Friday, September 30, 2011

The Value of Rest

I'll admit I am not the foremost authority on rest. I would even imagine many of my friends and family would claim I have no idea what rest even is. I definitely have struggled with the application of the concept in the past, however the past year has taught me some lessons.
I read once that Scott Jurek takes several weeks off of running at the end of his season–some weeks he doesn't run a step. I was amazed. I chalked it up to his seeming superhuman abilities to be able to stop running and not lose fitness. This tactic certainly wasn't for mere mortals like me.
A year ago this weekend I ran the Baker Lake 50k. It was the culmination of a summer of 100+ mile weeks–a combination of running and backpacking. I went out hard and was running in second place (women's race) until somewhere around mile 20. Then my right knee began to hurt. A few miles later, so did my left. I was out of water. I could feel my leg muscles cramping. My electrolytes were out of whack as well. I was in more pain than I have ever been in while running. I caught sight of my friend Joel and for the next 5 miles I focused on not letting him get away from me. When we reached the road, about 1.5 miles from the finish I could no longer keep up. The pavement was too much and I could barely walk. I forced myself onward and was nearly crying as 5 women passed me. I still managed a PR, but it was without joy.
My injury lingered, as my early blog posts demonstrate. Over time I began to wonder...what about rest? Being forced to take 4 months essentially off from running was miserable. This year I feel has been easier, even though I have raced far more...and far further. I think it is because of my taper and recovery periods. Being injured has taught me the value of rest.
Now, I am winding down from 5 weeks of rest at the close of my season. Aside from the Cle Elum 50k, my longest run in that time has been 7 miles. My longest week, 10 total. I have run occasionally, and only when I felt like it. I haven't worried about gaining weight or losing fitness. I've rested my mind and body from the demands of constant training and racing. I allowed myself personal grace–it is ok not to run. It is ok to run. I haven't felt like I'm forcing myself to rest. I simply have allowed my body and mind to dictate when and how far, rather than the schedule I have written on my calendar with a bold, black sharpie.

Will an extended rest at the end of a challenging season make me a better runner?
I don't know.
But, it's worth a try.

I went for a 7 mile run on Tuesday and you know what?

I was excited to run.

My legs were sore initially, but I settled into my rhythm and everything was beautiful. I wanted to run forever. I wanted to run fast, then slow. I wanted to jump over rocks and run across park benches. I wanted to run every hundred mile trail run there was. Joyous. Relaxed. Rested. I was all of those. I am now enjoying the last few days of leisure before I begin to amp my mileage back up. I am eager to run. I can't wait for next weekend's ultra adventure. It's just the beginning of another round...

Sunday, September 25, 2011

I Am Winning

Over the weekend I had the great pleasure of attending the ALDHA-West Gathering at Lake Wenatchee. It's been 2 years since I last spent time with "hiker trash" and I honestly didn't know how much I had missed it until yesterday.

It's been 5 years since I finished my Triple Crown. With the passage of time and more and more of my life becoming devoted to running and work, my identity as Anish–as a thru-hiker–has waned. I haven't been out for over a week in more than 2 years. I have no thru-hiking goals in the near future.
This year I have been struggling with the question: Who am I?

Am I a thru-hiker? A bad-ass backpacker who puts in long days, long weeks, and long months?
Am I an ultra-runner? A hardcore trail runner who logs races every month, long runs ever week and tops out with 100 mile events?
Is it possible to be both?

I have been feeling torn this year. With my dedication to training for Cascade Crest I hardly went hiking/backpacking. The runner in me was fighting the backpacker in me...and winning. The two times I went out with my pack nestled against my spine, imparting a sense of comfort, the backpacker sent the runner into retreat. Self-sufficiency in the mountains was winning.

At the Gathering I got to reconnect with old friends and make some new ones. It was different being there alone. I've always gone to hiker Gatherings with my partner of over 5,000 miles. It didn't take long to realize that I fit in here, even alone. There is a way of looking at the world that only thru-hikers have. Being surrounded by those who affirm my unorthodox outlook has made me confident and calm. All is well. I can make my life my own every day. Just as in the past when I went into new adventures without fear, I no longer feel trepidation about what is next–either on trail or in life. I started my journeys on trail walking, then I started running. I am a hybrid. Who cares that many ultra-runners are not backpackers and vice versa? With a pack I'm faster. In hundreds I don't get tired as quickly. 17+ hours on the feet isn't unknown to my body.

Do I want to focus on running?
Do I want to focus on backpacking?

I want to do both. I want to be in the mountains. I have realized that I can do both. There doesn't need to be a war within: Anish is a runner, too.

