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Band of Brothers

Photo by Michael Lebowitz of Long Run Picture Company

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile
This day shall gentle his condition.
And gentelmen in England, now abed,
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here;
And hold their manhoods cheap while any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
Henry V, Act IV, Scene iii by William Shakespeare

I first read this timeless call to arms by William Shakespeare as an aspiring high school distance runner reading Chris Lear's chronicle of the University of Colorado's 1998 cross country season. As I read Running with the Buffaloes, I imagined Mark Wetmore rallying the troops in preparation for a battle over 300m intervals. I thought of how close I had grown with my high school teammates (one of whom was my actual biological brother, Thomas Rivers Puzey), and have since reflected upon the bonds formed with college teammates, competitors, and training partners.

It wasn't until I actually read Henry V in its entirety that I learned this faux battle cry was more parody and political commentary than patriotic fervor. Despite this reality and gross overuse of the quote, Shakespeare touched on an element of truth and the fraternal bond formed in the woods and on the trails. John L. Parker Jr. described this bond as the "Trial of Miles: As with shipwreck survivors, hostages and others in dire circumstances, duress fosters familiarity, sometimes love" (Once a Runner, 1990, 11). After my experience at the Trail Factor on Memorial Day, I felt the war cry aptly described how we felt on our own Saint Crispin's Day.

I knew going in to the Trail Factor 50K that Nick Triolo and Yassine Diboun had been coming off of some BIG training weeks and some standout performances over the past few months. My hope was to run with and continue to learn from them. I met Nick at my first ultra, the Hagg Lake 50K, a little over a year ago and met Yassine at Chuckanut last year.
Nick Triolo, Jacob Puzey, and Scott Jamie after the 2011 Hagg Lake 50K. Photo by Kelly Barten

Then we all ran Hagg Lake this year. Each time I have run with these guys I have been impressed by their humble tenacity and infectious love for the trails. When I heard about the Trail Factor 50K, that it would be run through Portland's enchanted Forest Park and that these guys would be there along with a strong contingent of Trail Factor runners and volunteers I couldn't resist the urge to plan our family's Memorial Day weekend around the event. It looks like it will be a new family tradition for years to come.
Yassine had an impressive start to the year at the Bandera 100K and then came back even stronger with a near win over 2:14 marathoner Ryan Bak at Hagg Lake in January. When I first met Yassine he was passing me as though I were standing still at Chuckanut. He helped me through that rookie middle-of-the-BONK-with-no-aid-in-sight-patch.

It wasn't until I started trying to figure out more about the sport that I began to really learn about some of Yassine's endurance exploits. Recently, while reading Bryon Powell's Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons I saw a picture of Yassine in there (on page 78) and realized that like so many of the other ultragiants that I have had the privilege of meeting and running with Yassine is unassuming and kind, but also really tough.

There is always something eerily intimidating about reading a book or blog about or by someone and then lining up next to them and trying to run with them. Nick won both the Capitol Peak 50 Miler and the McDonald Forest 50K in the past month and looks to be rounding into shape well as he prepares for Western States in a month. After reading and watching a post race recap from McDonald Forest I knew he would be tough to beat on his home turf, on trails that he runs daily (he lives less than a block away from the start and finish of the race).

The 50K and Half Marathon started together and ran the same route to the first turnaround. Like a European bike race there were intermittent prizes for being the first to a particular checkpoint. The first male and female to the turnaround earned a jacket. Nick, Yassine, and I started together and ran through the first aid station in unison.
Nick Triolo, Jacob Puzey, and Yassine Diboun. Photo by Michael Lebowitz.

We assumed we were the top 50Kers because there weren't many runners ahead of us by the time we got to the turnaround. However, when we got there we were informed that we were behind Zach Gingrich who led all runners to the turnaround. Naturally, as the newbie in the group I didn't have a clue who the guy was, but Yassine, the veteran ultra-runner in the group, remembered his name and resume from the last few years at Badwater. Needless to say, the guy has street cred.

