Friday, January 31, 2014

Unlocking the Magic & Mystery Behind Sean O'Brien - 50 Mile Course Notes

Ah, my boy Sean O'Brien.  Friend.  Fellow trail running junkie. Dog lover.  Uphill fiend.
SOB The Man. The Legend. The Uprising.
We are all so excited that Keira Henninger is a tenacious 100 mile mountain runner because if not, this SoCal gem of a race wouldn't exist.  We were all devastated by the Springs Fire last year that wiped out about 80% of the park that the amazing Ray Miller 50/50 happened in.  The trails in Pt Mugu (northern Santa Monica Mountains park area that Ray Miller happened in) are all still in decent shape, albeit everything around them is charred.

Enter Sean O'Brien.

Keira & Sean
Anyone who knows Sean, loves Sean.  I hope you all get a chance to shake his hand, high five him or give him a sweaty hug on race day.  He's a dog loving trail runner (Arlington, one of his pups, can go for a 15-25 mile run and probably logs an extra 5 miles of out-and-backs sniffing around), and may be the nicest dude you'll ever meet in the middle of nowhere on a long trail run in the San Gabriel Mountains, Santa Monica Mountains or any other mountain range within a 30-90 min drive of LA. Sean is one of those people that would stop in a race and give you the shirt off his back if you needed it.    You'll also find him on nearly every nasty staircase in the greater LA area, as he just loves to fight gravity.  For those of you who've heard of a nasty little race called the Los Pinos, Keira designed a route that she said would be impossible to run every step of.  So Sean did just that on a test run, and finished it smiling.  As nice as Sean is, he's notorious for inviting friends out for "I don't know, about 17-ish miles" and you'll come back to your cars 24 miles later out of water cursing his name again!  "Damn you, SOB, you did it to us again!"

Sean and Arlington on the trails together!
Welcome to the first year of what's going to end up being one of the most magnificent 50 mile races in the country.  Challenging and extended climbs (for the Santa Monicas).  Majestic ridgeline views of the Pacific.  Rolling canopied single track on the most legendary trail in this range, the Backbone.  Malibu Creek State Park to Zuma Canyon and back.  It's a semi straight forward "lollipop course" (an out and back with a loop in the middle), but really, the 50 mile race is better described as a "suckers course."

After test running this full route in mid-October, I've gone back and run every section of the course, out and backs, hitting each section semi fresh, with time to really think about what it did to me in October.  I'm excited for this race, and I'm a little bit in awe of it.  I've always been in awe of Sean, so I guess this course strikes up a similar love, respect and awe in me.

Sean O'Brien 50 mile - elevation profile

Here's how I break down the 50 mile course!

BLACK writing applies to ALL 3 race distances.
PURPLE writing applies to 50k & 50 miler.
RED writing applies to 50 miler only.

I only included major aid stations, not minor ones, nor water only top off spots.  What you'll find on the Sean O'Brien 50 website course breakdown will differ, slightly.

I round off to approximate half mile marks (as they apply to 50 mile race), and make no claims whatsoever as to what your GPS watch will say at designated points.  If you're running 50k or marathon, do a little math and you'll work out your aid station (and section) distances.

START NOTE: For those of you not familiar with early mornings at Malibu Creek State Park, it'll be cold (for California) and will be/feel 20-30 degrees lower between 4-6am than what our afternoon ridgeline temps will be.  Plan for 35-40 degrees at race check in, whereas the ridges later in the race could achieve 60-70 degrees (if not overcast).

Start (Malibu Creek State Park) to Mile 2
Double track - wide enough to pass
After a short stint on paved road, you transition to a rocky/dirt road, then to a double-track trail up and over a little hill you might not even notice (on the way out, on the way back, that nasty f**ker will feel twice as steep and three times as long).  Take note of the short little downhill around Mile 1 because you'll see it again around mile 48.5 as a hill I affectionately call "the Angry Chihuahua" otherwise known as the prison camp climb. Coming off that double-track, you'll transition to another dirt road, zig-zag across a flowing creek (everyone is going to have wet shoes, I promise) and you'll start the first climb of significance of the day.

Mile 2 to Mile 7 (Corral Canyon Aid Station #1)
Nick & I hiking/running up typical fire road climb here
Climb, climb and climb some more.  Something in the neighborhood of 1,500+ feet in around 3 miles, then some rollers into the first aid station, Corral Canyon.  Most of the climb is semi rocky fire road.  Wide, with some golfball to baseball sized sharp kickable stones.  There's a fun section of non fire road after most of the climbing that connects you to the aid station and runs through/over some sweet looking sandstone formations.  You're there after the second one of these sandstone formations.

