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the great equalizer

I took up trail running about a year ago with the intent of mixing things up in my marathon training.  Like Quenton Cassidy, of Once a Runner fame, I went to the trails to improve my track performances: "He was trying to switch gears; at least that is how he thought of it. And though it was a somewhat frightful thing to contemplate for very long, he was really pulling out all the stops. After this he would have no excuses, ever again. . . He was not enthusiastically going about the business of breaking world records or capturing some coveted prize; such ideas would have been laughable to him in the bland grind of his daily routine. He was merely trying to slip into a lifestyle that he could live with, strenuous but not unendurable by any means, out of which if the corpuscles and the capillaries and the electrolytes were properly aligned in their mysterious configurations, he might do even better something that he had already done quite well...." (163).

Like most neophytes, I found instant appeal in the terrain, camaraderie, buffet style aid stations, and post race feasts.  Trail running has given new meaning to the Once a Runner phrase "trial of miles; miles of trials."  I have found the camaraderie that miler John L. Parker Jr. described.  "As with shipwreck survivors, hostages and others in dire circumstance, duress fosters familiarity"  (11). After sharing so many miles enduring the elements, taxing terrain, and fatigue, trail runners form a bond comparable to those who share a foxhole in battle.  This bond is something that transcends age, geography, ethnicity, and social class.  It is the kind of bond that forms on the best teams, but it is often what is missing once one graduates to the world of paying bills, putting on weight, and trying to squeeze a run in between work and family time.

Ryan Bak, Jacob Puzey, & Brad Bogdan
Photo by Long Run Picture Co.
The most appealing thing I have found about the sport, however, is that track and road times really don't mean anything.  All-american honors, age, agents, and big shoe sponsorships can all be thrown out the window.  Every race is an opportunity to prove oneself.  Trail running has become the great equalizer.  I have run with and actually beaten those with far superior track and/or road PRs, but I have also been crushed by those whose track and road PRs don't hold a candle to my modest marks. Trail running has become the great equalizer in American running and for all intents and purposes may be America's best chance to reestablish itself as a world distance running power.

For example, just this past weekend at the Hagg Lake 50K, with only a few miles to go, a guy who hasn't broken 2:40 in the marathon (Yassine Diboun) passed and almost beat 2:14 marathoner Ryan Bak.  To add to the excitement, neither was leading for the first half of the race, but rather Bradley Bogdan, a Boise State Graduate Student with a 30:39 track 10K to his name, took to the trails at a torrid pace.  While Ryan and Yassine pursued him, I was left with the realization that the only way I would see them again is if someone BONKED, got injured, or took a wrong turn.  (This was not a wish by any means - you don't wish that upon a comrade - but simply a realization based on previous experience that it was certainly possible.  Last time I ran with Ryan I was leading and took a wrong turn and last time I ran with Yassine he helped me through a rough patch when I bonked).   
Yassine Diboun worked his way through the mud to eventually overtake the leaders.
Photo by Kevin Smith

The unique part about the sport, and this band of brothers, is that we each took different paths to get to the same place. Yassine played DIII basketball, Ryan was a DIII XC & Track National Champion, Brad ran for DI Cornell and Boise State, and I was a walk-on at a JC and finished up at a small DII school.  Ryan signed with Nike after his marathon debut at CAL International, Yassine is between shoe contracts (but ran for team INOV8), I have a little deal with Brooks (because the high school team I coach is pretty good), and Brad represents Pulse Running and Fitness out of Boise.  Each of us works or goes to school full time (or both), yet each weekend the trails beckon and we respond by showing up looking for the opportunity to meet new friends, share a few drinks & laughs, and slug through a long run together.  In the interim we prepare for these rendezvous by doing the bulk of our weekly mileage on our own.           
Ryan Bak slogging through the mud  en route to victory at the 2012 Hagg Lake 50K
Photo by Glenn Tachiyama

Trail running has returned the sport to its primal roots.  Like Quenton Cassidy, we are relearning that,  "It has not so much to do with chemicals and zippy mental tricks as with that most unprofound and sometimes heart-rending process of removing, molecule by molecule, the very tough rubber that comprise the bottoms of training shoes. The Trial of Miles; Miles of Trials" (210).

muddy meanderings

As I trudged through 50K of mud yesterday I had more than enough time to think about the finer things in life.  For example,  I thought about what I could have done on the dry side of Oregon (where I live and train) to possibly prepare for the twists, turns, crashes, and burns that I was experiencing at the Hagg Lake Trail Run.  

