Friday, April 23, 2010

"You Are Better Than You Think You Are..."

...were the words I spoke to one of my JV lacrosse team captains last week. She had played the entire 50-minute game--which we lost--without a substitution, and she was dragging out there. She never asked to come out of the game, but one of her teammates was concerned and whispered to me on the sidelines, "Mrs. Speidel, Susie (not her real name) needs to come out---she's tired." After the game, I spoke with Susie and quoted the famous words from the Leadville 100: "You're better than you think you are and you can do more than you think you can." She looked at me and nodded. She got it.

My life passions as a school counselor, lacrosse coach and ultrarunner intersected beautifully at that moment. It usually happens a few times a season and I am grateful each time, as it inspires me and reminds me how much I love what I do all day. I am blessed that I get to wake up each morning to run on trails while the sun is rising, then go to work with students and colleagues whom I adore, and coach the sport that defined me for so many years...and continues to challenge me. When I can bring them all together, and it works, I am giddy.

Today was a day like that. We are at the point in our lacrosse season where we have won some good games and lost some tough ones, and the girls were struggling with the feelings that come from losing more than winning. After an undefeated season last year, it has been hard for this group to experience losing. So it was time for a practice that would shake us out of the doldrums of this long season of ups and downs and bring us together as a team. My inspiration? The Barkley Marathons, of course.

Regular readers of this blog know that lately I have been on a Barkley kick. But this is nothing new. My assistant coaches and players from past years know all about the Barkley, as I have subjected them to "mini-Barkleys" over the years with a lot of fun times looking for missing books and easy trail running. But this year I was determined to challenge the girls to a real-deal "almost Barkley" complete with 4 books with ominous titles, 2+ miles on rugged trails, and a map not drawn to scale. In other words, I wanted to remind them that they are "better than they think they are" and in the process introduce them to one of the great ultramarathons.

So, this morning my assistant coach Kelsey (also an instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School) and I planted the four books around Observatory Hill, which is behind our school and has a wonderful trail system. My favorite book title was "Why Aren't They Screaming?" so we placed this book atop our own version of Rat Jaw (a tough climb at the real Barkley). The other books were placed on the ledge of an abandoned well, under a dilapidated bridge, and in a tree. The girls assembled after school and were placed into three groups which were each led by a coach with a cell phone. Each group had a map that I drew from memory and were given specific instructions to stay together and help one another find all four books. They had to rip a page out of each book corresponding to their group number, and then return to the start/finish with all four pages. The first group back with all four pages was the "winner" and would receive our congratulations...nothing more. Just like at the Barkley.

The groups were a mix of freshmen, sophomores and juniors, new and experienced players, runners and some not-so-into running. The goals of this exercise were to introduce the students to the natural beauty of the trails near our school, to have fun (and get fit) as a team while striving for a common goal and while working together to achieve it, and to discover who, while working with others in a small group, emerge as natural leaders and who prefer to follow. My group was made up of a junior and two freshmen. They followed the map carefully, considering each option but always deferring to the junior (who is also a captain). As a result, they were able to find all four books without losing the trail. I was impressed with how my group asked one another for ideas and suggestions and no one emerged as the only "leader"---instead, they all gave their input and then came to consensus.

Here are a few photos of our version of the Barkley:

Finding Book 1 under the bridge

Looking for Book 2 near the old well

Working together to figure out the where the next book was hidden

Finding Book 4 at the powerlines

The second-place group running uphill to the finish

Kelsey's coon hound, Scout, added Barkley mystique to the day. The Barkley was inspired by James Earl Ray's escape from Brushy Mountain State Prison. It took him 3 days to cover 5 miles of treacherous terrain before being doubt with the help of hounds like Scout.

The other two groups had some difficulty following the map and got off the trail a few times, but each group finished safely with all four pages, and then we went out for ice cream to celebrate.

As we were running back, one of my students commented, "I would feel badly for the person who couldn't finish the Barkley in under the cut-off time after all that hard work. But I guess that's the risk you take, right?"

"Some people "get" the Barkley. Some don't.
But the Barkley is all about leaving the comfort zone.
The Barkley is about taking our chances with failure.
True success is not the absence of failure,
It is the refusal to surrender."

--Lazarus Lake, Barkley Race Director

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Cool Training Runs, Part 4: Rip Rap/Wildcat Ridge in the SNP

View from the Rip Rap/Wildcat Ridge trail looking west toward Massanutten Mountain, which is just peeking over the top of Trayfoot ridge.

Every once in awhile I like to post about my favorite training runs, just in case one of my readers needs a new trail to discover. Over the past few years I have posted on the Priest and Three Ridges, the Wild Oak Trail, and Catawba. All are solid, 5-9 hour outings with tons of climbing, great views and beautiful trail.

This morning Quatro and I ran the Rip Rap/Wildcat Ridge/AT loop in the Shenandoah National Park. This 20+ mile circuit was first introduced to me by VHTRC buddies Greg Loomis and Jeff Wilbur. It's a 25 minute drive from my front door to the trailhead (I know, I know...lucky!). The parking area is at the Sugar Hollow reservoir, which at 7:00am is nearly empty but at 12 noon is usually packed with day hikers and swimmers. This morning temps were in the high 30s at the start and didn't get out of the 50s all morning, so we saw very few swimmers when we returned.