For some reason none of us really responded and we just casually continued chatting as we meandered through the maze of trails. We stuck together through at least half the 50K distance and learned a lot about and from one another.

Suddenly, the trail opened up and we were descending after a relatively long and gradual climb. I'm a bit more accustomed to this type of open Fire Lane type running and naturally opened up my gate. On that day, my fresh, 80 mpw legs compared to their heavy, middle-of-last-big-training-block-before-Western States 100 120+ mpw legs had a little more spark in them. While I didn't intentionally drop them, I was feeling pretty good and figured I might as well enjoy the ride as long as I could. After a while I even thought about trying to catch the leader, Zach Gingrich.

Early leader, Zach Gingrich. Photo by Michael Lebowitz.

Eventually, we caught up with one another and exchanged the basic info – where you from? What's your name? How you doing? etc. He seemed to be hurting after his strong start to the turnaround (which won him the coveted jacket) and he wasn't carrying a bottle. He said he was alright and we parted ways.  We reached a few hairy trail intersections and I yelled back asking if he knew which way to go. Eventually, we both made our way back to the finish in similar times.

It appears as though we took alternate routes (two paths diverged in a wood and I took the one less traveled by - which apparently wasn't the one I was supposed to take – and that made all the difference – in this case it meant I didn't win). I came up on Gingrich again several miles after initially passing him and passed him again for good measure about a half mile before the finish.

Unfortunately, I missed the final check point and aid station at mile 24.2. At the previous checkpoint (mile 17.4) Gingrich was 8 minutes up on our group. Although I crossed the line first, it was determined that because I missed the previous checkpoint (and aid station) Gingrich was the winner. (I only mention this because one of the unique features of the event is it's NSPIRE instant reporting via social media and I have had lots of questions about whether I actually won or not).

As long as Gingrich and the other runners vying for top honors don't care or think I maliciously tried to cut corners I really don't care about who is/was declared the winner. Gingrich ran a gutsy race and deserves both the jacket and gift certificate to Fit Right NW. He'll be running BadWater soon and will consequently be going through a lot more shoes than I will be in the next few months. While I am extremely grateful to the generous sponsors for contributing to this and other events (they are certainly needed), I learned a long time ago when we moved back from Hawaii and had to dump extra weight to save money on freight that the intangibles of running far outweigh any medals, gear, or even cash prizes. Though these are certainly nice to get, I find it rewarding to run each day and an even greater privilege to run in such a beautiful place surrounded by such inspiring, like minded companions.

Perhaps this is why I so greatly appreciate the work of artists like Michael Lebowitz who spend countless hours shooting and then uploading their pieces to share so that we can remember the moments of trial and triumph. These transcendent treasures capture and help recreate the memories from the trails and far outweigh other more transient trophies and titles.

Yassine Diboun, Jacob Puzey, Nick Triolo – "Coming and Going" by Michael Lebowitz

Apparently Yassine and I spent so much time together on the trails that not only did we develop a greater respect for one another, but we ended up looking like one another. As I approached the finish his wife and daughter came running toward me. My wife also mistook him for me both before and after the race. I consider it a great compliment to be confused with such a nice, humble, healthy, capable guy. We joked about how fun it would be I were to wear an Animal Athletics singlet and also have my brother, Thomas River's Puzey (who also looks a lot like us and is about as fast) wear one and then tag Yassine in the pictures from all over the world. Talk about effective advertising.

I honestly can't think of a better way to spend Memorial Day. Good people doing good things and then eating good food (veggie burgers and chips - only after an ultra) served by more good people. We even had a chance to pay our respects to ultrarunning legend, Dave Terry, as we passed a memorial in his honor. I felt akin to the band of brothers across the globe that have gone before and continue to test the limits of human endurance and excellence. I appreciated the opportunity to share the trails with guys like Zach, Yassine, and Nick as we each prepare for our respective upcoming races: BadWater, Western States, and White River. 