On more than one occasion I thought it might have been helpful to have done a bit more downhill skiing and brought a pair of ski poles along to stay upright on some of the more slippery descents.  Perhaps a bit more water skiing in the summers would have done the trick to prepare my legs for the sensation of being ripped apart as you straddle the narrow trail and slightly drier terrain on either side.  Maybe I should have added a bit more breaststroke and ice skating to my routine because the peculiar frog & side kicking in & outs may have prepared my hips for the constant adduction and abduction that is not so customary to a casual road runner. 

The trouble is that if I am going to spend time exercising I would prefer it be running, but treadmill training would not have helped.  I'm not much of a winter sports guy and always laughed at walkers when I saw them walking along paved paths with their ski poles.  It doesn't snow enough here to cross country ski or ice skate regularly and the only indoor pool in town is relatively small and is usually tough to swim laps in due to the number of users, so I felt that I was in a bit of a conundrum.  
And then, about two and half hours and 21 miles into it I remembered reading about something the great Czech Olympic Champion, Emil Zatopek, had done. 
Though he is notorious for his long runs in the pines and insane intervals on the track, it appears as though even he struggled to get in all the running he needed and balance work and family responsibilities.  On one such day, his wife left a honey-do list for him before she left home and asked that it be done by the time she returned a few hours later.  He only had a couple of hours to get all of the laundry done, but he also needed to get a run in.  So he decided to do the laundry by foot.  He ran for over 2 hours in a tub of wet laundry.  He got the laundry done, got his run in, and pleased the Mrs.  For the next hour or so (roughly 11 miles), each time I felt like my feet were going to sink into oblivion, I thought of Zatopek and what it must have been like to run in place (in combat boots for effect) in two feet of soap, water, and soggy clothes.  Not only did this help me better appreciate my surroundings, it led me to think of what a revolutionary practice this could become. . .   
Imagine a world in which all the laundry were done by foot.  Good-bye obesity and green house gasses.  It has been said that the demise of American distance running was the invention of the school bus.  This is our chance to re-establish ourselves as the green laundry machines.   American kids could grow up doing laundry in tubs of soapy water. Who needs a run to school and back when each kid is responsible for doing his/her own laundry by foot?  Good-bye impact injuries.  Hello, strong, caloused feet with sharp, springy tendons and ligaments.  
Think of all the friendly messages you read in hotels about saving water and energy by reusing bedding and towels.  What if the energy we were using were actually human energy?  What if you could get a discount on your room if you offered to do your own laundry in the tub rather than use the broken treadmill in their fitness center?  
What if creating laundry were actually a way of stimulating the economy?  Imagine the bipartisan support this would receive.  Newt would like it because it forces kids to work and sounds loony enough for him to mention at a rally and Michelle and Barak would like it because it would reduce childhood obesity and could be toted as green energy that puts Americans back to work.  Besides, really, who leaves a carbon footprint when they are barefoot running on laundry?
The more cynical reader may be concerned that this could turn out to be another Solyndra scandal, but we are not trying to complicate energy production, we are merely simplifying it by harnessing the energy that is within each of us.  How would we fund this green energy, you may ask?  This is the revolutionary part - it would fund itself, like an economy is supposed to work.  It would essentially do away with all government funding for green energy and ag-business.  Why is this so important?  

There are those that don't believe in government subsidies for green energy, but have no problem with agriculture subsidies, or vice-versa.  If people were more active (actually burning the food they consume) there would be a greater demand for food and that demand would compensate for the false demand/over-production that occurs with government incentives.   And who would produce the food?  The same people who are already doing it.  With this type of supply & demand (people actually sweating away what they eat and then earning their next meal) the government could get out of businesses, green energy and agriculture alike.  Then people on the right and the left and everyone in between would have a lot less to fight about.

Come to think of it, if everyone were actually taking the time each day to run in place on their laundry for a good hour or so, I think this could end all disputes, violence, and wars.  There goes the defense budget. Families would be closer because we'd spend more time at home - as a family - washing clothes by foot. 

If everyone took that much time each day (or even once a week) to sweat, think about their lives and the things they do and say there would be a lot less bullying, hazing, and harassment.  A lot fewer divorces and abortions.  There would be less poverty and greater opportunity.  There would be a greater tomorrow.

So when people ask what I think about on my long runs this is what comes to mind. Sorry you asked?  

Disclaimer: I was under the influence of severe cold & fatigue so I admit to being delusional.  Whatever I was thinking may have merely been hallucinations. You decide.