Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Epic Run: English Countryside

There are some things in life that no matter how much you try, you just aren't prepared for. Earlier this month, one of those things happened to me.

I knew I was going for a long run with Marino through the English countryside. I'd been looking forward to it for weeks, certain that it would be a great run, but I didn't know just how amazing it was going to be. Amazing. And long. And difficult.

Marino was just 2 weeks removed from a 100 mile race. Let that sink in a bit... 100 miles. 100 miles. That's a rounding error away from 4 marathons, in a row, in 24 hours. That's a long ass way my friends. It was also a good thing for me, because I knew he'd still be recovering and at least a tick off of his best. That meant I had a chance of staying with him, which was good because I didn't know where I was going.

The run started out Marino's front door, on a perfect sunny Sunday morning, on his insanely English street in Milford. Every street in the area, known as Surrey, is a postcard for quaint, with gentle rolls and beckoning curves, flanked with houses built before 1900, each with little English gardens, and little English garden fences.

Milford, yes we are that quaint.

After my habitual jumping jacks and trunk twists, we were off, moving from adorable street to even more adorable street. It felt good to run after a two of days of hard-core touristing. After a quarter of a mile, it felt like any other run.

That didn't last long.

After just half a mile, we were in the country, on a narrow country road. I was leading. Marino said, "We're going left at that sign post up there."

Thing is, the only sign post type thing was a simple wooden pole poking out of a hedge that seemed to mark nothing. It wasn't until I was exactly at the post that I saw the trail.

Marino assuring me that we were indeed hanging a left at the sign post.

For those who don't remember, the UK has something called the Right to Roam (explained by yours truly, here). I'd imagined what it must be like for a runner many times, but I wasn't prepared for the sight of a truly unbroken public footpath. It was glorious.

Trail, as far as the eye can see, and then some.

Kids, this is a sight I will never forget.

Gorgeous, open field, horizon to horizon, green and lush, with a thin brown line tracing the way across, the way to the next unbelievably beautiful view. I was six-year-old-on-Christmas-morning giddy.

This is the way things are meant to be. This is where, and how, we are meant to run, across the land, the best land with the best views, as far as we want.

We have views like this, and fields like this, here in the good ol' US of A. But they're on private land, with rights and liability concerns, and fences. We love our fences. This trail, and hundreds like it all across the UK, are also on private land, but every citizen has the right to use the path. And yes, they have fences, but the fences have "stiles".

Stile:  noun - a series of steps or rungs by means of which
a person may pass over a wall or fence that remains a barrier to sheep or cattle.

Pretty damn ingenious, right? Sturdy, so we roamers don't damage the fence. Can't be left open like a gate. Easy peasy to get up and over. How could this get better?

I was in running heaven. How could anything improve such a glorious run. It would have to be something amazing, like happening upon, and crossing, a mediaeval bridge built by monks in the 13th century. One like, oh, I don't know, this one...

When this bridge was built by monks, Indiana was populated by American Indians.
So was the rest of America

Unforgettable moment #2. Barely 2 miles in, I was running a dream run.

And it was about to get better.

Over another stile or two and Marino and I were in a pasture. Lush and breathtaking in it's beauty and size, and green as green gets... except for a few white specks up in the distance. What are those?

The white specks are sheep. I was running with sheep. Sheep, people!

Not easy to see in the photo, but there were lots, and lots of sheep in this pasture. Just up the path there was a tree. In the shade of the tree were easily 3 dozen sheep, ignoring the rest of the flock, in various stages of an early morning nap. They were not nearly as excited to see me as I was to see them. And honestly, their displeasure, and accompanying sideways glances and irritated "Bahs!" made it even more fun as they lumbered to get to their feet and moved just enough to allow me to pass along the path. They so close I could smell the dirt on their damp wooly coats.

For a while the path wound about other small hamlets, down a little path, over a bit of yet another quaint street, and sometimes between properties, leaving a narrow, but inviting passage of wilderness.

But soon, we left even the tiny towns behind and again found, just over a heavily treed ridge, over a rickety and slightly slippery stile, even more open, magnificent countryside.