Many thanks to race directors, Todd Janssen and Renee Seker, Michael Lebowitz of Long Run Picture Company, and the countless volunteers at the start, finish, aid stations, and throughout the course. 

Thank you to the Portland Trail Running community, TrailFactorPDX, for prepping the trails and being out there on the course. Also thank you to the many sponsors, Fit Right NW, NSPIRE, Nathan, Animal Athletics, Skora, and yurbuds. 

Nutrition used: Before the run – two pieces of dry whole grain toast, glass of orange juice, a banana with 12oz of PowerBar IronMan Perform, and two Metasalt caps. On the course – PowerBar IronMan Perform, three PowerBar Energy Gels (Chocolate), six S-Caps, Gummie Bears, and Water. Post run – two veggie burger patties smothered with potato chips. Then a pot luck at my sister's house in Tigard with all sorts of tasty treats (I did have to move a few piles of bark dust around in order to earn my room and board, but it was well worth the comfy floor and scrumptious meal).

Shoes: Altra Provisions w/ stability wedge.

Filling up

Trail runs are popping up like wildfire. The growth of the sport is certainly something to celebrate, but those who have grown accustomed to the laid back nature of trail running had better get used to the more recent demand or may find themselves shut out of some of the events that they have been training towards. With limited trail capacities, even brand new events are filling up well before the start date.

For many popular venues, you must register early or apply for a lottery to get in. But unlike large road races large capacities, some races are limited to less than 100 participants. In the Internet Age, those spots can fill up almost as quickly as registration activates. For example, in the next few weeks in Oregon alone I hope to run in a new event – The Trail Factor Half Marathon & 50K – that has nearly reached its participant limit.

Another event, the Dirty Half, that will serve as the USATF Half Marathon Trail Championships for 2012, has already reached its 800 person limit. Those who tend to wait 'til the last minute to decide whether to race or not are simply out of luck – or have to hope they know someone who has registered and will not be participating so that they can transfer registrations (and even that must be done by May 31).


However, with so many races available that one could easily fill every weekend, it is actually tough to decide which events to sign up for and which to defer for another year. I decided on the aforementioned Trail Factor 50K and Dirty Half for a couple of reasons. While I have never competed on either course, I have done races directed by the same race directors and that in itself helps me know what to expect.

The Trail Factor races are organized by the Portland trail running community, Trail FactorPDX. The course is conveniently located and traverses some of the storied trails of Portland's famed Forest Park. Despite being from Oregon, I live three hours away from Portland and have only actually run in Forest Park a handful of times so when I heard about the Trail Factor 50K I figured it would be a great opportunity to visit some epic trails with some great local runners and friends.

When I learned that Todd Janssen would be the race director I was sure it would be a quality event. Todd is one of the race directors of one of my favorite trail runs, the Hagg Lake 50K, and he has proven that he knows how to organize a trail run with an eye to the details of course markings, post-race spread, and great sponsors. 

One of those sponsors is a new training company called Animal Athletics co-owned by trail, mountain, and ultra runners, Will McBride and Yassine Diboun. I've had the privilege of running with Yassine in a few 50Ks. Yassine's experience and encouragement has been very helpful for a novus trail runner like myself.  Yassine created this video preview of the course:

Yassine will compete as he makes his final preparations for Western States as will Nick Triollo who is coming off wins at the McDonald Forest 50K and Capital Peak 50 Miler.  Sage Canaday of vo2max productions did an interview with Nick shortly after his win at McDonald Forest in which Nick discusses his training building up to Western States with fellow Portlander and Animal Athlete Yassine Diboun. 

While Nick and Yassine will be doing the Trail Facor 50K in preparation for a longer 100 mile race, I'll be stepping down in distance and hope to run a competitive road marathon at the end of June.  Consequently, I'll be headed to Bend, Oregon to test/sharpen my speed at the Dirty Half.  To be honest, it wasn't until I started trail running that I began appreciating Bend.  Before then, it was simply the dreaded place we had to go for conference championships and race solid competitors at altitude.