Mile 7 Corral Aid to Mile 13.5 (Kanan "Coyote" Aid Station #2)
Coyotes navigating the single track rollers
This would be my favorite stretch of trail in the race.  Not the most amazing views of the race, but the most fun stretch of single track rollers past Castro Peak (a great visual reference point, the peak with communication towers, antennas, etc.).  You'll run about 4 miles from the aid station until you dump out in a dirt parking lot and cross over Latigo Canyon Rd (please be careful, this is the only road you cross in the race, and you cross it twice).  After Latigo crossing, you have another 2.5 miles of single track gradually rolling down and occasionally up to reach the Kanan Aid Station.  The last 200 meters into this check point is a rocky, rutted, semi technical drop into the parking lot.  Get too caught up in the commotion below and you might need medical attention for scrapes at the aid station.  This is the MARATHON TURNAROUND point.  This is a DROP BAG station.

AID STATION NOTE TO THE GUYS IN 50 MILER: if you aren't in competition for TOP 3 overall, please be aware of the top females and allow them to get helped at the aid station before you.  They might have Top 3 Western States aspirations on the line.  30 seconds to you won't likely mean very much, but 30 seconds to them could be the difference in their race.  Be a gentleman, you're not competing with them.
Sean O'Brien at Kanan "Coyote" Aid Station area

Mile 13.5 Kanan Aid Station to Mile 16 (50k turn around) - water only (take water only if necessary)
More joyful, mostly rolling, semi canopied single track!  You'll run 2.5 miles of winding, canyon and dry creek flanking single track.  You'll get to the connection of the Backbone Trail (the trail you've been running on for 14 miles) and the Zuma Ridge Motorway.

Mile 16 to Mile 19 (Zuma Edison Intersection Aid Station #3)
Do not enter.  Watch for vehicles to/from BR Ranch.
You'll turn left heading uphill for a quick 1.5 mile climb.  Every twist and turn of Zuma Ridge Mtwy will yield a unique view giving you a panoramic perspective in each direction (important note: it's possible there will be a vehicle or three that will cross your path on this stretch between the BBT single track and the top of this climb, please be aware and courteous, these vehicles have the right-of-way, as they are graciously allowing us to use this road).  After the 1.5 mile fire road climb, you'll pass Buzzard's Roost Ranch and begin the most epic descent of the 50 mile course.  With a very brief respite from the descent around 1.5 miles down, you'll reach the next aid station.  Everything you've run to this point, you'll run again in reverse, after you complete the lollipop/suckers part of this loop that double dips into Zuma Canyon.

Mile 19 Zuma Edison Intersection Aid #3 to Mile 23 (Bonsall Aid Station #4)
This pic just won't do it justice.
Down, down, down we go!  Be careful not to get carried away on this section.  It's a lot of fire road and great views of the Pacific (unless foggy/raining/overcast).  When you're about 3 miles down, you'll transition from the fire road across a parking lot left onto a very dusty horse trail single track.  You've got about a mile to the Bonsall Aid Station!  Head toward the ocean (west) and you'll end up at the Bonsall Aid Station. This is a DROP BAG station.

Mile 23 Bonsall Aid Station to Mile 31.5 (Zuma Edison Intersection Aid #5)
Grinder of a climb
It is important to acknowledge here that you are in Zuma Canyon, the lowest point on the course.  Race starts around 500-ish feet of elevation and you are now at around 25-ish feet of elevation.  From Mile 23 to Mile 43, two thirds of the next 20 miles will be climbing, and about one third will be flat or down.  Buckle up, buttercup, it's going to be a tough go (but you're a tough mutha-effer, so get to it).  This next 8.5 miles will likely be one of the most challenging sections of the entire course.  You have a half mile of flat in Zuma Canyon to get to the climb, then you're going to climb via a switch-backing series of single track trails, this is about a 4-ish mile ascent with a few breaks in it.  As soon as you achieve the ridge and connect to Zuma Edison Road, where the single track becomes fire road again, you're going to dive into the back of Zuma Canyon.  This is one of the two most steep descents of the race (loosing some 600-800 feet in one mile), watch those quads.  After a two mile crushing descent, you're now staring down the most significant climb of the race.  You'll be able to spot Buzzard's Roost Ranch while running down those two miles, and that marks the top of the climb.  You may like looking at it (knowing where the climb ends) and you might not want to look at it (it'll seem forever away).  You have a 2 mile switch back on fire road climb to the Zuma Edison Intersection Aid, your 2nd trip here, now the whole course is the way back from whence you came!