Simply took my breath away.

Shortly after crossing this valley, at 11 miles, my breath was taken away again, this time by a brutal climb. After a couple miles of gradual uphill came a brutal, steep, sandy, did I mention steep? climb. Half way up, I actually felt a sharp pain in my chest, sharp enough and painful enough to cause me to imagine the tabloid headline "American Flatlander Drops Dead On English Hill, 15 Meters From Top". Luckily I survived, because at the top was the best view of the day, and one of the best of my life.

Unmatched view of the English countryside from way too far up

Marino and I, on top of the hill, 11 miles in, when I was still chipper

This is a good time to mention how great of a host Marino was. Not only did the man plan and play tour guide for this run of a lifetime, he also carried water and food for both of us. Not many people would do that. Take me, for instance... if we're out for a long-ass rugged trail run, you'll be carrying your own water and cereal bars.

Anyway, after a Marino-supplied snack and some Marino-shlepped water, I took one more minute to soak in the majesty, to let it wash over me, and to appreciate how lucky I was to be financially capable to travel to such a place, and physically able to experience it the best way possible, on foot in shorts and running shoes.

Another view from the church at the top of the unholy hill

From the high, literal and emotional, of the church hill, it was downhill, again literally and figuratively. Eleven miles on rough, rolling, and slippery (did I mention it rained like Queen Elizabeth (reign, rain... sorry) most of Saturday) was taking its toll on my legs and spirit.

Our route took as along a river and a wonderfully winding tow path. I'd love to show you more-attractive-than-average readers some pictures of the wonderfully winding tow path and river, but I wasn't in the mood, and not in any condition, to take many pictures. From mile 15 on, it was head down, left, right, get home.

That is, until the bucolic splendor was interrupted by this...

WWII machine gun bunker, aka pillbox

Marino explained that the British had prepared for what they thought was an impending German invasion from the south. Assuming the Nazis would then make a beeline to London, they noted the natural pinch points in the terrain, and built these defense positions to slow the advance, hopefully allowing the British Navy time to circle around and cut off their supply lines before they made it to London. Imagine being one of two, maybe three guys, each with a machine gun and maybe a couple grenades, ordered to slow down the German advance. These guys wouldn't be winning any battles. They were there to annoy the Germans by not dying too quickly. I'm glad it never came to that. I'm glad the river and its tow path weren't scarred by war.

After the pillbox, I was really feeling the miles. The slippery footing was stealing any momentum I could muster, so I decided to try to pick up the pace a bit. Opening up my stride, using different muscles, felt good. It was tough, but it felt good, and felt like we were making progress. Until we came to another stile.

I didn't know it, but this would be the last stile of our run. I was sore, tired as hell, and my legs, hips, and back were tight and cranky. I thought back to just a couple hours previous, back to that first stile, and how impressed I was by its simplify and utility, and how fun it was. For this last one, having surrendered that hard earned pace and momentum, as I dug deep to find the strength and will to lift one leg, and then the other, I told Marino "These stiles are bullshit." He laughed, noting the irony, and knew, as any long distance runner knows, how mood, perception, and opinion change as the miles pile on.

The path on the other side of the last stile,
unofficially named Bullshit Stile

That last stile took us to about mile 18. Marino confessed that he too was hurting, which was a huge relief to me. But then Marino mentioned that we might be a little longer than the planned 19 miles.
He thought it would be just a bit long, but not more than 20. That is not what you want to hear when you're hurting. When every quarter mile feels like a gargantuan effort, when all you want is to be done, you don't want to contemplate the idea that it might be even a foot farther.

It helped that we got to run the streets of Godalming, the quaintest damn town on the planet. I'm not kidding, I'm sure there's a plaque somewhere.

No, this isn't Epcot's England, this Godalming.

At 19.5 miles, both of us running on fumes and Gummy Bears, it was clear that we were more than half a mile away. In this situation, you have a few choices. You can throw in the towel and walk, or cab, the rest of the way in. You can get pissy, which helps nothing. Or you can put your head down, accept that the goal wasn't a number, it was getting back home, and that home isn't moving away from you on purpose just to mess with you. There is a distance to be covered, and it's best to just get to it.

