Monday, February 8, 2010

At Dusk

For many years now, I have generally been of the get-out-and-run-in-the-morning-before-I-do-anything-else-today-because-it's-the-most-important-thing persuasion.  This is not to say that I don't log many a two-a-day session, it's just that my second run of the day is typically shorter, easier, and flatter than the morning outing.  Less serious.  More flexible.  Often barefoot.  Additionally, my body tends to feel better in the morning--the stomach is empty, the mental pressures and fatigue of the day have yet to accumulate, and afterall, all I've been doing for the past several hours is sleeping, so I generally have a surfeit of energy.

In college, logging the main workout of the day during the afternoon practice (~4PM, after a 5-8 mile jaunt before class that morning, of course) was a constant source of annoyance for me.  Without fail, the campus dining hall's food wreaked havoc with my intestines, so an otherwise idyllic autumnal session of, say, 24x400m on grass or 5xmile in the park was regularly rendered nearly unendurable thanks to undue gastrointestinal distress.

Conversely, many of my teammates hated running in the morning and thought I was borderline deranged for voicing my opinion that an interval session might be better performed at 7 or 8AM.  My fifth year at Colorado College (I headed back to slam through the entire Geology major in a single year), my good friend (and far more talented teammate: five-time All-American with 5K/10K PRs and school records of 14:30 and 30:43) Julian Boggs christened me his live-in guru for rousting him from sleep every morning at 6:40AM to log a brisk hour's cruise through the no-man's-land of social single-tracks and cacti-covered hills on the west side of I-25 that we referred to as The Mesas.  (Springs locals might know this better as Sonderman Park, but that apparent jurisdiction encompasses less than half of the open terrain we explored over there.)  Of course, this sort of accountability was only natural as Julian had been so accommodating (ridiculously so, in retrospect) as to allow me to take up residence under his half-lofted bed in his tiny (we're talking no more than 150 square feet here) single-person dorm room that semester.

This past week I rediscovered both the joys and dreads of doing substantial running later in the day.  On both Friday and Saturday evenings--after already logging my usual 2hr sojourn to the top of Green Mt and back in the morning--I got out again for a couple bonus Green summits.

These runs were shocking in their dialectic nature.

Striding away from my doorstep with an eye on the sun disappearing behind the Flatirons and a headlamp wrapped around my wrist I felt a curious pep in my stride that is hardly ever present in the pre-dawn darkness.  This sensation was always Julian's main argument for running in the afternoon--your body is fully awake and ready for action; the attendant incoordination of early morning miles is either completely skipped or compressed handily into a few quick steps.  When I arrived at the mouth of Gregory Canyon to begin the climb up Green my legs seemed to have super-powers.  I floated over big step-ups and skipped through technical terrain that I've become accustomed to zapping my energy.  My respiration rate indicated what should've been a high level of effort but none of this was borne out by any legitimate sensations of fatigue in my legs.  Everything was so easy.

This is the hidden aspect of mountain running that hikers or even road/track runners can never understand and will never know about.  It is the ineffable secret of those who have diligently paid their dues and over time become intimate confidants with a landscape that, to many, typically only represents an obstacle to be conquered.  Why, the hikers will ask, do you run these beautiful trails?  Aren't you afraid of missing the views, the scenery?  The road runners will claim, I don't want to sprain an ankle, scrape a knee, or thrash about at 12 minute pace when I can cruise the black-top hitting six minute miles with a perfect rhythm.

The answer, of course, is that, for me at least, the sheer felt kinesthetic sensation of a stretch of well-run trail unquestionably trumps the quality of any of those other experiences.  When things are going well-- when they're clicking on that unconscious, unforceable, primal plane of existence where every fiber is preternaturally aligned to the task of effortlessly traversing ground--there is a sense of everything being in its exact right place, right here, right now.  It's as if I am the leading star in my own life and at that moment I'm absolutely nailing the role.  To me, that type of experience is unassailable in its value.  And it doesn't happen while hiking.  Or fighting cars for a section of pavement.  It seems to require rocks, roots, and a significant gradient.

On Friday night, despite considerable darkness on the upper reaches of the Ranger trail that assuredly slowed my pace, I effortlessly PRed on the climb by a full two minutes.  There can be no more fitting place to celebrate a new best performance than from a mountaintop, at night.  Nearly 3000' below my feet, Boulder's lights glittered and glowed, casting light seemingly all the way to my position on the summit.  The swath of open space surrounding town presented itself in stark contrast as a lightless, dark band encompassing the city.

Alas, the downhill is where the duality of these night runs kicks in for me, i.e. there is a not-so-subtle shift in mood.  First, it's tough to run down technical trails in the dark--I don't care how bright the headlamp is.  Or maybe, my headlamp just isn't bright enough.

Second, downhills have a unique tendency to, um, shake things loose.  Suffice it say that, A) my two night runs this past week reaffirmed my belief in there being something profoundly amiss with my guts.  Things haven't been this wrong since Leadville.  And, B) when severe gastrointestinal issues strike, the true casualty in the situation is one's sense of self-dignity.  Early on, the effect is merely like that of an ominously rising river lapping at its banks:  no significant threshold is breached but the erosional effects cannot be denied.  Not so gradually, though, the water's destructive powers are realized and before you know it a full-on battle is raging, the result of which leaves your pride completely eviscerated and tattered somewhere back on the side of the trail.