I brought Jack on this run---temps were low enough and there was ample water available along the route. I do envision running this loop a lot in the summer, but in very hot weather it would be prudent to bring water treatment tablets or a filter and pump as the middle section is over an hour without a water source.

Here are some pics of the day...

Sophie and Jack crossing the first of eight medium-sized streams...this is a run where you will get your feet wet.

Looking upstream at the Moorman's River 1996, this entire gorge was flooded and it changed the landscape forever.

Little Blue Hole, a favorite place for swimming (especially for families with young kids), about a mile from the parking area. The rock in the center is a great place to jump off into 5+ feet of water.

Q poses in front of Blackrock Falls, about 3 miles up the trail.

Typical trail

Looking west at the Shenandoah Valley from Chimney Rocks

Cool rock formations at Chimney Rocks

Q poses in front of another fave trail route, the Blackrock/Trayfoot Mountain loop (part of the ridgeline behind him).

Rip Rap gorge

Swimming hole in Rip Rap gorge that was voted "best kept secret swimming hole" by Blue Ridge Outdoors---note the slip n slide into the hole.

The 2 mile climb out of the gorge, which I ran in 27 minutes---great hill training!

Since this was MMT training run #3 in 36 hours for Q, he opted to power hike instead.

The Blue Hole, known around these parts as a fave place for high rock jumping and lots of college student parties. This is at mile 19 of the run---perfect after a hot day on the trail.

The end of the run...the Moorman's River before it dumps into the Sugar Hollow Reservoir downstream.

Overall, a great training run in perfect weather! Here is the link to more details about the Rip Rap/Wildcat Ridge trail.

n.b.: a shout out to my training partner Bill Potts who is running his first Boston Marathon on Monday, then following it up with Promise Land 50K on Saturday...and to my friends Anne and Hallie, wishing them healing thoughts as they recover from injury. Big hugs to you both!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Lessons from The Barkley

photo by Mike Bur

"There was a day when the Barkley runner need go no further than the trailhead to get out of the comfort zone.

You all know about the comfort zone.
That's where most ultras take place.
Running ultras is all about staying in the comfort zone.
All our strategies revolve around staying in the comfort zone.
All our advice is about staying in the comfort zone;

"Start slow"

"Walk every uphill"

"Don't take any chances"

For all the talk about exploring human potential, and seeking our limits, Ultrarunners tend to play it safe.
They line up "challenges" they know they can finish.
And run them carefully
Well within their "limits".
We believe that success is never failing.

At the Barkley success is about over-reaching our abilities,
and living to tell about it.
Sometimes success is getting your ass out alive.

Some people "get" the Barkley. Some don't.
But the Barkley is all about leaving the comfort zone.
The Barkley is about taking our chances with failure.
True success is not the absence of failure,
It is the refusal to surrender.

--excerpt from 2010 Barkley report by Lazarus Lake, Barkley RD

When I read Laz's report last week after inov-8 teammate JB Basham became the 9th finisher of the Barkley Marathons, I started thinking---a lot---about why I run ultras. I have always admired Laz's insights on the intersection of life and ultrarunning. He has a wonderfully poetic way of expressing what many of us think about, and he does a great job of getting us to question our prior assumptions.

When I forwarded this to my buddy Mike Bur---a Last Great Race finisher and Barkley 2.5-looper-- his response was this:

"Normally, we can control many of the aspects of any given event. Part of the Barkley experience, particularly for the virgin, is surrendering that control and availing oneself to the unknown -- that's what holding you back, in my observation."

Yes, I took the bait that Bur left so deftly in the email. I started asking myself if I truly had the guts to let go and surrender to the unknown. It's interesting to look at my race plans for 2010 and see the races I have lined up---all are events I have run before, have comfort in by knowing the course, and all are well within Laz's definition of the comfort zone that I *think* I am leaving when I race... but don't really. what does that say about me as an ultrunner? Bur knows. As a Barker and a Hardrock finisher, he knows that after 8 years of running tough races like Grindstone, Hellgate and Highland Sky, I haven't even begun to stretch myself. That doesn't mean that I have to run the Barkley for that next test, but I am inspired by the spirit of the event like no other. I have read everything I can about its history and traditions, and deeply respect the unspoken "rules" that keep it mysterious and mythical. Its mere presence on the ultra calendar is a reminder that I need to get off some of the candy ass trails I love so much and take a chance on failing.

If you need some inspiration on stretching yourself as a person and as a runner, read a bit about the Barkley. I am grateful there is an event out there that honors the old time ways of our sport and challenges its participants to strive for excellence (even if it takes many years---and failure), and to let go and live.

"You don't have to go to Barkley to "get it".
"it" is nothing more than putting something on the line
taking a chance and trying to do something you do not know for certain you can do.

There is no success
if failure is not in the mix.

And this is why the "sick-o's" keep applying and re-applying at Barkley. This is why there are so many requests for so few slots. This is why those lucky 35 strap it on and march into a hellish ordeal with a smile on their face and a song in their heart.

Because we are never so alive as when we put it all on the line. And at Barkley the only guarantee is that you will be pushed beyond your limits. Everything is on the line."

--Lazarus Lake

Endurance Planet's podcast interview with JB Basham--very good

A repeat of Endurance Planet's podcast of "The Marathon No One Could Finish" based on Blake Wood's essay in Running Through The Wall---also very good.

Matt Mahoney's Barkley page with photos---addicting