This past summer as I was preparing to run the Flagline 50K, another well organized event that Dave Thomason directs, I spent a little more time than usual in Bend and really enjoyed it.  It didn't hurt that Bend has so many trails and so many great runners.  When I went into FootZone to find out about the trails in the Flagline 50K I met a super humble, Max King, who not only took the time to describe the course and tell me which sections were not under snow, he even let me try and run a few sections of the trail with him.  Add great food and stunning scenery and you've got yourself a trail runner's paradise.

Last year, as part of his practice of back-to-back hard efforts, Max amazed the crowd with his stamina at the Portland Track Festival the night before the Dirty Half when he ran an impressive 13:56 5K and turned around 20 minutes later to lead a fast 10K from the gun.  I was there watching my wife who ran the 10K the night before and was struggling to handle the 5K 24 hours later.  I didn't learn until later that Max hopped in his Civic and zipped back to Bend to add another national title to the collection.  If he's around town and not doing a steeple chase, mountain run, ski competition, or any other race at the exact moment of the race he will obviously be the favorite, but there are lots of fast locals and others who will most assuredly assemble to make it competitive.

The reciprocity of running

One of the things that I have grown to appreciate most about running is its reciprocal nature – its ability to return everything you put into it.  Such reciprocity engenders a sense of gratitude, respect, and responsibility.  Due to the inestimable returns (physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, social, etc.) received on one’s investment, one can’t help but want to invest more both in one’s own pursuits and in sharing the inherent benefits with others.

Many of us began running and keep running because of the influence of others.  Perhaps it was a coach, a friend, or training partner that got us started.  Now, as runners, we benefit from the efforts of people we may not even know - authors, bloggers, race volunteers, spectators, competitors, medical professionals, nutrition providers and developers, and shoe and apparel designers.

This phenomenon of benefiting from the efforts of others leaves some to feel a sense of gratitude and a desire to give back.  As an undergraduate in Hawaii (where I studied anthropology and ran for a small DII school) I was introduced to the Hawaiian principle of KuleanaKuleana embodies both the rights to benefits and the responsibility one has as a beneficiary to give back.  Though I am not a native Hawaiian, I tried to incorporate the principle of Kuleana into my everyday life.  I was amazed at how much more fulfilling my life, studies, and running became.

Our small NCAA DIIliberal arts university only had a cross country team, so in the winter, spring, and summer we were not technically allowed to meet regularly as a team.  This meant that most of my teammates took up surfing and worked more hours to pay the bills.  My wife and I enjoyed this break from structured training and ended up doing a lot of training on our own in the mountains and along the beach.  One day, while on a run my wife ran into some high school kids that were running.  This was not a common sight in the area.  Though the local high school, Kahuku, was nationally recognized for its football and women’s soccer recruits, it was certainly not known for its distance running tradition.  The sight of other runners intrigued her and she soon introduced herself and asked if she could join them.  Although distance running wasn’t part of the culture on Oahu’s North Shore, there were some willing athletes, patient parents, and seasoned track coaches (also football coaches) who were willing to let us volunteer as distance coaches.

Little did we know how much we'd gain from our little investment.  We’d race out of our last class of the day, blitz down the road (about three miles away) to the high school and arrive just in time to work with aspiring distance runners.  Through the process, we came to know members of the tight-knit community and were eventually welcomed in.  Parents fed us and thanked us for working with their kids and we did our best to try and give all we could (shoes, clothes, experience, and occasional road race winnings that we weren’t allowed to accept somehow made their way into the team’s account). 

