For most of this year I've been noticing a change in the relation between my life, my training, and my racing. It's been a very slow change that's been hard for me to understand but I think I'm finally starting to process it and put it together into real, concrete thoughts. Having the race I did at Wasatch (i.e. a performance which shocked and confused me with how fast I ran) has helped a lot with forcing me to look for some of these things which I've been able to feel for awhile now, but have been unable, until now, to put a finger on. Basically my performance at Wastach, and to a lesser degree at Crow Pass in July has forced me to confront the question, why am I running so much faster now than I was just 6 months or a year ago?
It's easy to attribute it to the fact that I'm quite new to racing ultras and that I'm just learning the ropes and still on the steep section of the bell curve. I think there is some truth to that, but I really don't think that's all of it.
Things changed for me a lot after my Miwok disaster in May. I was planning to run either Western States or Hardrock this summer. With my DNF at Miwok I no longer had the option of running Western States, but for some reason my focus didn't ever concentrate itself on Hardrock. After Miwok I took some time off from running altogether and when my mind drifted back around I found that I didn't have any desire to "train" for my next "big race." Instead I just wanted to run. I wanted to run when I felt like it, where I felt like it, with almost no specificity toward preparing myself for my next race. I decided to flow with this mentality for awhile and kind of assumed that shortly I'd come back around to my usual pattern of training to prepare myself for my next race.
We had one of the most perfect summer's imaginable in Juneau this year (weather wise), and instead of my mind coming back toward more specific training, it just kept wandering more and more.
This was June. I decided I didn't really have the focus to do Hardrock so when my spot on the waitlist came up I quietly declined, and to some extent wondered whether I would ever seriously race again. And yet day after day, week after week, I was having more fun running than I ever had. I stopped planning runs more than a few hours in advance, unless I was trying to coordinate something with others. I would get out of work and decide where I wanted to run based on the weather at the time and how I felt at the time. I stopped running on roads altogether. I started climbing up to mountain ridges almost everyday. And I began to run almost everyday with other people that I had previously only run with once in awhile. By mid summer I began to notice this trend of finishing runs, sometimes as often as 4 or 5 days a week in which I felt like I had just done one of my favorite training runs ever.
The time came to race Crow Pass and I had all kinds of doubts about whether my body was anywhere near being physically ready to run as fast as I knew I'd need to win that race. I hadn't afterall done any kind of speed work since April! And then I ran Crow Pass, still convinced that it might be my last serious race ever, and shattered the course record in a race that has been around for almost 30 years. What the hell? That was a bit confusing, but I figured it was an exception, that I just happened to have a really good day, and was aided hugely by having another runner work with me and push me to such a fast time.
After recovering from Crow Pass I decided I was definitely going to run Wasatch and I began to convince myself that maybe I could stay with this approach of having my running be about my training, not about my racing. Instead of training for a specific race and tailoring my training for that race, I realized that for a few months I had been training for me, for love, for happiness, to share my experiences in the mountains with friends, and because it had become my favorite thing to do. No longer was the racing the focal point of my running, but rather the racing was becoming just an expression of me and who I am.
Instead of 5 or 6 of my weekly runs feeling like dutiful training, with one or two really fun runs a week, the scales had turned completely. Suddenly almost every run I did left me thinking, "wow, that was one of my favorite runs ever." I think 90% or more of "my favorite runs ever" occurred in June, July, August, and September of this year!
Going into Wasatch I still had some serious doubts as to whether this kind of general, passionate, heartfelt, but completely unscientific style of training could really get the job done on race day. Obviously my performance in Wasatch did away with these doubts and I've spent most of the past week trying to figure out why this has worked so well.
In a post earlier this year (Ironically, less than one week after Miwok) titled "Why I Run," I talked about being so into running because it was something that was 100% me, and what I got out of running (from a performance standpoint) was entirely up to what I put into. It's shocking to me how far off base this seems to me now, only 4 months later.
As I came to really love my training runs more and more this summer I found myself wanting to share these runs with others. For my entire running career I have been a solo runner. Until this year well over 95% of the running I did was by myself and that was the way I liked it. I always equated running with others with making it impossible for me to do exactly the run, at exactly the pace that I wanted to do. Even when I wanted people to run with me in the past, I was unwilling to deviate much from my training schedule so I ended up running solo because no one wanted to go to the track with me and run 30 quarter mile repeats, or spend their entire Saturday afternoon plugging along on the slushy shoulder of the road for 30+ miles. Now though I am willing to be entirely flexible in my training and this makes it really easy to find people to run with because I can work around their interests.
