Monday, January 26, 2015

A Pessimist dreams of the Wasatch Mountains

I am, for the most part, a Pessimist…a cautious Optimist in my best days, it’s a mindset that hasn’t always served me well in life, but I believe it’s a trait that has been crucial in achieving the goals that I had set out for myself when it comes to running Ultras.  Like most people, upon first hearing about the world of Ultras, my first thoughts to come to mind was that I would never be able to do some of the legendary races that I’ve heard and read about, like Western States, Wasatch, or Hardrock; that it was certifiably insane to ever attempt these race, but plenty of people were attempting and finishing these Mountain Hundreds, and perfectly ordinary looking folks too, why exactly couldn't I be one of them?  As I kept breaking down one "impossible" barrier after another, from 50Ks to 100 Milers, the realm of possibility just kept getting higher.  Still, it's one thing going from rather flat races in Texas to high elevation Mountain races with unfathomable amounts of climbing that intimidated me for years to ever giving those races a shot, but in the immortal words of John Muir, “The Mountains are calling, and I must go”; I just have to figure out how to get there first without destroying myself in the process.

It took me nearly 2 and half years of running Ultras practically non-stop before I had built up enough shaky confidence in myself to sign up for Bryce Canyon 100 Mile last year, even then, I felt I had jumped the gun by about a year or so.  Why had I waited so long to even sign up for Bryce Canyon, when I saw other runners who seemingly come out of nowhere and within a year of running Ultras are already completing Western States?  For starters, every runner is different in terms of experience level, that runner who blazes their way to conquering Mountain races right out of the gate with little to no experience at Ultras, had probably spent the past five years running road Marathons; while I only had one slow road Marathon under my legs before I jumped to Ultras and was still struggling at flat 50 Milers.  These vast differences in experience levels between runners led me stalk several people on and that I felt was very similar to myself in years of experience and pacing, and that could provide a proper road map towards training for a Mountain Hundred.  From researching various runner's race histories, I could see someone with my similar finishing times over various distances, and accounting for elevation and difficulty of terrain, the average time they took from going from a 50K to Mountain Hundred was around 3 years; that became the benchmark time frame I gave myself to train for an eventual run at the Mountains.

During my first year and half of running Ultras, I was knocking out one race after another at a shockingly rapid pace, and within a year I had already completed my first trail 100 Miler.  At this rate, I would be in the Mountains a year ahead of schedule, I figured, then I rudely found out why it took most similar runners 3 years to complete their first Mountain Hundred; burnout, injuries, and inevitable disappointments over heart-breaking DNFs exacts a huge toll on you when rapidly progressing through Ultras.  After dealing with so much chronic injuries, pain, and increasing weariness over racing so much, more than once had I either wanted to quit Ultras out right, or dial the intensity way back and learn to be content with shorter distances, but the Mountains were now calling me even more fiercely, I had no choice but to keep going forward; with knowledge and experience, comes wisdom though, I came to embrace a smarter path by focusing on less frequent and bigger races and more time spent training, rather than my previous path of frequent races with little time to train properly for them, and not improving much on my running base in the process.

The details of my training plan for Bryce Canyon 100 Mile, a long and calculated grind of 7 months, is detailed in length on my Race Report, my main point of all this is that a reckless disregard in pursuit of ever longer races as rapidly possible is not a sustainable path if you want to be running Ultras for the long haul.  Even for a naturally pessimistic guy like myself, I was shocked at how much Ultras I was doing during that first year and half, it was thrilling and I felt invincible...until I wasn't.  Now that I've been at this for 3 years, and have finally conquered my Mountain, I feel even more cautious and fearful of these enormous challenges, now that I know firsthand just how much dedication and hard work goes into even having a greater than 50/50 shot at successfully completing them, all without risking too much serious and crippling injuries along the way.  I also now feel like the old man of the trail always cautioning young whipper-snappers to slow it down, and be extra cautious, or you'll surely suffer catastrophic injuries and hate yourself afterwards.  Last year, I had a handful of people ask me if I wanted to pace them for the Cactus Rose 100 Mile, the toughest and most painful Hundred miler in Texas (if not the Country), and after carefully examining their rather brief race histories and slower finishing times, I advocated to every one of them to drop down to the 50 Mile option; which none of them did, and sure enough, every one of them DNF'd.

One thing that has always troubled me about people asking for advice on whether or not they are ready to tackle a Hundred Miler, like on a Facebook trail running forum, is that they are instantly flooded with positive encouragement to just "Go for it", with complete disregard of that person's often-times shallow race history to base a proper opinion on.  I sometimes try to be the voice of reason and caution, but just end up looking like a Debbie Downer in the process, and have mostly stopped altogether from giving personal racing advice (unless asked), the only way certain people learn is to go out there and run till they blow up and injure themselves...we Ultra runners can be a stubborn breed like that.  The Internet in general, and Running especially, is awash in relentless messages of positivity and optimism, to the point where it's absolutely suffocating, I cringe at every generic motivational and "fitspiration" meme that's posted by well meaning folks on social media; where's a meme that advocates careful, dedicated, and highly calculated training over the process of several years, in order to safely meet your goals with a minimum risk of injuries and burnout?!