Thru-hikers know how to savor every moment, whether it's hailing or a blue bird day. Blisters the size of Texas can be funny. Filthiness can be a badge of honor. They know that in the midst of commercialized, consumerist, over-stimulated society that the things that truly matter most are easily loaded into a small pack. They know how to simplify. Wholeness is found when you are no longer inundated with the need to gain and attain. A friend at the Gathering has a catchphrase when he is out on the trail: "I am winning". It's funny, but it's also true. Those who can leave fear and insecurities behind, who can step out of societal norms, to find something more fulfilling are winning. They are winning healthier bodies and minds. They are winning victories for decreasing their carbon footprint. They are winning at life by returning to something humans have always done: walked over rough terrain for days on end. They are winning over the repression of what is natural by satisfying the instinct to travel and use the body physically.

As a thru-hiker, as a runner, as someone who derives her greatest joys from the attendant bliss of the steady rhythm of footfalls on trail tread I know that I am winning...at life.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Cle Elum 50k Race Recap

Cle Elum should have been in June. In June I was ready to run 50k and make it count. 3 weeks after Cascade Crest I wasn't.
The trip started out on a rough note. I took the long way around–which ended up being the epic-ly long way around (8 hours!) and hit a deer on the way. Kevin and I finally crashed on the ground beside the car a few miles from the start at 1 am.
Race morning traffic woke me up at 5. 4 hours of sleep is plenty, right?
I was excited to see my friend April from Corvalis and as the race started in the overcast morning she and I ran together. We chatted and people passed us as we turned onto trail. We walked uphill and April commented, "I think we're last."
We continued on and I eventually got ahead of her. The climbing was ongoing, although I was frequently surprised by downhill sections. I had intended to take them easy because my knees have been having issues since Cascade Crest, but they were steep and the thick dusty dirt was soft...so I ran them harder than I intended.
I reached the ridgetop and was met with cold wind and spluttering rain. So much for the sunny side of the mountains! By this time I had passed a decent number of people and was excited to see a lot of friends, both running the race and volunteering, at the midpoint aid station. After some food and a water refill I set out, running with two friends. We climbed some more (all told I heard this course had 7,000ft of elevation gain which I was glad I didn't know beforehand!) before setting out on a set of long, loping switchbacks that carried us deep into a valley. I pulled ahead of them and settled into a steady pace at the bottom. What I didn't know is that the entirety of what was left was completely runnable.
About mile 20 I realized I was almost done. "Wow! This is short!" Running 100 miles certainly skews your thinking.
With only 5 miles to go I realized that if my friends hadn't caught me by now, they might not if I didn't slow down. So my competitive side surfaced and I ran hills I would have otherwise walked. When I reached the final descent I killed it. My knees didn't much like the rough treatment of me bailing downhill so fast, but oh well. I reached the finish in 6:23 and placed 4th (in the women's race).
Now, for some much needed rest, recovery, and Chardonnay!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Tatoosh Buttes

On my map of the North Cascades and Pasaytan Wilderness–in the lonely northeast corner where the wilderness trails off the page–lie the Tatoosh Buttes. I noticed the exposed bumps and long ridgeline about 3 years ago. The long approach down the Middle Fork of the Pasaytan River kept me from exploring. I needed a 3 day weekend to go there. Labor Day weekends passed. 4th of July is always snow laden at 7,000 ft. Finally, I decided to just go. If I didn't have time to travel the cross country ridge of Ptarmigan Peak and Dot Mountain, then so be it. With a departure from the NW looming I felt the Tatoosh Buttes were a lingering piece of unfinished business for me.

I got sidetracked with wine and friends on Friday night. Oh well, I'll just drive over in the morning. It's only a 21 or so mile hike in....

I started hiking at noon on Saturday from Slate Pass. It was hot. Hot, like 90 degrees hot. I loved it. The wind whipped my hair around my face (since in my rush I'd forgotten a hair band) and my skirt around my thighs. I felt like a bird soaring on the updrafts as I descended into the wide, u-shaped valley of the Middle Fork. Thick forest carpeted the valley below me as I floated through boulders and scree, banking wide around the cirque and then plunging below tree line.

The trail along the Middle Fork is wide and gently undulating as it gradually descends toward the confluence in the north. I sailed along, passing the way points, widely spaced 5 miles apart, in what seemed like effortlessness and in an impossibly short time. The trail narrowed and became more overgrown as I cruised northward until I veered off toward the Buttes. I followed brushy trail as it wound through a massive burn. I forded Lease Creek and began climbing.

Climbing...up and up. The late afternoon sun was intense. The landscape was littered with the carcasses of  burned trees. I could see nothing except the hill I was climbing, until–near the top–I rounded a corner and came face to face with the panorama of the Buttes, Tamarack Ridge, Ptarmigan Peak, Dot Mountain, Mt. Largo and Mt. Carru.

Snow tinged and bald, the ridge beckoned me ever upward. I reached the Tatoosh Buttes near sunset and enjoyed the alpine eve. I threw my bivy down on the ridge where I could simultaneously watch the blood red sunset and the full moon rise. As I dozed off in the bliss of being solitary in the wild I heard a faint clanging of metal and what I thought sounded like a whinny. Apparently equestrians were camped somewhere in the krumholtz below...