Mile 31.5 Zuma Edison Intersection Aid (Part II) to Mile 34.5 "50k Turnaround"
Center off in distance, Ray Miller 50 course, Tri Peaks and Sandstone Peak
You have the final 1.5 miles to get to Buzzard's Roost Ranch via the Zuma Ridge Mtwy, of which about 1 mile is actual climbing.  Then a 1.5 mile fire road descent to the 50k turnaround intersection with the Backbone Trail single track. Looking to the north while descending from BR Ranch, you'll be able to see the Tri Peaks from here, near Sandstone Peak which is where the Ray Miller 50 mile course came out to run past and turn around.  By the Backbone Trail, it's about 10-15 miles away to reach the Ray Miller Course from here.  Fill one water bottle with water here if you're dry, otherwise press on.

Mile 34.5 "50k Turnaround" to Mile 37 (Kanan "Coyote" Aid Station #6)
Press on to the Kanan aid station only 2.5 miles down the rolling windy single track.  From Mile 34.5 to Mile 43, you're going to be rolling, trending slightly upward more often than not.  It's really runnable stuff if you managed your calorie intake, fluids and electrolytes, not to mention were conservative enough with your effort level.  I was surprised how difficult I found this section to run, which was mostly mental bonking when I ran it in October.  Arrive at Kanan Aid Station and tank up!  This is a DROP BAG station.  It is important to have a FLASHLIGHT or HEADLAMP in this bag if you will finish anytime after 4pm.  Better to have one and not need it than need a light an not have it.

REMINDER NOTE TO THE 50 MILER GUYS: by this point, you're probably pretty clear who the Top 5 women are if you're around them.  Something I love to do here is help them!  Encourage them.  Let them in front of you at the aid station.  If they achieve their goal of a States slot, and you really supported them, you've made a new friend on the trails.  Never know when you'll need some of that trail karma.

Mile 37 Kanan Aid Station to Mile 43.5 (Corral Aid Station #7)
Heading back towards Corral through this
You are again trending upward on rolling single track trail.  2.5 miles of this upward trend, you'll cross over Latigo Canyon Rd (BE MINDFUL OF CARS, BIKES, TRUCKS, etc. especially now that you're delirious, and especially if it's dark out).  You are 4 miles from the last major checkpoint.  One little tough climb up to flank Castro Peak, then you'll roll 3 ish miles to the Corral Aid Station again!

Mile 43.5 Corral Aid Station to the FINISH LINE!
Descending rock formations with 6-ish miles to go, Pacific Ocean views
You have about 1.5 to 2 miles of rollers, first on single track, then on fire roads before the plunge.  The plunge is good news OR bad news depending on how your legs are feeling.  You're going to have a pretty brutally steep 2.5 mile descent (one mile will lose 700 feet) on rocky fire road.  When you go from fire road onto single track, you've got about a mile to go (until the creek crossing).  You're legs will likely be pretty unsure at this point so I recommend going straight through the creek.  Careful not to turn an ankle!  Once you're through the creek crossing, you've got a little more than 2 miles to go.  About 2/3'rds of a mile to that "Angry Chihuahua" I warned you about earlier.  The prison camp climb (Angry Chihuahua) is about a half mile, but it might seem like 1.5 miles at this point.  The moment you achieve the saddle atop this climb, almost precisely one mile to go!  Run a half mile down the double track and you'll hit the gravel parking lot and fire road, a quarter mile to the paved road and a quarter mile to the FINISH LINE!  Wooooohoooo!  Hit the pavement and finish it strong!

You made it!!!  High five, sweaty hug and celebrate life with some other rad peeps!

*Be courteous to your other racers
*If you're on single track and someone comes up behind you, ask them if they'd like to pass, let them go and worry about catching up later, or tuck in and hang with them for a while
*If you are having a low moment and choose to listen to music, one earbud must be out and the music must be low enough to communicate with other runners, hear rattlesnakes, etc.
*Have fun!

"It's very hard in the beginning to understand that the whole idea is not to beat the other runners.  Eventually you learn that the competition is against the little voice inside you that wants to quit."
-George Sheehan

I wish you all your best race out there.  Make sure you ALL meet Sean O'Brien.  In fact, stop him during the race for a sweaty hug and chat him up.  I'd really like to finish ahead of him and the more of you do that, the better my chances are...  *playful wink*
Sean whooping my butt again, Avalon 50, 2011

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

10 Ways Running 100 Miles Over Mountains is like a Weekend in VEGAS!

I saw Little Miss Sunshine (yes, for the first time) a couple nights ago.  It's the second film I've seen in the past few months with a speaker who doesn't live his message (Donnie Darko was the other).  I know I'm not Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze's charater) nor am I Richard Hoover (although I'm not too far off of Richard Hoover's "don't stop, no matter what the circumstances dictate" mantra), but sometimes I worry about losing my audience being overtly content & happy many days.  Henceforth, I'm going to work to integrate this blog into three types of posts:

1- life lessons (stemming from the adversity I've faced)
2- adventurous stories (tall tales, many running related)
3- silly perspective posts (every so often to lighten the mood)

It's going to be a unique soup of posts, but there you have it.  I'm all over the place sometimes, so this will better represent me too.  Without further ado...