As we turned onto the street, Marino said "There's my car, right there." I grunted something meant to confirm the car sighting, but in reality, I had no idea where his car was. The distance from the corner to his house seemed so much longer than it ever had, including when the GF and I had walked it two days before.

Yet we managed to cover it. Stopped the watch at 21.25 miles, right at 4 hours (total time including snack breaks). Toughest run of my life, other than Tecumseh Trail Marathon. High-fives and in we went for a glass of water. We had just 15 minutes for a quick shower before heading out to a UK Mother's Day feast. As I sat on the bed, half dressed, I was momentarily overwhelmed. If I'd been even slightly better hydrated I probably would have cried. The immense effort of the run, especially the finish, along with the beauty and grandeur, it was just too much to process. It was more than I could have imagined. And yet I'd just lived it.

I tear up a bit just thinking about it.

I'll say it again... There are some things in life that no matter how much you try, you just aren't prepared for. Though I had looked forward to this run for months, I could never have dreamed how fantastically inspiring, enriching, empowering, enlightening, exhausting, invigorating, and memorable it would be.

I would be a total tool if I didn't thank my guide, sherpa, and running buddy Marino for the running adventure of a lifetime. It will be hard to top this one, but we have an idea that might come close.

Thanks also to Marino's fabulous wife Angie for letting Marino go out and play on Mother's Day. And her sister, the GF, for letting me tag along to England with her.

Oh, and before I forget... many have asked... Yes, fountains were defiled!

Buckingham Fountain, just outside the Palace

Trafalgar Square
Good running,

Monday, March 12, 2012

My Don Kardong Story

Last weekend I was freaking out about how little I've been able to train for the last few weeks. Turns out going from moderately low mileage to marathon training... not easy to pull off without aggravating a few muscle groups to the point of mutiny.

My return to the marathon is not going to be quite as glorious as I'd hoped. In fact, it's probably going to hurt a little. Big Sur will be beautiful, inspiring, and most likely long, slow, and kinda painful.

Dwelling on this reminded me of my Don Kardong story.

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to have a few minutes to chat with US running legend Don Kardong.

Don Kardong leading the pack in the 1976 US Olympic Trails 5000

Don Kardong is best known for his wonderfully fun writing about running (think Dave Barry, but in running shoes) and his 4th place finish in the 1976 Olympic Marathon. For those who don't remember, the gold medal for the marathon in 1976 went to an East German who, in this blog we will call Helmut Von Cheaterpants, because he was so juiced for that race that he left a trail of steroid drippings the entire 26 miles, 385 yards.

There were suspicions at the time, like when Helmut ate half a bale of hay in the athlete's village, but confirmation came after The Berline Wall came down and documentation was discovered. Those East Germans were meticulous about their cheating. Don is the rightful bronze medalist, in every way except for having the actual medal. And in the official results. We all hope that Helmut is enjoying his ill-gotten gold medal and that it doesn't accidentally get wrapped too tightly around his cheating throat.

I also hope that Frank Shorter got his silver medal gold plated.

Don Kardong and Bill Rodgers at 1976 Olympics.
Bill: "Helmut just ate an entire apple, in one bite, right out of that little girl's hand."
Don: "He has like 60 carrots in his bag."

Anywho, there I was chatting away with Don Kardong. It was a little surreal. It was like a budding chef bumping into Julia Child in the produce section. Or a Formula Ford driver finding himself on an elevator with Mario Andretti.

My marathon "career" was just starting. I'd run my first and was training for my second. That first one had kicked my ass and given me a crash course in respect for the distance. I was punished for my early-miles cockiness with a final 5 miles of "survival shuffle". Five miles is a long way when you're not sure if your legs will support you for even one more step.

I had been training especially hard for my second marathon, and reading and studying and learning as much as I could about preparing for the distance, mainly because I did not want to go through that torture again.

