficult to stop after a lap (as did half the field, either pre-determined or spur of the moment choice). even easier when you feel like a kitten.

Finish of the Collegiate 50 miler in Buena Vista
I'd set out from Portland full of confidence, with some great mileage, good racing results and looking forward to the slower pace and less hectic racing of a 50 miler. I'd thought that arriving the day before the race wouldn't give my body a chance to work out what was going on, and I'd be able to run well.

Road tripping to Buena Vista
But within a couple of miles and the first gentle climbs I was gasping for breathe and my legs were burning. It was near freezing at the start and stupidly i didn't think about hydration very much, so I'm sure that also played a factor. After an hour I was mentally shot and physically stretched. I struggled through the desert landscape, stumbled over the few technical sections, and walked pretty much any incline. Knowing that it was a two 25 mile lap course gave me an out. I took it, with about 5 seconds hesitation. Of the first 45 runner, 35 stopped at 25 miles either pre-planned or like me, because we'd had enough.

I'm not proud of my decision, but I also know that finishing would have given me very little satisfaction, sore legs for a week and not much else.

So I now have to re-evaluate my goals for this year to take into account races at altitude and anything longer than 50km. I love the 50km distance, and pretty much anything shorter, as they feel like 'races'. Apart from the elite once you are at 50 miles, your pace is 5 minutes a km or much. much slower. That's just not for me right now. I find it harder than running quicker and the focus on body management more than racing doesn't inspire me.

The best view in Portland!
I'm also enjoying racing short and fast, beating 10 year old PB's (the 10k one from 2001 went last weekend with a 36,04) and mixing it at the front of admittedly weak races in Oregon. I'm also enjoying trail running in the amazing Washington and Forest Parks more than I could have imagined. I thought Cape Town had good trails, but here I'm 1km from 100km of trails without doing anything more than lacing up my shoes at my Hi-Tec/Magnum desk. THAT is inspiring.

Just part of the amazing Forest Park, Portland
Next up is the last 38 miles of the Western States 100 miler with friend David Ross, then the Speedgoat 50k in Snowbird, Utah. Before that, plenty of days in the forest just enjoying being able to run.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

There's more to life. Apparently.

Having lived for 36 years in the UK, 8 in South Africa and now in Portland on a 7 year visa, the question of where is ‘home’ came up recently, in a not too friendly discussion of whether I could count Cape Town as my home. I am a British (now Euro I guess) National with permanent South African residency and a 7 year US visa!

When I first moved to SA, I felt compelled to return to the UK every Christmas to savour the festive spirit and relieve homesickness.  A lot of my family are still an 11 plane ride away, albeit through time zones unlike the SA flight. The majority of my friends are in SA, especially those who have been understanding and supportive over the last year or so. But so are a lot of people I have hurt. Badly.

I loved Portland from day 1. It’s my kind of city. Not too big. Safe, walkable, amazing trails to run on and safe roads to ride on. It’s Cape Town without the sea, but also without the security and safety issues. But a city is only bricks and mortar until you make friends, find a structure and start living a normal life there.

Maybe my personality is too restless and rootless to need a place to call home? Should that make me feel sad and unfulfilled? I guess that’s where I come back to the title of this blog; There’s more to life, apparently? It was another question put to me in the run up to African X when my mileage was high and I was running twice a day most days, with the rest of the time work and sleep. It is after all only a hobby, isn’t it. But is one that gets you to places and to meet people who seem to have a more rounded philosophy on life than the sedentary part of the population. Running on a treadmill or pounding the street maybe, but being on the trails, often with just the sound of your feet and breathing does make you appreciate the simplicity of life.  There’s that great African running saying, that in the morning the lion must run to catch the gazelle to eat to live, and the gazelle must run to avoid being eaten. So when you wake up in Africa you better be sure you are running! Are runners always running towards something or away from something?

Many of the top US trail runners here seem to be struggling with the new paraphilia that goes with the trail running explosion. They want to keep working in the local Whole Foods store, want to spend time building a house, or race the races they want to do, not those of their sponsors or those expected of them as the elite.  Nobody’s forcing them to conform of course, but it seems an irresistible pull for many. Away from the simple life the American mountain men had, to sponsor’s invitations, product endorsements, branded kit (its safe to say that sponsoring an American trail runner where running without tops, hydration packs and any obvious branding is common place doesn’t seem that great an investment) and performance bonuses.

Which comes back to there’s more to life. Maybe, but being able to run in the forest, live a sustainable, low environmentally damaging lifestyle, and keep it simple is a pretty good philosophy for life. Having always worked for companies where I have a passion for the business and their products, and having a highly fulfilling pastime, I don’t feel I’m that far from Nirvana (pun intended).