10. Some people stop in the light of day, but many will be pulling an all nighter.

9. Waking up the morning after, we all ask ourselves why we just did that to ourselves.
"Never, ever again!  This time I mean it!  For reals!"

8. The longer we keep going, the less we seem to care when we throw up on a friend, on our shoes or in one of our own bags (shout out to Puck!).

7. Friends always make it more fun.  They can also validate and legitimize your stories of what really happened.

6. Aid station hopping can be just as fun as club/bar hopping.

5. After a crazy night, all we want to do the next day is lounge by the pool.

4. You're either going to have a good time, a great horror story, or both. Chances are you'll see some $#!^ you've never seen before.

3. The wetter you get, often times, the better the story is... TWSS?

2. You might have a crazy naked dude *chase you with a crowbar.
*In the 100, you're probably just hallucinating. Probably.

1. the cougars love the night life!
(Photo Credit: Steve Winter/National Geographic)

BONUS: you might end up passing out on the bathroom floor in either.

Photo Credit: Coach Jen Vogel - 

BONUS: in both, there's always a photo or two we hope doesn't end up on social media!
What is Chamoun doing here???
Don't worry Chamoun, this isn't my best look either.

What have you experienced in a 100 miler (or Vegas) that you can relate to both activities!?  Hope you enjoyed the list...

Monday, January 27, 2014

Overemphasis on Training in 100 Mile Trail Run Prep - Angeles Crest 100 Lessons 2006-2014

"Nothing on Earth can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on Earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude."
-Thomas Jefferson

BAD ATTITUDE 101 - Angeles Crest 2006 at Eagle's Roost
I am not the most qualified person to be telling you how to train for a 100 mile mountain race.  I am not fast, and am lucky to crack the Top 25 of a deep race field.  I don't even log high mileage all that often (number of weeks in 2013 over 70 miles = 6, number of 100+ mile weeks not including a week with a 100 mile race in 2013 = 0).  I have even coached runners for Angeles Crest (and various other 100 milers) that have failed to finish their respective races (don't ask about my Dave 'Comet' Chan story, please).  There are many more qualified AC experts out there.

All that aside, you have found this blog entry (so pull up a chair and stay a moment).  I'm here to present a perspective that I've been chewing on for a few years now, something I've struggled to fully grasp or articulate, but it crystallized in a conversation with a fellow student of 100 milers, and someone far more credible than I (who will likely blog on this very topic in the near future *nudge, nudge* ).

Okay, I lied, look how pretty I am here.
Running 100 miles (or "migrating 100 miles", to quote my fellow blogger Ashley) in a single day is a brutal challenge.  It tests us physically and psychologically, sometimes to the very fabric of our being.  It strips us of all excess energy, to the point where all facades fall away and we're left raw and emotive, just a primal being often going off of pure grit and gut instinct.  In my case this is often not a pretty sight.  For some of my closest friends it is a time to fully enjoy the show, as I behave in ways I might not want to be seen behaving at any other time (at least publicly).  I might throw a tantrum or two. I sometimes complain. I often puke. Sometimes I even cry like a baby.  And hold on to your seat for this one, there are instances I am dead quiet for extended periods of time.  *GASP!*

Chamoun leads Gleason up Williamson - AC 2012
I'd estimate in all of the training programs I've personally executed over the last 12 years preparing for marathons and longer races, my two most dedicated, high mileage, most focused training programs were in 2006 training for my first Angeles Crest 100 Miler and in 2008/2009 training for the Western States 100.  Interestingly enough, until I tried to run my 2nd hundred miler in a 2 week period (AC/Leadville back-to-back in 2013), both AC '06 and States '09 were my two most difficult 100 milers (see: most frequent low points, most death marching, and highest cumulative time in aid stations).  I don't care if you finish these races in 18 hours (or faster) or 30 hours, to me, speed is relative and it is an impressive feat of courage (and foolishness) to even toe the line of one of these monster mountain endurance runs.  Conversely, two races I probably had the least consistent training for, AC '13 and Rocky Raccoon '10, I had some of my better times.  Yes, those are wildly different events. I suffered tremendously at AC last year due to my lack of training (and other influencing factors), but I ran times I consider to be good for me at those two events (with less than ideal training).  This had me examining some of the finer points of 100 mile race prep with many friends of mine who have a depth of personal experience at 100 miles.  Leading up to a conversation between Pam, Kate and I, about interesting and notable performances on less than ideal training earlier this week.

