Author: cmcgra1

Ultra Love

Ultra Love

Love was in the air these last couple of weeks, particularly with last Wednesday being Valentine’s Day.  During the week, I got thinking about how “love” and Valentine’s Day probably look a lot different for runners than for the average person or couple.  As part of this in depth analysis, I made a list of how my husband shows his love for me in a way that only an (ultra) running couple could understand.

How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.”

  1. When you let me have the first shower after a long muddy trail run.
  2. When you show sympathy and don’t laugh when I squeal like a stuck pig as I find all the chaffing during said hot shower.  And how you’re kind enough to help me apply neosporin to the places that chaffed because I couldn’t reach them the first time when applying body glide.
  3. When you never complain that I use nearly all the hot water on the block during the aforementioned hot shower (I know, I really love the shower thing).
  4. When you carefully sort all of my precious running gear out of the washer and hang it on every spare surface in the house because you know that it never goes in the dryer.
  5. When you grab my manky wet shoes and fill them with newspaper to help them dry faster.
  6. When you’re willing to wait an extra 45 minutes after a race for me to also be hungry before we stop to eat, even though I know you’re starving.
  7. When your answer to a meal is always pizza and beer or nachos.
  8. When you humor me by wearing hat, sunglasses, bug spray, sunscreen, and even padded shirts during runs because you know I just want you to be safe. . .even though the guys tease you by saying you have to wear a corset.
  9. When you understand that even though you love nothing better than to run and talk about puppies and flowers and cowies (apparently when you frolic on a run, all animal names must end with “ies”) during a run, that all I want to do is to kick you in the shins if you tell me about another tree, and then remain quiet for the remaining miles.
  10. When you don’t mind that our car smells like old feet.
  11. When you give up the last gel, gu, or electrolyte mix because you think it might be my favorite.
  12. When you wait for me at the finish line, no matter how far behind you I might be or how grumpy I am post race.
  13. When you agree to run every crazy, stupid, foolish race I find on ultrasignup and never complain and always see it as an adventure waiting to happen . . . even if it’s 50 miles on a beach, in the hot sun, and we’re still cleaning sand out of unfortunate places a year later.
  14. When you know that bringing home a single rose with an “I love you” teddy bear, a box of donuts, and a bottle of strawberry wine for Valentine’s Day will win my heart every time.

It is true that we runners (and especially ultra-runners) are strange and fierce and wondrously made creatures.  And in this world, we two creatures have made a life together out of trail dirt, tech fabrics, blisters, running gu, and liters of sweat.  And after sharing so many miles with my husband and the promise of so many more, I can say with great confidence say, “I love thee to the depth and breadth and height My soul can reach . . .” (Elizabeth Barrett Browning).

Run all the Runs

Run all the Runs

Normally when I go to work on a Monday morning and co-workers ask me, “How was your weekend?”, I typically just smile and wink and say, “It was fine”.  I don’t do this because I don’t want to tell them what I did over the weekend, but I like to filter the amount of running adventures I share with them.  If I tell them about all the runs, their eyes start to glaze over or they get a bit nervous.  My boss is mildly concerned that I might get hurt on one of “my runs” and have TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) . . .which makes for a poor project manager.  One of my colleagues has a daughter my age and is a nurse . . .she just worries and reminds me to be careful.  A lot.  And to wear my sunscreen, bug spray, and don’t fall and make sure I stay warm and carry water.  I can tell she cares.

But this morning, I broke my rules and told them that we ran all the runs.  And then the words just spilled out like an over excited child who gets home from a particularly amazing day at kindergarten and wants to tell EVERYONE about EVERYTHING.

The story started innocently enough, but then it just got . . .well a little out of hand.  I told them how I went with my run group, the Mad Cows, to Percy and Edwin Warner Park to run 9 miles of trails . . .at night.  That was met with much concern.  The part about running trails in the dark.  I explained to them how there were a dozen of us, some who had little trail running experience, some who had never run in the dark.  I told them how we raced up and down thousands of feet of elevation change through sloppy mud, slick ice, and beautiful snow covered paths.  How we saw deer and armadillos, icicles, and forests by the light of our headlamps.  I told them how beautiful it was to look out on the Nashville skyline when we stood quietly at the highest point in the park and turned off our headlamps and the only sound track that night was the whooping of fellow runners in the distance and the hooting of owls around us.  I told them that the evening ended with flushed faces, no injuries, and amazing peanut butter cookies from a Mama Bear.