In such a desperate, degraded, and depraved state any bush, any shadow, any shrub becomes fair game.  In my (most unfortunate) case, neither alleyways, baseball fields, nor fallow flower beds were left unscathed.  It was as if the euphoria of the first half of these runs had to be necessarily balanced with equally traumatic and depressing second halves.  Oh well, gotta keep things on an even keel, I guess.  Remain humble.

Thankfully, in retrospect, (and after a shower and when I'm someplace where toilet paper is readily available) I think the positives outweigh the negatives (if only barely), and I hope to continue to incorporate these night runs into the weekly routine.


Charlie said...

All my intestinal issues arise in the morning by contrast. All that nightime backlog is shaken loose over the first 5 miles and comes on suddenly and without warning. Fortunately bushwalkers are fairly scarce at that hour.

Another inspiring blog post, although I had to pull the dictionary out a few times, keep up the great work.

Are you likely to put all this peak fitness to work in a race soon?

g-one said...

Thanks for your reflections.

While I prefer to run, I have enjoyed some sense of peaceful rhythm hiking over nasty trackless terrain, mostly towards the end of a long day, where there is strong kinaesthetic pleasure in precise foot placements and gentle flowing forward motion. I suppose it is just more difficult to reach and doesn't have the same quality of immediacy. It is strangely peaceful though picking ones way through boulders and brush.

Keep well,


garobbins said...

There is simply nothing better in this world than dialing in a descent through a sweet piece of technical singletrack, especially at night!

If you're wrapping your headlamp around your wrist than I'm guessing it's a AAA setup. In which case I won't inform you as to which set ups I've found to work best, as you need no further advantages other than you're incredible training regime and obvious natural talent!

All I will say is that with the right light, there is no night!

See ya at Miwok, hopefully I won't need a headlamp for that one!!


GZ said...

Congrats on the PR ... you know both JV and I are curious as to what that is ... ;)

... and I hear Brandon has a spot on his team for another GI guy.

That shot of the moon is crazy. Did you take that?

Unknown said...

"Why, the hikers will ask, do you run these beautiful trails? Aren't you afraid of missing the views, the scenery? The road runners will claim, I don't want to sprain an ankle, scrape a knee, or thrash about at 12 minute pace when I can cruise the black-top hitting six minute miles with a perfect rhythm."

Isn't this so true. I tell someone I just went out for an hour on the trails. First thing they ask me is this. "What pace did you run, how many miles did you go?" They'll never get it will they.

Brandon Fuller said...

There are more than a few reasons that I like Green. How about reason #4:

A bathroom at the start and one half way up! You are never too far away from a good crapper.

Unknown said...

HA. I fell out of my seat reading this one. Oh the memories. I too have found I am a morning runner, mostly because of the "internals." I must say the evening or afternoon workouts are faster, yes, but not worth the "expense." Every body is a different instrument. I once had a teammate that could eat nachos ten minutes before a workout, while I had one bagel all day in hopes of not having "difficulties." Great reads.

Daniel Harris-McCoy said...

Awesome post. I went running tonight, partly inspired by your post, partly due to the impending storm that's going to blanket New England starting tonight!

The legs felt SO fresh, light, and quick. There are so many variables - what I ate and didn't eat, the warmer weather, a slight adrenaline rush from running in a kinda unsafe area - so I can't definitely say it was from running at a different time.

But it was a great, beautiful run in the dark here in Boston.

Eric@URP said...

I'm a morning runner, too.
3am, 4am, dark, foggy rain is my favorite, as the trails are empty, the sounds creepy, and there's something about breaking through the wet cobwebs on a trail that roadies simply don't understand.

Joshua said...

and i thought i was relatively alone in my problem of shitting myself while running. inspiring as always tony

Jeff B. said...

"Rock star in my own life", incredible words! I am a recovering road runner and through the painful trail runs I slowly see the beauty that you talk about, however I don't realize it until hours or days later.

Keep up the great posts, you have a way of words that make even the most unpleasant things come to life with vivid mental pictures (some of these pictures I wish I didn't have, but I think most of us who frequent 4-7 hour long runs have experienced what you wrote about).

Look forward to your upcoming season.

dd said...

that's the most eloquent description of "having the shits" that I've ever read! great post!
see you at miwok too

vis said...

Any tips for going sockless?

wiglebot said...

"there is a sense of everything being in its exact right place"

That is a famous Zen concept. The few paragraphs you wrote were that statement came from were beautiful. It is the reason I run in the mountains and live right next to them.

Marco Denson said...

You definitely have away with words. I have often planned my runs, depending on the time of day, around the availability of a place to crap. Saving one's dignity. LOL.

Mike Patrizi said...

That's the most poetic way I've ever heard someone talk about pooping on a run. Beautiful!

Art said...


Great writing, you have passed me several mornings this past Januaury in Gergory Canyon, I was not sure you were even human as you appeared out of the light snow and fog with the temperature in the single digits. A couple of triathletes told me about your blog last Saturday on the summit of bear peak. I would run the Flatirons if I could, but for now I must haul my 220 pound frame with all my strength to reach green mountain summit , can you give me a 1 hour handicap?

Keep up the blog writing is in your future!