As far as I'm concerned, this hypothesis could apply to the Pam Smith's (see: runners who win races) just as much as it does athletes who are fighting cutoffs for a high percentage of the race, and everyone in between.  Granted, the athlete who has less than ideal training might not be competitive for a win in today's deeper fields of competitors since most elites I've read up on now consider every element of what I'm about to talk to you about.

DISCLAIMER: I do not intend to insinuate that an athlete does not have to train very much to finish a 100 mile race.  Training up to this distance is essential.  Doing so intelligently, patiently (over an extended period of time), and consistently over race specific terrain is ideal.  The goal should be arriving at the starting line healthy, rather than "how many times can I run 100 miles in my weekly training" no matter the consequences.

HYPOTHESIS:  a great many athletes, especially first timers, place a dramatic overemphasis on training in prep for a 100 mile mountain race

To say this another way: many of us focus so much on cumulative weekly miles, running fast, running up steep terrain, tempo runs, speed work, stair repeats, strength training and getting physically ready that we overlook some pretty essential aspects of 100 mile racing (not to say we're all racing, but 100 miles in an event is distinct from just going out to do 100 miles on your own with no time constraints).

What often gets overlooked when training is overemphasized:
Checklists of everything I could possibly anticipate: AC 2012 edition
*Nutrition - both day-to-day diet influencing metabolic efficiency and effective race day nutrition strategies
*Mental Strategies - conditioning ourselves to think in a way that empowers and inspires our best effort, learning to deal with the inevitable and often devastating lows of a 100 mile run.  This can include mantras, anticipation of difficulty and acceptance of certain problematic scenarios.
*Hydration/Electrolyte Replenishment - there are many schools of thought here, but often athletes don't even consider how little (or how much) they're drinking or how an electrolyte imbalance might affect their race
*Pacing Plan vs Exertion Plan - you might think to yourself here, "nope, I always have a pacing plan" and that's one of my key points: we are often more focused on some target race time than actually adjusting to the effort/exertion level that is appropriate at that moment based on the signals our body is sending us, which can be greatly affected by conditions (heat, altitude, wind, terrain, humidity, etc.).  This doesn't just mean running too fast, it's sometimes being too conservative.
*Attitude - I hold this one slightly distinct from "mental strategies" although it is closely related.  A positive mentality can sometimes help us look at the same (sometimes ugly) circumstances and instead of panicking or having an emotional breakdown, we can smile and laugh about it.

"Do as I say, not as I do." -  IPA & a donut???
I'm the last person who can tell you what you should be doing for nutrition, but for many athletes, it seems to be almost an afterthought.  Fueling strategies implemented on race day aren't tried-and-true for most.  Sometimes, athletes that have something they've practiced a ton in training goes haywire on race day because of aid station grazing (those candies and cookies look great, I'll have a couple).

Hydration and electrolyte replacement is really personal.  There are some diametrically opposed schools of thought here on how much one should drink and whether one should supplement with electrolytes or not.  Again, if you've given no thought to it, it's just guesswork.  It's amazing that so many athletes spend a year planning to run 100 miles, pouring hours into physical training each week, many more hours just thinking about it, without consideration for anything specific here.

Pacing plans: here's the thing, if you are seeking to finish your first 100 mile race, finishing will be a PR.  Some athletes get so caught up in buckling, going for sub-24's, and completely ignoring the redline signals because of pace splits for a goal time that they sacrifice the finish.  And it has proven to be a grotesque oxymoron for me (and dozens of the athletes I train) that when I focus on everything but my splits, I run my fastest time.  When I focus on my time splits, I fall off them pretty quickly and then have to deal with my negative emotions around that early failure.

"Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference."
-Winston Churchill

Hurting: Mile 52 at AC in 2011. Attitude shift necessary.
Attitude/Mentality: I remember a few years back being too sick to start the Lake Sonoma 50 Miler, on race day I ended up working race check in and helping build the finish line area.  I got to cheer a few Coyotes and a few other friends across the finish line.  I remember one girl in particular who finished mid-pack and threw a tantrum to her friends, "That was the worst day of my life!" she sobbed.  I sat there awestruck.  Wait, didn't you just finish 50 miles?  What about the people still out there, behind you?  What about the people who DNF'd today?  I will never know this girl's name, but she taught me an amazing lesson that day: embrace the hurt locker.  I went on to Angeles Crest that summer (four months later) and every time I felt miserable, I thought to myself "I'm still moving forward at a decent clip, it could be worse, I'm so grateful to be out here doing this..." and it changed my race.  Without very much race specific training that summer, I ran my fastest AC100 time.  A huge part of that was my perspective shifting.  I put a lot of thought into it beforehand.  How am I going to feel out there?  Probably pretty crappy at some point, but that's what I signed up for.