And so, for the first time in my life, I really began to share my running with others. The snowball effect that occurred was subtle at first, but eventually it became too obvious to ignore. The love I had found for training; for being in the mountains; and for life in general became contagious and almost everyone that I was running with was enjoying their running as much or more than ever:
My roommate had hardly ever run in his life until this year and after a summer of running up in the mountains a few days a week he ended up coming down to Utah and crewing/pacing almost 30 miles of the Wasatch race.
My most reliable training partner this year has been a guy who has lived in Juneau for 50 years. At age 70 I'm pretty sure he spent more time up on mountain ridges above town this summer than he ever has in his life.
My friend who I ran with a bit in the spring, before she moved away from Juneau, is now running more than she ever has in her life, and when I talk to her about her running she has more excitement about it and dedication to it than I would have ever imagined her having.
Another friend of mine who I only ran with a few times before she moved away from Juneau last month has such an obvious mindset to be good at ultras. The first run we ever did together I told her we might be out for as long as 3 hours. When we ended up being out for 7 (the last 3 of which were after dark with no lights and blazing our own trail through thick underbrush) I figured I'd never hear from her again. Instead she calls me regularly to chat about the crazy runs she's been doing since she left Juneau. I know she has put in at least three 30+ mile days in the past month and before that she had never run further than a marathon.
My friend who I ran with once or twice a week in preparation for Crow Pass got himself into the best shape of his life leading up to that race and took 20 minutes off his time from last year, more than twice as much time as I took off from my Crow Pass previous best time.
My ex-girlfriend has never been a runner. Dating me for 8 years probably made her even less likely to run since I made running seem so specific, laborious, and anything but fun. After we split up this spring though she ended up spending the second half of her summer doing several mountain runs around Juneau. I don't claim any credit for influencing her to do this but I do hope that we get to run together in the mountains sometime in the future, something that neither one of us would have ever wanted to do together until now (and maybe she still wouldn't want to) that we actually have an interest in running for some of the same reasons.
I ran a few times this summer with some of Juneau's high school runners. When I was in high school 70 minutes was a "long" run. These kids however would go up into the mountains with me on 3-5 hour runs and love every minute of it. I would have died from doing that when I was that age.
Then there's my friend who refuses to go running with me (I'm still holding out hope that she'll come around eventually), and I don't really think that I've influenced her running in any significant way, but she became so interested in and so supportive of my running as being an extension of who I am that almost continually throughout Wasatch I could feel her running with me. And when it got late and I was really tired I actually had halucinations a few times that she was sitting on the side of the trail.
Anyway, so I know some people who run, and I ran with some of them this summer, and we had fun doing it. Big deal. That's how I would have seen it even just a month ago. I realize now though that this is a big deal. As I ran with these people more and more it forced me to deviate almost entirely from any kind of specific training. And all the while I've become significantly faster than ever before. The only way that I can explain this is that I'm not alone in my running anymore, and that simply having a pure and genuine love for the running that I do on a day to day basis has made me faster than any track workouts or tempo runs ever have. I have influenced people around me with my running more this year than ever before, and their love for their running, their love for themselves, and thier love for me has come back to me ten fold, and made me even that much stronger, happier, and ultimately faster. For the first time in my life I have opened myself up to the idea of letting others influence my running and the result has been an undeniable positive effect.
At the end of the day I very much still ackowledge that it takes a serious amount of "training" to run Wasatch in 18.5 hours or Crow Pass in under 3 hours, but it's been a shocking, and very comforting revelation to realize that, with being more willing to accept the help of others that this "training" can be so much more fun than I ever imagined. And that by having fun doing it, and coming to love the process of it more than ever, and coming to love myself and the people around me more than ever, that I am now faster than ever. I also think it's worth noting that my shockingly fast times in Crow Pass and Wasatch both included other runners (Eric Strabel and Karl Meltzer respectively) pushing me with record shattering performances of their own. In the same way that I have learned to open up my "training" to being influenced by other people in my life, I think it's only fitting that it was with the "aid" of other racers that I was able to run as fast as I did in these races.
I also ackowledge that this idea applies less and less as you talk about racing shorter and shorter distances, but for something as long as 50 or 100 miles I'm convinced that the most important thing to have in your arsenal is a genuine love for your running and a willingness to share this love with others and to let them share their love with you. If you have this everything else you need can fall into place naturally.
I know this might sound like a lot of emotional, sappy, hippy bull shit but I would challenge anyone to give it a try and see what you find out. Throw away your training schedule, find a mountain and run up it. The next day find another mountain and run up it. Once you fall in love with doing that share this love with others. It can be that simple. At least it has been for me.