So, back to the story... I was standing with, and had the undivided attention of, a bonafide (mostly) Olympic medalist in the marathon. We were talking about running and his books and his race, but in the back of my head, I was coming to the realization that I was as close to the fount of marathon wisdom as I was gonna get before the gun went off in Chicago. It was my best chance to mine the vast experience of an international mega-stud. So I waited for the right moment, and asked as cavalierly as I could manage, "So, Don, what do you do when you hit the wall? How do you work through it?"

I was ready for the wisdom. Eyes, ears laser focused. Brain set to Record.

Here's what he said...

"You know, I've never really hit the wall. I'm pretty lucky that way."

... that's when the awkward moment unfolded... me staring at Don, him looking at me, me unable to speak and trying really hard not to show on my face everything I was thinking in my head, four examples of which are:
  • Astonishment ("Wait, what?!? You've never... never?!?"), 
  • Stark and utter surprise ("That is NOT what I was expecting you to say.")
  • Disappointment ("So, there's no magic training regimen or mental imagery to save me from lactic acid hell?"),
  • Jealousy ("I'd give just about anything to be able to run a marathon without hitting that moment when I would rather crawl into the sewer, that's just right there next to the sidewalk, and snuggle up to an unidentifiable sewer-smelling rodent until my everything stopped hurting, than keep running, even though I know that my leg cramps are way too severe and there's no chance I'll be able to bend down and make it into the sewer.").
It never dawned on me. I always assumed that those elites had to deal with the race, the distance, the same as I did. It didn't seem fair. Why didn't they have to feel the pain like we mortals do?

People like Don Kardong are just different than the rest of us. The same way Julia Child and Mario Andretti are.

For a moment I was devastated. I would never run a marathon like Don Kardong. Not only would I never be that fast, but it would never be as "easy" as it was for him.

But then I tried to imagine what it was like to beat everyone in the world except Karel Lismont from Belgium, defending gold medalist Frank Shorter, and a remorseless cheater to the finish line 26.2 miles from where you started.

I remembered the last race I'd actually won, a 600 meter indoor heat race in college... 600 meters against college kids... and how for the last 423 meters of that race I thought I was going to die.

Reality is that a marathon isn't even remotely the same race for elites as it is for us. They are running unimaginably fast for over two hours.

To race a marathon, not run it, but race it, must be excruciating. Those who do race it don't face a singular moment of increased difficulty. For them, it's balls out, from gun to tape. For them, it's really one 26.2 mile wall.

I can't imagine what it must be like to race hard, against the best in the world, pushing so hard, for over 2 hours.

But Don Kardong can't imagine what it feels like to have your quads and calves and hamstrings turn into steel rods 4 miles from the finish, and still trudge on.

And neither of us can imagine what it's like to run, or walk, for 6 hours, finishing the marathon when 97% of your fellow finishers are back at their hotel, showered, dressed, enjoying their 3rd beer.

That's the greatest beauty of the marathon. It's a challenge, monumental challenge, for every one who puts their toe behind that starting line... some of our toes are waaaay behind the line, but we're still there. We're still covering the same distance, at roughly the same time. We're in it together. It's hard for each of us. It's different for each of us.

Every marathon has many runners. Every runner runs their own, unique marathon, right alongside everyone else. And every marathoner understands, and honors, the time, dedication, courage, and fortitude that it takes to make it to the starting line, and to the finish line, no matter how long it takes to get from one to the other.

And for every runner, each marathon is completely different experience. You just never know. You never know if you'll finish, let alone how long it will take, and how you'll feel. You never know what's going to start you laughing out loud, what you'll step in, what will touch your heart, or what's going to make you wonder how you can possibly keep going, or where you'll summon the strength to do just that. You never know what's waiting for you down that blue* line. And that's a pretty cool, if you like that kind of thing.

I spent the weekend moping about the glorious marathon that won't be. Now, I'm anxiously awaiting the marathon that will be, whatever the hell it looks like.

Good running,

"No doubt a brain and some shoes are essential for marathon success, although if it comes down to a choice, pick the shoes. More people finish marathons with no brains than with no shoes."
- Don Kardong

* Your color may vary, but your mileage will not.