But then I didn’t stop there.  I told how we drove home to catch a few hours of sleep before crawling out of bed the next morning to meet our trainees that we coach through the Fleet Feet Marathon training program.  We ran the the beautiful country roads of Bell Buckle where we saw wild turkeys and bulls doing unspeakable things to cows.  We met a beastly hound dog named Clyde who lopped along with us for 10 miles before he was finally picked up by his owner, and because every story has a villain, how we had our water cooler stolen when we left it out on the road to provide water for our trainees.  And of course, more peanut butter cookies.

The best stories have a good ending.  So I told them how we met a good friend on Sunday morning and went down to Virgin Falls to test our tired legs on thousands more feet of elevation gain, mud, and ice.  I told them how I did a swan dive down a muddy hill. How we saw caves with soft bottoms lined with bat guano, icicles come crashing to the ground, fossils, and waterfalls.  How we saw trees with the tell tale signs of being scratch up by bears.  I regaled them with how at times we climbed hand over foot and up ladders to reach the top and see the vistas below.  And at the end, we had run all the runs.

We had run all the runs.  We were filthy and exhausted and starving but we had never felt more alive.

We had run all the runs and spent many miles with friends and seen things that we would never have seen if we had not left the couch.

We had run all the runs . . . and ate all the peanut butter cookies.

So, how was your weekend?

Frosty the “Joel Man”

Frosty the “Joel Man”

So being the Ultra running couples’ blog, it was time that Hubs stepped up to share his “pearls of wisdom” with the virtual running community.  Joel felt particularly motivated this week to share his experiences with cold weather running after much whining in our household about having to go out to run in the single digit and teen temps, with possible snow and gross temperatures on the horizon for this weekend.  And naturally, the treadmill is never an option.  What follows is from the Joel Man, describing his experiences with cold weather running during Dirk’s Fat Ass 50K.

“The recent Dirk’s Fat Ass 50K may have been the coldest run I’ve ever done.  The temps that morning put a little hesitation in me as I’m sure it did to others who showed up for the run.  As with all other cold runs I’ve done, the hardest part was just getting started.  Just getting past the dread.

When we began running at 8:00 am my toes and hands were in a lot of pain.  I wondered if I could do this and wondered why I was even there.  But as all runners know, the coldest part is the standing around before, and especially after.  After about 2 miles my hands and feet felt okay.  I was sweating.  My body was warming up even in the 6 degree temps.  That’s when I felt, “I got this”.

For most of the 3 x 10 mile laps (we refer to each 10 mile lap as a ‘Dirk’ in honor of the founder and race Director, Dirk Hayes – to complete a full “Fat Ass 50K” – you have to pay homage to Dirk three times), I was running with the legendary David Jones.  He was wearing black and I could see he had ice all over his back.  In all honesty, I saw a lot of his back on that day.  I felt my own shirt and found that it too was frozen (like a wet towel stuffed in a freezer).  It may sound scary to think of being in 6 degree temps and covered with frozen sweat, but in reality, the ice probably provided an extra layer of insulation (think – Eskimos build their houses out of this stuff).

This day reinforced my philosophy that if you are facing a cold run, just get started!  You are much colder just standing around dreading the experience.”

Preach Hubs!  The hardest part is just before the beginning.  It isn’t getting any warmer folks and the Spring Races will be here before we know it, so in the multi-billion dollar words of Nike – “Just Do It!”

Looking ahead to 2018 – What Lifts You

Looking ahead to 2018 – What Lifts You

Tis the season for putting away things that are better left behind in 2017 and looking to the horizon to plan what could be for 2018.  It may surprise people who know me, but due to a lot of family “things” over the last few years, I have rarely approached the New Year with droves of optimism.  In fact, our family received another “bomb shell of worry” for Christmas this year that would make you think I would be approaching 2018 with the same measure of apathy of optimism as past years.  But oddly enough, this year does feel different.  This year feels like I’ve finally found that measure of maturity required to truly accept the grace associated with the “Serenity Prayer” . . . “Living one day at a time;
enjoying one moment at a time;  accepting hardships as the pathway to peace.”

So what is different this year?