The athletes made gradual progress.  Eventually, a few of them qualified and placed at state.  By the end of the second year we had the privilege of being there when the team won its first state track title.  That still remains one of the most impressive and inspiring athletic performances I have ever witnessed.  Not surprisingly, our own running also improved (it must have been the daily tempo runs out to Kahuku followed by hills, sand, and intervals, with a 3 mile cool down back home). 

Our experience coaching prepared us for a phone call we received shortly thereafter from my high school coach and mentor.  He was stepping down and asked if my wife and I would be interested in moving back to my hometown in Oregon to assume the roles of the boys and girls cross country coaches.  While this was not in our plans, we moved back to Oregon upon graduating and have been coaching at my Alma Mater in Hermiston, Oregon ever since. 

This opened up more doors to try and give back.  As a means of extending the benefits of running to the community, developing an appreciation for race administration, and raising funds for our program, we established a community race series – the Columbia Corridor Corredores Race Series. This experience has opened my eyes to a side of running to which I had previously been oblivious.  I have come to appreciate the little details that go into making a quality event.  I have developed a huge appreciation for committed parents and volunteers.  Now I always want to thank the race directors and volunteers of all events in which I participate, large or small.  They have inspired me to never complain or write scathing emails to race directors (whether I take a wrong turn, stub a toe, don’t like the electrolyte replacement drink, or would prefer a different color or material of race t-shirt).  And they have led me to view the races in which I participate through a different lens – now rather than simply showing up to race, I am also looking at the details (or lack thereof) to see what to incorporate or not incorporate in future events.

More recently, I participated in a side of the sport that was certainly new to me.  I have always enjoyed attending race expos to see the latest products and test the freebies, but I had never before been on the side of the retailer.  When the owner of the local running store, Runner’s Soul Tri Cities, told me he was considering having a couple of booths at the upcoming Bloomsday race in Spokane, Washington and asked if I’d be interested in helping, I gladly obliged.  He has helped me over the years take care of my own running needs, but more importantly, he has gone above and beyond to help my team and athletes stay healthy by assuring they have good shoes at affordable prices.  He has also generously donated to the runs we put on, so I figured the least I could do was try to thank him by giving back while getting to do something I have always wanted to do – work in the retail running business.

In addition to some apparel, hydration equipment, and electrolyte sources, Runner’s Soul Tri Cities was working with a new shoe company – Altra.  While working at the Runner's Soul booth I was able to catch up with my former college teammate, and Altra founder, Golden Harper.  We were busy all day.  We stayed up late talking into the night as though we were still in college, woke up early, and worked all day.  The entire 48 hour experience was invigorating.  It didn’t hurt that we got to work with people before they had a challenging experience and they were happy to be there.  We were happy to share products that we genuinely felt could help them in their training and racing.  I enjoyed watching Golden in his element and I enjoyed seeing the satisfaction customers experienced when they tried out a new product. 
Our college cross country team.  I'm on the far left.  Golden is on the far right with the headband.
My admiration/appreciation for Golden and other innovators in our sport significantly increased.  Golden and I were teammates, but we also battled over top honors on a team with about five or six guys that at any given point could be our #1 runner.  As a prep All-American and son of running store owners, Golden’s future was pretty well set.  But rather than doing the natural and easy thing - going home to take over the family business after graduation – Golden challenged the financial recession and the shoe industry’s giants by turning conventional running shoe wisdom on its head.  He went off on his own and created shoes to fill the void that a life on his feet and in the running store made all too visible. 

As his teammate, training partner, and friendly rival, I have to admit that I attributed a lot of Golden’s early success (2:45 marathon as a 12 year old, 9th at Foot Locker Nationals in record time, etc.) to his privileged advantage with access to all the latest products as the son of a running store owner.  It wasn’t until recently that I was willing to admit that he occasionally got the better of me because he has what all of us need and most of admire – guts.  It used to annoy me when he’d hammer the downhills on our training runs through the Ko’o’lau’loa Range, but I have since come to admire his brazen recklessness. 