In summary, there are so many pieces to traveling 100 miles on foot, in a single go.  Training may be a key piece of that, but if you don't consider every other piece, you might just be throwing a lot of that training down the drain.

Another parting shot, a clip of the conversation between Pam, Kate and I:
Pam - "So, how fast do you have to run to go sub-24 in 100 miles?"
JDF - "You gotta run 12-13 minute miles, depending on how much time is wasted in aid. Overall 14:30-ish average."
Pam - "Right. So really, how fit does one have to be to maintain 12-13 minute pace?"
JDF - "Depends on the course, I guess?"
Pam - "Sure, but don't you think it's not often the pace that sabotages one's sub-24 goal, but rather, poor nutrition plans, sour stomachs, and not being ready for the low points (mentally)?"
JDF - "Interesting point, Pam..."
Mr. & Mrs. Smith (photobomb by yours truly)
There's a good chance you'll see Pam on the starting line at Angeles Crest this year with a personal vendetta against AC.  I met Pam in 2010 at AC, at Mile 42.  She was trying to drop out and her husband Mac persuaded me to convince Pam to continue.  So she dropped out at the first aid station that was crew inaccessible.  Coincidentally, it was the aid station where I branded myself with my first ever DNF too, Mile 49, the Mt. Hillyer checkpoint.  Whether there in 2014 or not, I'm betting on Pam to finish her next AC...

My Angeles Crest 100 History in finishing (or DNF) photos:

2006 - Finish, 26:27
2007 - DNF at Mile 49

2011 - Finish,   23:51  (first AC silver)

2012 - Finish, 22:38
2013 - Finish, 23:39
2014 - ????
No idea what this year holds in store, but I know Angeles Crest will hypothetically be my 4th 100 mile race inside of 2 months (June 7 - August 2).  I'm ready to be schooled again by one of my favorite mountain ranges anywhere... and I'll be hitting the starting line leaving no stone unturned...

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Overcome Your Biggest Fears - Commitment vs Fear Exercise

"The hero is no braver than an ordinary man - but he is brave five minutes longer."
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

More than a decade ago (1996-2000 time frame), I was consumed by my fear of things not turning out in my life.  I was hesitant, apprehensive, and worrisome.  I had been telling myself for 5 years that I would make the move from the San Francisco Bay Area to Los Angeles, and hoped I'd run a marathon someday (yes, my first marathon).  I was also in a holding pattern in my romantic relationships.  
One day I woke up sick and tired of being stopped by my fear.  Not long after having these thoughts 9/11/01 happened providing me a defining moment of courage.  Sometime between then and now, many people started relating to me as fearless.  That perception couldn't be further from the truth, as I am as terrified as I always was.
Sometimes fear seems so much bigger than we are.

So, an ostrich walks into a bar...
While I am indeed someone who routinely runs extreme mountain and desert races, I took a 6 year turn as a stand up comic (not that I was ever really funny), married the girl of my dreams after 7 years of trying to convince her I was the guy of her dreams (I guess I'm still trying to convince her), and I willingly get up in front of large groups of strangers to give speeches (check out this awesome USA Today Money article on taming public speaking fears), the one thing that is a constant is that I am still very much afraid.

I fear failing at the things most important to me.  I fear people not liking me.  I fear those not liking me being vocal in their disapproval (the cliche unhappy cool kids at school talking behind your back in a mean spirited way).  I fear trying to inspire people (and having them walk away uninspired).  I fear being judged (harshly).  I fear running 100 miles (and not finishing or worse, walking away not able to run due to injury).  I fear the failure of my relationship.  I fear sadness, due to my past battles with depression.  I have a lot more to lose today than I did in the late 90's and early 2000's.  Being older (maybe wiser) I understand the consequences of my actions (and not following through on things).  I feel the emotional impact of letting people down a lot deeper than before.  My anxiousness and fears have only escalated.

The very serpent that helped me overcome my fear of snakes in 2006.
I turned a corner in my life in late 2000, where I realized that there may be no place where I feel more alive, than when confronting my greatest fears, and when facing my darkest demons. When facing one's fear, there arises a sense of power you can not experience while armchair quarterbacking your favorite reality TV show. When you are out in life doing (rather than thinking about doing) you are experiencing life real time, you are more present, more alive and turned on, plugged in and vital. This, my friends, is what life could be about.  It is what I've made my life about.

It took me years to learn the tough lessons of what ignoring my fear (especially of failure) creates in my life.  I still experience breakthroughs in this area from time to time.  Last Sunday was another example of this for me.  It's interesting how having your life flash before your eyes brings crystal clarity about what's important to you and how precious and fragile life really is.  It can all change in a second.  A single moment can bring us to our knees.