If I am being completely honest, it is my running tribe that has made me excited.  I blame them for an audacity of enthusiasm in the New Year that has hitherto been lacking.  Many of the folks in my running group, the Mad Cows, have set bold goals for the New Year.  Many of them blame me for their “bad choices”.  I tell them that they need better friends. We have folks who have gone from never running trails to signing up to run a race on the side of the mountain, at night, in the cold.  We have folks who started running 1.5 years ago and are now signed up to run an ultra marathon . . .or maybe two.  We have folks that made their goal to run a marathon in 2018 and then somehow ended up registered for a 50 miler.  My running tribe has invited me to be part of an exciting journey to run the Black Toe 12 hr Trail Race, the Strolling Jim 41.2 miler/marathon, and the sweetest one of all, the Tunnel Hill 50 miler.

So now that I have talked about the goals of our running tribe, what are the ultra running couples’ goals for 2018?  Our goals for this year are to stay in the moment and focus on enjoying each experience or alternatively, learning from each struggle.  We will not try to overlook or escape the experience by wishing it over or looking to a finish line that does not exist until we complete the run.  Our goals are to do what lifts us and during our journey, to do what lifts others.  So here are the race goals for 2018:

  • Black Toe Trail Race – 12 hour – We want to stay committed to the full 12 hours rather than get bored or tired and stop early.
  • Strolling Jim 41.2 miler – Our perpetual goal is to run the course in under 7 hours and earn the coveted “red shirt”
  • The NRC Dark Sky 50 miler – We have run 50 mile races but never one on a technical trail . . . and this race is a week after “the Jim” so the physical and mental challenge will be high
  • 100K – We have never run a 100K race.  We have run longer than 100K but never signed up for a 100K trail race.
  • The Barkley Fall Classic – This is some serious crazy.  We want to complete this prelude to the Barkley at Frozen Head State park.  We want to battle thorns and climbs and face the very real possibility of defeat.  We want to test ourselves.  We want the Croix de Barque.
  • Tunnel Hill 50 miler – We are looking to run the course in under 9 hours and bear witness to the Mad Cows who will be experiencing the distance for the first time.
  • El Camino de Lavaca – 225 mile Pilgrimage – We want to travel 225 miles in 10 days in a Texas “winter” with nothing but our trusty running shoes, our hydration packs, and each other.  If we can succeed, in 2019 – Vol State 500K, we are coming for you.

And then there are the “other” running goals that are even more important than adding to our race resume:

  • We want to do everything possible to help our running tribe meet their goals in 2018.
  • We want to run with new runners and meet with new running groups in our local community.
  • We want to have fun.  So simple and yet somehow we as humans often find a way to lose sight of the idea of fun and muck things up.

So with that, Happy New Year dear reader.  We hope you plan audacious goals in 2018 and that you do “what lifts you” and on your journey, do what lifts others.

Dirk’s Fat Ass 50 K – because you need better friends

Dirk’s Fat Ass 50 K – because you need better friends

It was on this day, the first day of January in the year of our Lord, 2018, that the 12th running of Dirk’s Fat Ass 50K took place.  Each year, a figure of legend, “Old Man Dirk”, challenges runners to crawl out of bed at an ungodly hour on New Year’s Day to spend their last day of holiday vacation battling uncertain weather and ill-advised hang overs for the glory of running 31 miles, with no prize, and no ultrasignup statistics.  Some say that Dirk is immune to cold and fear, that he is Buri, the primeval man of Norse mythology who had no parents but rather was created “by a cow named Audhumla. As she licked the salt blocks of Ginnagagap, [into] the shape of a man”.  Others say he is one of the White Walkers, and still others say he’s a dang swell guy who makes swank chicken and dumplings and serves the running community by being a great pacer at the middle-half marathon.

But I digress.

On this day, the temperatures were 6 F.  Yes.  6.  The winds were howling and the fear of hypothermia was real.  And yet, the runners came.  A rag tag group of Divas, Cows, “RIF”ers, Boro2Squarerers, and Nemos – no men (free of all running affiliations).  They showed up  in blankets, mismatched spandex, and wore cowls.  There were 26 brave souls who toed the line and only 2 who finished the full 50K.  A Badwater master and a Bull-headed man (my hubs)!

The course is simple.  Runners start from the home aid station located at the General Bragg Trail Head of the Murfreesboro Greenway.  They run a figure-eight loop that takes them for a 4ish mile quest through the hallowed Stones River Battlefield, back to the Bragg Trail Head, and then a 6ish mile out and back to Cannonsburgh Village along the smoky Stones River.  Complete the full figure-eight and you have a completed a 10ish mile Dirk.  Do it three times, and you have a 50K.  The course is mostly flat and all paved.  What makes the run difficult to complete is not the distance, but the sweet siren song of the Bragg Trail Head aid station.