CLANG! CLANG! CLANG!

I sat bolt upright in my bivy. The wind had died and darkness had fallen. The full moon illuminated the world in silver and I stared around.

BWAAAAAAAAAAAA!

I quickly dragged my bivy behind some krumholtz and lay quietly trying to figure out what the invisible was. The metal clanging punctuated by very animal like sounds had me stymied...and scared. I briefly thought of packing up and hiking down by light of the moon, but I made myself stay put.

"Heather, there is nothing out here that can hurt you. There is nothing out here at night that wasn't here in the day."
Yeah, but it might not have been awake.

Quiet.

After I dismissed the outlandish: ghosts of miners, drug traffickers, sasquatch...I turned to the likely: not bear, or cougar, or wolf, or coyote. Maybe elk? But what is the clanging? Wild animals don't have metal...

Forget your context...identify the sounds.

I lay quietly and listened. The clanging and animal noises came again, much farther away.

That...sounds...like...a cowbell...

BWAAAAAAAAA!

And that was definitely a cow.

I began laughing–A COW!

The incessant yapping of a coyote awoke me just as orange tinged the sky. I rolled over and drank in the early light on the mountains. I packed quickly to get away from the annoying barking. As I walked I studied the myriad horse hoof prints on the trail and discovered, blending in with them in the thick dust, cow tracks. I hadn't noticed them the day before, but now they were obvious. A cow, complete with bell, had managed to find it's way deep into wilderness and well over 7,000 ft.

The miles passed quickly and soon I was ascending up and out of the valley. The trees thinned and opened and I flew upward, driven by the sun, and wind, and sight of the snow patched pass above me. I paused to look back and smiled.

Good luck, cow.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Foraging

Myriad chambers of converted sunshine resist then give way to tongue and teeth. Sweet, earthy, complex flavor rolls across my taste buds. With sudden clarity I Remember.
I've tasted this berry many times before. My small hands stained violet, darting amongst the thick, thorny stalks pulling the black caps out by the fistful.
Plunk,
Plunk,
Mmmmm.
Two in the bucket, one in the mouth. My dad nearby–plunk, plunk, plunk. He doesn't taste any.

"I've eaten this berry before! This is a black cap! At least, that's what my dad called them."
I'm standing along the roadside of San Juan Island, just outside Friday Harbor, 20 years later. Kevin has just given me a "native" blackberry. The complex and different flavor is not the same as that of the broad-leafed blackberry growing right alongside–intertwined with–it. Despite being on the other side of the continent the flavor is unmistakable. Dozens of humid, sweaty, prickly days spent in the bushes of rural Michigan can not be forgotten.
Oil City. The name comes to me as we pedal onward. My dad would take me there picking berries in the heat of summer. I always had to wear sweat pants and long sleeves. I whined and complained about how hot it was to no avail. My dad himself was covered in Dickies–navy colored pants and long sleeves–with leather boots. He never complained. The thought of rich berry pie ala mode was enough to sustain and reward.

April. A month of cold nights, foggy mornings, and blazing afternoons that made morel mushrooms spring from the earth like Jack from his box. I'd follow my dad into the woods with mesh onion bags. We'd stand in the semi-shade and stare quietly at the forest floor. Then, after an eternity of me thinking, "There aren't any mushrooms" one would appear. As I'd stoop to pick its deeply crevassed crown I'd see another, and another, and...they were everywhere. Dad and I would troop home with bulging bags. Mom would wash them in salt water, coat them in flour, and fry them to oh-so-good-ness...

Young adults these days are returning to the farm, whether in urban gardens or literally going into agriculture. Foraging is hip. Finding food from the wild is the topic of classes from community to higher education. I see the ads in my local co-op and think about signing up. The moment on San Juan Island yesterday stopped me in my tracks.

I've been a forager my entire life.

We just never called it that. I was blessed enough to grow up in a place where people have not completely lost a connection to the land. My parents grew a garden that took up half an acre. My summer evenings were spent shelling peas, snapping beans, and husking corn by the wheelbarrow load. Berry picking. Mushroom hunting. The venison steaks on the grill courtesy of my dad. We grew the trees, cut them down, cured them and heated the house in a never ending cycle. The seasons were marked by the chores and the opportunities outside. Much of our food came from the bounty of the wild, or from the hard work of my parents hands.
I now know why I have dozens of pots littering my porch, all stuffed with herbs and tomatoes. I know why digging my hands into the earth and picking berries on my daily run leaves me, not only with dirty nails, but with a sense of peace. Foraging isn't arcane knowledge. It's a way of connecting to the world you live in. There is something so innately right about stopping along the road and wading into those pickers for that One. That perfect, juicy bit of ripeness that is suspended just a tad out of reach:

It's exactly what humans are meant to do.