Together 12 years, married for 5 so far!
What fear is presently holding you back? Are you not asking for a promotion? Are you wanting to switch jobs or even careers?  Are you not signing up for your dream race (the one that terrifies you)? Are you not telling a special friend how you really feel about them? Are you not taking calculated risks towards what your soul desires, what you crave to feel fully alive???

**Imagine me shaking you by the shoulders right now, SHAKING YOU VIGOROUSLY**

WAKE UP, MY FRIEND!!! Your life is right now, today, happening this very moment. Why are you wasting it empowering your fears!?!?

I have a little game I remind myself of when I realize I've become complacent.  Sometimes I over think and rationalize my inaction.  It is a simple mental reframing of commitment vs fear.  We are either more committed to what we want to create in life, or we are hiding behind our fear.  It's an either or thing.  There comes an aha moment when you realize that overcoming our fear doesn't mean being fearless, as courage is really defined by acting in the face of our greatest fears.  The larger and deeper the fear runs, the more courageous the act.  We all have more courage than we can possibly imagine.

So, are you going to be committed to your dreams and desires, or will you empower your fears?  The choice seems simple, but only action solidifies that commitment.

"There are those of us who are always about to live. We are waiting until things change, until there is more time, until we are less tired, until we get a promotion, until we settle down / until, until, until. It always seems as if there is some major event that must occur in our lives before we begin living."
-George Sheehan

I invite you to do something today that scares you.  Yes, even that very thing you've been avoiding.  The thing you are hiding out from.  Life is shorter than we relate to it being.  Fear puts the soul to sleep, except when we are facing it.  If you're reading this, I love you. I believe in you.  It will feel really good to no longer be captive to that fear.  Do it.  Come on, you can, I promise you can.

Now go take on some dragons.

Each accomplishment  is merely the starting point of another dream.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Meeting My Maker on a Sunday Night - My Aron Ralston Near Miss

"The word adventure has gotten overused. For me, when everything goes wrong, that’s when adventure starts."
-Yvon Chouinard

I am so glad you are reading this blog entry.  Let me rephrase that, I am so glad I am sitting at my computer on a Monday and am not presently buried beneath dense foliage in a ravine with a broken leg, or worse.  It was a rough night, last night...
NOT A THROUGH TRAIL - that sign is for other people... not for me!
I've been running my whole life.  I have come to develop an identity problem which is to say, I can't imagine myself not running.  I can't even imagine identifying as something else.  My wife Kate is struggling with that identity challenge right now (she broke her right leg and had surgery in November), and I'm doing all I can to support her emotionally and physically through it (stopping just short of running way less myself so she's not confronted by that reality).  It is one of the greatest challenges we've yet faced as a couple.  Sometimes we're both worn down emotionally, and we get into a fight over absolutely nothing (bear with me, this sets something else up).  We have recently fought over navigation, missing part of a hockey game, leaving the house on time, and an online GoPro order.  Seriously folks, these fights might have had a deep undercurrent of something else, but they were fights about absolutely nothing of substance.  Nothing essential, nor important.  The last two fights we had were back-to-back nights (Friday & Saturday) and combine with that my not running nor working out since Thursday, come Sunday I was in a bad, overly emotional, and mentally dark place.

So I went out for a run Sunday mid afternoon.  I didn't know how far or for how long I'd be gone, but I knew I needed something long to clear my head.
Backbone Trail selfie, almost one of my last photos...
Last bit of sunlight fades away... this is getting interesting.
It's around 4:45pm, Sunday, January 12, 2014.  The sun has long since disappeared over Temescal Ridge & Cathedral Rock, and I'm buried in a canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains, part of the north splintering of Rustic Canyon.  I have taken a horribly wrong turn.  Wandering up a creek bed I thought was part of the old (and heavily overgrown) Bay Tree Trail, I got stuck where landslides have boxed the creek in, so I start to climb out & around it.  I find myself on the side of a crumbling rocky hillside utilizing plants & branches to not fall down the steep slope.  At one point, every brittle, dry piece of chaparral is breaking off in my hands, no matter how thick or deeply rooted it seemed.  The rock starts to crumble under my trail shoes and I notice that there's nothing to catch my fall before about a 4-story (60 foot?) drop into the rocky creek bed below.  Looking off into the distance, I'm probably 3/4's of a mile from any real trail.  I don't have my cell phone.  I don't have a light.  Nobody knows where I am.  "Genius, Jimmy! Absolute genius,"  I say to myself.  My last bit of ambient daylight is fading like a K-mart beach towel.  I feel the hair on the back of my neck stand up.  I must start carefully calculating every movement, and at the same time, if I stay in the same spot too long, the hill will crumble beneath my 180+ lbs. and give way to big air.  I force myself to keep moving and mentally brace myself for the worst.