Each year, runners pay no fee to enter Dirk’s Fat Ass 50K.  The only thing required is a culinary sacrifice made to Dirk himself.  He demands cakes, pies, chilies, donuts, beer, and bourbon.  This buffet is laid out in tribute to the runners’ suffering and available to participants each time they pass the aid station – which if you complete the whole distance is 7 times.  Dirk also summons forth a fire from the bowels of the Earth to create a fire pit which warms the haggard runners.  When you pass the Bragg Trail Head, the Siren’s of “Warmth, Comfort, and Rest” call to you.  And many will answer the call.  Each year, only a few finish the distance, but all appreciate the challenge and the fellowship around the fire.

This year, two runners silenced the Sirens and completed the run.  The Badwater master ran with smooth stride and fire in his eyes.  He wore a mantel of frost and knew no fear of elements or exhaustion.  He ran with purpose and killer instinct.  He ran with some bitchin’ sexy spandex tights that made the Sirens take pause.  The Bull-headed runner could not quite keep pace with the Badwater master but was completely oblivious to the Sirens, focusing mainly on cookies and puppies.  He ran with a “here to unheard of” singular focus, layered with a strange patina of ice and sweat, and imbued with a fierce desire to finish the distance after 2 previous failed attempts.  Men of legendary stature.

Is any of this true?  Meh . . . trueish.  And besides, it doesn’t matter.  All that matters is that on New Year’s Day, 26 runners braved the cold to find fellowship in frost and fire.  So next year . . . will you be with us and earn your way into running legend?

Bryant Grove Trail – Review

Bryant Grove Trail – Review

The Mad Cows were on the mooooove yesterday!  Say what?  My local running group is the Mad Cow Running Company (MCRC), located in Murfreesboro, TN.  For some strange reason, we like each other enough to crawl out of bed on a frosty Saturday morning to hit the trails.  We have a really great and dedicated group of folks so it isn’t uncommon for some of the herd to drive for an hour (or more) to find our next great trail running adventure.

Being in Tennessee, we have access to so many wonderful trails, it seems like I should start sharing the details with everyone else.  As such, I will try to share information about the trails we encounter when the herd is on the move.  Yesterday, MCRC went for a fun run on the Bryant Grove Trail.

Here the basics of the trail:

Location:  The trail is located in Long Hunter State Park (2910 Hobson Pike, Hermitage, TN 37076) – go in the main entrance of the park, make your first left, and the trail head is on the right hand side of the parking lot near the play ground.  There are number of other great trails in Long Hunter State Park, including a beautiful 2 mile paved loop around the lake, but we’ll focus on the Bryant Grove Trail for the purposes of this post.

Length:  The trail is 4 miles out and 4 miles back for a total distance of 8 miles.  The trail does NOT loop.

What else? The park opens at 8 am (sometimes earlier in the summer) and closes at sunset.  No pets allowed on this trail or in the Couchville Lake Recreation area.  There are bathrooms at both ends of the trail.  The trail is clearly marked with white blazes and mile markers.  And if you really like the trail, there is a 9 mile race there in August, sponsored by the Nashville Striders, called the Wild Thang 9 miler.

In my mind, this is one of the best trails for new trail runners.  The trail has minimal elevation gain (approximately 200 ft) over the course of the trail, so that runners can focus on the run.  Most of the folks I have talked to about becoming trail runners report that their biggest fear is tripping and twisting and ankle or falling and getting really hurt.  This is always a risk, but this trail is not super technical so it allows runners to get their trail legs.  In fact, yesterday I ran this trail as my first trail run after spraining my ankle at a trail race in mid-December.

I like this trail because it gives me an opportunity to run fast due to large open stretches without a lot of obstacles.  And let’s face it, the best part of trail running is the adrenaline high of zipping through the woods.  There are a few more technical spots that allow you to test out “quick feet”.  With short stretches of rocks and roots coming in clusters, some quick feet are needed to keep moving without tripping.  This is a good place to practice the skill.  If you are new to trails and want to get better at quick feet and improve ankle stability, I highly recommend jump roping.

If you come from the Couchville Lake Recreational Area side, you will pass by beautiful views of the water on your right during the first mile.  There is a mixture of cedar tree groves and single track trail but also plenty of parts of the trail where you can run two folks across.  The deer in the area are without fear and it isn’t uncommon for them to walk out onto the trail to investigate the people.  If you are lucky, and get up early on a cold day, you may also see some frost flowers like the herd found yesterday.