Luis Escobar, who took this photo, issued a scathing critique of this meme -

I get it, Ultras are hard, 100 Milers are harder, and Mountain Hundreds are friggin, nearly impossible hard, one has to maintain a sense of blind optimism to believe they're capable of meeting these enormous goals with high rates of failure and heartbreak in the first place; striking a balance of when to hold back and when to advance further, is always a precarious work in progress.  Instead of drowning yourself in motivational memes, I advocate what is known as "Defensive Pessimism", a position where you're deeply fearful and anxious of not reaching your desired goal, and work on every aspect or your training, and shortcomings, to the point of obsessiveness.  There was a great article published in The Atlantic, titled "The Upside of Pessimism", where they described the mindset of a defensive pessimist, the first time I've ever heard of such a phrase, and immediately recognized myself in the article; if I was truly pessimistic, I wouldn't be doing these races, the absolute desire to experience these Majestic races in the Mountains and go on epic 100 Mile adventures through them overpowered my fears, and in turn, I was able to use my cautious nature to my advantage in pursuit of these goals.

Olga Khazan: What is defensive pessimism?

Julie Norem: It’s a strategy for dealing with anxiety and helping to manage anxiety so that it doesn’t negatively influence performance. If you feel anxious in a situation, it doesn’t really matter if it’s realistic or not, you feel how you feel. It’s hard not to feel that particular way. If you feel anxious, you need to do something about it. Usually people try to run away from whatever situation makes you anxious. But there are other ways of dealing with it. Defensive pessimism is one way.

When people are being defensively pessimistic, they set low expectations, but then they take the next step which is to think through in concrete and vivid ways what exactly might go wrong. What we’ve seen in the research is if they do this in a specific, vivid way, it helps them plan to avoid the disaster. They end up performing better than if they didn’t use the strategy. It helps them direct their anxiety toward productive activity.

One of my biggest fears about running Ultras are suffering injuries, especially crippling injuries that sidelines you for months on end, leading to a sense of despair in not being able to do what you love most, running trails.  When I first started training for my first road Marathon, it took me two slow years of gradually building up my running base to handle that one goal, mostly it took so long because I was afraid of injuries so much, that I threw out my regular shoes and re-learned how to run all over again in a pair of Vibrams.  It took over half a year to adjust to those Vibrams and to learn proper running form, but it was the best decision I've ever made, as I haven't suffered any catastrophic injuries that has the potential to sideline me for year or more, even with a heavy racing schedule, but I've had plenty of over-use injuries along the way, like chronic ITB pain and just general feet and ankle pain. Over-use injuries almost can't be helped, frequently racing Ultras, you're always on the razor's edge of injury, but you can limit them if you're smart about it.

For Bryce Canyon, my overwhelming fear and anxiety of being injured before even getting to the starting line of the race, because of the markedly increased difficulty and volume of training required, led me to adopt a training style whose whole purpose was designed almost specifically to address overuse injuries.  As I wrote in my race report, I focused mainly on doing power-hiking repeats, this served two purposes, mainly to get my legs ready for hiking up Mountains, and secondly, hiking places considerably less impact on your feet and joints than running would; combined with never running more than 18-20 Miles at one time during training by focusing on back-to-back weekend training (the greater the distance, the greater the chance of injury) and giving myself plenty of time to taper and recover from races, I never got injured during training and successfully showed up to Bryce healthy.  My other fears that kept me honest and got my butt out of bed every weekend to train, was not being able to finish the race, and have to deal with the uncertainty and inner turmoil afterwards, questioning myself if I'll ever be strong and dedicated enough to complete these challenges.  Also, and I'm not going to lie, participating in out of State races in remote Mountainous areas cost a huge amount of money in plane tickets, car and motel rentals, and the racing fees itself, wasting my money on a DNF was not an option; I made damn sure I was at least 80% confident to come away with a Buckle, or I wouldn't have tried in the first place.

It has been a long 3 years of running Ultras, and I know just how fortunate I am to still be able to enjoy this sport and continue to dream big about even more challenging 100+ Mile adventures in the Mountains in the near future.  I've suffered my fair share of injuries and setback, and instead of being discouraged, I looked at them as an opportunity to analyze what I'm doing wrong and how best to fix them.  What I appreciate most about these "Impossible goals" is that they are not impossible at all if you're willing to be patient and put in the measured hard work to be successful at this sport, learn from the many runners before you on how they managed to complete their goals, and be willing to change everything you thought you knew about training and races. The Mountains will always be there, while your legs may not be there to climb them if they're always injured and worn out, so why rush things when you don't have to? There are plenty of great races, in beautiful locations, that aren't 100 Milers, where you can build speed and experience from; enjoy the shorter goals while you can, before 100 Milers starts to consume you.

When I set out to determine roughly how long it would take for me to complete a Mountain Hundred, it wasn't Bryce that I was considering, for the past 3 years every training run and every race I've been through has been towards the single-minded pursuit of building a solid foundation from which I can make a successful attempt at completing the Wasatch Front 100 Mile Endurance Run in Utah.  When I picture what my ideal Mountain Hundred would be like, a point to point 100 Mile trip, with a brutal ~27K ft of climbing, through the gorgeous Wasatch Mountain range of Utah exactly fits the bill. Who knows, if I manage to complete Wasatch, perhaps dreams of Hardrock 100 wouldn't be so delusional after all...but first I have to get through the Wasatch Lottery on February 7th.

The Pessimist in me is terrified of being picked for entry, quite truthfully.

[UPDATE] I was selected for entry into the 2015 Wasatch Front 100 Mile...and I'm terrified even more now.

Wasatch, my idea of Heaven, credit -