Trying not to achieve a similar fate, unsettling at best.
Thankfully, I'm not panicking, but I am acutely aware that if I fall, I'm very likely going to be too injured to crawl out, in a place inhabited by at least one mountain lion (I've discovered lion scat and deer skat on the game trail I'm now crawling up to get to the ridge).  After crawling sideways and upwards for at least 45 minutes, breaking branches to climb towards the ridge line, I end up in a clearing (relief).  With two large sets of bones (relief just left the building).

"When I've lost my way or when I am confused about a path to take, I remember that most answers I need I already possess – deep inside. I am naturally creative, resourceful and whole. If I consult my invisible compass, I’ll know what to do."
-Steve Goodier

Estimated route = GREEN / Incidents = YELLOW
The sun is now gone but atop this ridge I'm getting a little light from a relatively full moon (full moon is 3 days later).  I start to realize crawling through this game trail at dusk (in darkness) probably isn't a great strategy anymore.  I can see the lights of the San Fernando Valley about 1.5 to 2 miles to the north, but would have to drop into another canyon/ravine to get there.  I resolve to keep climbing and to stay standing as much as I can to avoid looking like the prey of a cougar.  I climb through multiple brier patches and stop occasionally to pick a half dozen to dozen thorns out of my hands.  I'm still not panicking, but I'm wondering if I should hunker down and wait for daylight.  I have half a bottle of water left, a 200 calorie granola bar, and my legs are starting to cramp from the fatigue of forcefully climbing through (and over) dense vegetation.  After what seems like 2 hours, but is probably in reality 75-90 minutes of dusk, I reach the ridge line above Fire Road 30 (a single track trail we jokingly call Flyer Road 30), one of my favorite lesser known paths in the Santa Monica Mountains.  I am overcome with emotion.  Not really joy, but rather, a profound relief that I'm not hurt, and I'm not spending the night facing the fears I was just crawling out of a canyon with.  I dump the rocks and dirt out of both shoes and start to piece together how I'm going to get home.  At the very least, I feel safe again.
First photo after crawling out of the unknown.

Looking homeless, dirty, cut & bruised.
I have always had a rule to not drink when I'm upset, angry or depressed.  I have a new rule now to not go trail exploring when in that same space.  When I went running yesterday, I didn't know where I was going to go.  I didn't know for how long, nor how far I was going to run.  As I ran up Sullivan Ridge, I made up my mind to do a loop that dropped into Murphy's Ranch, climbed J-Drop then the section of the Backbone Trail known as Rogers Road, take Temescal Ridge to the Hub Junction, drop down Fire Road 30 to Bent Arrow connecting to Dirt Mulholland, then run that to Sullivan Ridge, and drop back down to my car.  I estimate this loop to be something between 15-18 miles.  When I reached the upper part of Rogers Road, there's a drop down trail back into Rustic Canyon called Bay Tree.  I've always wanted to explore it, and know 2-3 people who have.  I thought, "I know there will be some bushwhacking, I know there's not much daylight left, but what the hell, it's only a couple of miles!"  I had a secondary intuitive sense that said, "this is gonna be an adventure" and I thought, "hell yeah, I'm ready for an adventure!"

My skin is gashed and bruised all over, this is one small sample.
This was the part where I greatly erred.  I ignored my intuition which said, "this is shaping up to be a bad idea.  Ooh, sounds like a fun bad idea!"

*Whenever possible, don't run trails alone
*When running alone, let someone know your planned route
*Have a planned route
*Carry a cell phone, in case you get stuck and need to alert someone
*Carry a light if there's any possibility of getting lost or running after dark
*Carry more than adequate fluid & calories in case you get lost
*If you get to an impassable patch of trail/creek bed, turn around and retrace your steps, don't be a hero
*Let someone know your planned route (restated for it's importance)
*Help others learn from your most boneheaded mistakes (check)

*Just like drinking: when you are upset, don't go seeking "adventure" on the trails, just go run a super intense speed workout on a track or treadmill or something like that

Consider for a moment the last thing you said to your loved ones.  Would you be okay with that message if it was the last you ever delivered to them?  One of the things that haunted me, maybe what I was afraid of the most out there, was if the last things Kate & I said to each other (prior to my misadventure) were etched into eternity as the final exchange we had.  I got home and we immediately put it all behind us.  You have an opportunity to say things to the people you love, from love, each and every time you're with them.  I encourage you to utilize every opportunity to do that.  For your own sake.

Thanks for reading this.  I appreciate you (even if we don't know each other), no matter where you stand.  One more parting thought:

"If you can't be a good example, you'll just have to serve as a horrible warning."