In short, this trail offers a lot of opportunities for new and veteran runners. For those dabbling in trail running, the trail allows runners the chance to practice basic trail running skills of quick feet and the ever important, picking up of your feet (so you don’t trip) without having to worry about hills, poor trail markings, or an overgrown trail.  As for veteran runners, it is a great place to practice raw trail speed.

The Currency of our Field

The Currency of our Field

In every field, there is a “currency” – a method by which we and our peers can assess our level of achievement.  The word currency comes from Middle English: “curraunt”, meaning “in circulation”, in the most specific use of the word, it refers to money in any form when in actual use or circulation is used as a medium of exchange.  I like this definition because the key elements in defining currency are 1.) being in circulation and 2.) being a medium of exchange – something of value to the users.

Let’s start with the first element of currency, being in circulation.  This may in fact be the most important part of the definition for us as humans.  We always want to be in circulation.  We want to be on the road, in the game, at the table, and we want to be relevant.  We as humans are terrified of becoming irrelevant and removed from circulation.

As for the second element of currency, a medium of exchange, in every walk of life, there is a currency by which we as a collective field, profession, and human race, assess achievement or value to ourselves and our communities.  As a scientist, our currency is often papers published, grant funding obtained, patents submitted, and in some cases tenure achieved.  As runners, our form of currency is typically PR’s (personal records), the ubiquitous Strava data, and “bling”.

“Bling” is the shiny medals, pint glasses, kitsch, and the most coveted bling, the belt buckle that accompanies the completion of a race and is tangible symbol of achievement in our community.  In an ever growing competition for our race registration dollars, races from 5K’s to 100 milers (or more) often give out bling of epic proportions to attract prospective runners.  Some races are giving our medals of dinner platter dimension and topping out at greater than 3 lbs.  That’s a veritable albatross to carry after a long and grueling run.

For ultra runners, the greatest currency is the belt buckle.  But of course, no one is quite sure when the belt buckle should be awarded.  I have heard from some members of the ultra community that a belt buckle is the highest level of achievement and should only be awarded to runners who have mastered (or suffered) the 100 mile plus distance.  Others maintain 50 miles of suffering is sufficient to warrant a belt buckle.  However, one thing that most ultra runners will agree upon is that belt buckles should never be given for anything less than 50 miles as that seemingly “cheapens” the awarding of a belt buckle because it is no longer special at shorter distances.  I have earned a belt buckle at distances ranging from a 50 K (see picture above from the Arctic Frog 50 K) to a 100 miler.  I also earned one after completing 5 marathons in 5 days.  I never felt I hadn’t earned it when I was presented with the belt buckle.

This issue of awarding belt buckles for certain distances or considering giving participation medals to race finishers (of any distance) is all one and the same; should we reserve our currency for only those runners who prove that can suffer the most or run the furthest?  It is a fine line between recognizing achievement in our field without becoming elitist.  I think at the end of the day, it comes down to each of us in how we choose to view our bling.  I have run a lot of races and have a lot of bling.  And in all honesty, when I look at 5 K participation medals and 100 mile belt buckles, I see the same thing, a memory.  A wonderful memory of a struggle, a challenge, fellowship with my running tribe, and the thrill of a finish.  I have run 5 K’s at paces well beyond my normal ability and wanted to lose my cookies at the finish.  Is that somehow less suffering or achievement than crawling to a finish of a 100 mile race?  Maybe.  But not to me.  If I give all of my talent and effort to a race, I have achieved and do not mind if the Race Director wants to give me a token to remember that effort.  That being said, I am far more grumpy with a medal when I have run poorly and not given my best effort, because then I am stuck with a memory of weakness and perceived failure.

I think that ultimately, it all washes out.  The most determined people who seek the toughest races and will be granted medals, buckles, or the coveted Croix de Barque as merited by their effort.  And the community knows the hardest races and will appreciate the struggle and the accompanying bling.

As for the rest of us mortals, maybe the currency is not the bling or the buckle, maybe it is the memory.  The memory that reminds us that we are in circulation.  That we sped down the trails (or roads) with reckless abandon and felt truly alive.  That we ran with our tribe (or herd) and struggled together and found value in a hard earned finish and a cold pint of beer (or chocolate milk) at the finish.  That in the end, we enjoyed fellowship and told stories about other races and running foolishness and that we held value to ourselves and our peers by simply showing up and giving our best effort to drive competition and excellence.  That we did not squander the gift that is running.  That most definitely is a currency of immeasurable value.