It took guts to race and set a world record in the marathon at age 12.  It took guts to run down and outkick Alan Webb in his high school prime.  It took guts to overcome injuries and letdown, transfer schools, win conference, and set new school records.  However, in my mind all of Golden's titles and records pale in comparison to what he has done in this economy, in the already oversaturated shoe industry with the deck stacked against him (a recent college graduate).  It took and continues to take guts to turn one’s ideas into a reality.  Through his innovations, the running shoe industry has been revolutionized and products are being made that allow people to run that once thought they'd never be able to run again.

Former teammate and founder of Altra Running, Golden Harper, climbing his favorite peaks in shoes he developed.
Golden and I parted ways as he made his way to the airport and I jogged to the starting line.  He texted me after the race to ask how it went.  It was exhilarating.  I didn’t win, or run terribly fast.  I wasn’t even in the money.  But I got to run with some really fast people, take part in a HUGE, well-orchestrated event, and I got to do something I have always wanted to do (work in a running booth) and in the process I got to catch up with a good friend-a modern day Bill Bowerman. 

In the race, as the trail pack and I approached the infamous “Doomsday Hill”, a wheelchair athlete nearly clipped my feet as he bombed the tangent on the descent.  My first emotion was annoyance for his recklessness, but that soon changed when I realized that he had lost control and I was forced to watch helplessly as he hit a curb and was catapulted from the chair and strewn across the pavement. 

When we got to him he was already covered with blood and losing more.  All he asked was that we help strap him back in (which was no small task--his legs were dead weight, he was covered with blood, and to get back in racing position the body is contorted in the most uncomfortable aerodynamically efficient position possible - with feet and legs tucked under the body as he leans forward sitting on the legs).  I was inspired by the fact that none of the runners who stopped asked for protective gloves or if the injured contender had participated in any risky behaviors that could potentially affect them.  All any of us thought was that one of our own had fallen and we wanted to help him back up.  When asked if he wanted someone to call 9-1-1 he simply responded that there is no way he wouldn’t finish the race. 

After a few minutes of getting the wheel reset, his helmet back in place, and him back into the chair we all resumed our original pace.  Several runners had passed us, but after seeing the grit and guts of the athlete who crashed and was still losing blood, I couldn’t help but see those who passed as simply another opportunity to challenge myself.  I raced up Doomsday with added vigor and determination and actually ran people down rather than being run down as had happened the last time I ran it.  I caught everyone in sight and worked my way up probably about 100 spots in the last three miles.  While I didn’t get the time I had initially hoped for, I had a much more fulfilling experience at Bloomsday than I had anticipated.  I remembered to always appreciate any chance I get to run and to never take the chance to run with others for granted.

These are just a few of the recent running experiences that have been greatly enriched as a result of the efforts of others.  I have come to better appreciate their efforts as I have tried to do the same.  I will be eternally indebted to the many coaches, mentors, teammates, training partners, friends, race directors, volunteers, spectators, competitors, authors, bloggers, medical professionals, and innovators who have helped me make running a viable lifestyle.  I hope to reciprocate at least a portion of what they have given me as I run, coach, volunteer, organize races, and blog.  I hope to embody the reciprocal nature of running in my life as I strive to incorporate a spirit of Kuleana in all that I do. 

If you would like to enrich your running and the running experience of others I encourage you to look for opportunities to give back.  I did not mention my own experiences to limit you in your efforts, but rather to show how my life and running have improved as a result of the efforts I have made to look beyond the next PR or win and look outward to helping others find fulfillment through running.  

We all live in different places with different experiences, but we can all contribute to the sport through our individual and collective efforts to give back.   One of the best parts of trail running is the sense of community.  As trail runners we volunteer to prepare trails for upcoming races.  We crew, cheer, and pace our competitors who ultimately become close friends.  We challenge one another to be better and even when we train alone, we know that we owe it to ourselves and others like us out there to put in the work so that when we meet up we will be ready to test one another.