A Life Relentless

Chapters

by aliferelentless

Something happens when it is time to buy a new calendar that causes people to look backwards. It is an interesting phenomenon spurred on by running out of random pieces of paper representing our collective futures. Mine has pictures from Star Wars Episode IV on it. Anyhow, New Years is here again.

Looking back at my own year, I can’t believe another year has passed already and yet I also can’t believe it’s only been one year. Probably the biggest deal in my life that people know about in this past year is than I trained for and completed my first ever ultramarathon. That was pretty nifty, not gonna lie.

I find myself looking a little further back today, as this is an anniversary of sorts. See, three years ago around about this time I decided I was done. I was not going to date anymore. After a divorce four years ago, I embarked on throwing myself back into the dating world after more than a decade of marriage. It had a few interesting moments, but mostly I found the process discouraging. I had been living in Florida during my divorce and while I was there I signed up for OKCupid. Twice.

The first time I registered, I found myself questioning every answer I had to every survey. I was spending time wondering how my answers would be interpreted and how they may impact my prospective matches on the site. Needless to say, this was an incredibly wrongheaded approach, but one I am fairly confident a large portion of the people dating in the online world employs. There are square pegs and round holes are being manipulated time and again and so many wonder why the results are less than stellar. I did end up meeting some interesting people and some genuinely terrifying individuals, but overall I knew I was going about the process all wrong. I shut it down, and I started over.

My second attempt at the website saw me answering each and every question with my actual feeling on the matter. Kids, let me tell you what a completely different experience this was. I gave absolutely zero fucks for how anyone would interpret anything and replied to every message with the complete truth. I took survey after survey, answering hundreds if not thousands of questions in order to flesh out my life in as detailed a manner as a dating app would allow. Then, I set off to find my matches.

Being a divorced combat veteran atheist vegan metalhead who not only does not have kids but does not want kids made for some interesting results. I immediately began receiving completely different types of messages. The things people asked were hilarious, looking back on it. People wanted to bargain. The messages revolved around children and food, mostly. “I am going to make you eat bacon.” No, you are not. “Will you shave your beard for me?” Nope. What I surmised from these types of questions  and statements was that people were asking if I could be manipulated. Some then questioned my answers, again looking to bargain. Looking to see if I would change my mind in order to momentarily satisfy a stranger on the internet. I did not budge.

This is a good thing.

The way the site works is that you answer questions and are then analyzed regarding your answers. Then, you are matched up by percentages with people who had similar or otherwise compatible answers to your own. In central Florida, this divorced combat veteran atheist vegan metalhead who not only does not have kids but does not want kids kind of topped out at around a 78% match. Most of these closer matches lived across the state from me in the Tampa area, about 2 hours away. This was too far of a drive, so I moved to Portland, Oregon. You know, as you do.

After moving to Portland, I resumed my online adventure. I was a stranger in a strange land, and I needed to meet people full stop. Logging into the app, I found I was surrounded — absolutely surrounded — by 99% matches. Things, it seemed, were coming up Milhouse. I went on a few dates, had a few semi decent times, but failed to connect with anyone. Then I noticed an interesting phenomenon occurring; the closer the match was to me, the less there was to actually connect over. This hit home full force when a 99% match I had spoken with off and on started messaging me one evening.

The 99% match and I were chatting through the app after I got home from my knitting circle. You know, as you do. I got my start meeting new people in Portland partially by going to a knitting circle, and I had a great time. I’ll write more about that some other time. Anyhow, 99% asks me what I am up to. I reply that I just got in from my knitting group and now I am chilling out. The knitting was apparently a turn on. She asks what I am doing at the moment. She asks if she can come get me and take me to get a slice of pie. I answer no, I am in the tub. Well, apparently the tub was another magic answer because she went ballistic. She insists she come get me and take me out for a slice of pie. I again say no. I am enjoying the tub. It is warm, I have bubbles, the lights are off and my candles are lit. This is a good evening. This sent her over the edge. She insists once more that she come get me for pie. I feel somewhat obligated at this point since I turned her down twice and she came back a third time. I agree.

I should mention here that we had a date planned the very next evening. Apparently kitting and baths is combine to form an irresistible combination for the 99% match, so she decided we should meet for the very first time about 20 hours early. Okay. No problem. I get dressed and go down to wait on the street. She picks me up and we head out for pie. She takes me out to Shari’s by the Portland Airport. She parks the car, and we get out. Walking across the parking lot, she slams full speed into a sign for a handicapped parking spot. Full speed. She never saw it coming. I do my best to pretend it didn’t happen and practice deep, deep breathing to avoid the laughter which is trying to escape against my own sense of decorum. She really hit that thing hard, and I honestly felt bad. But, it was also funny.

We go in and settle into a booth and select two types of pie. 99% and I start chatting. She asks about my tattoos. She has several herself. We discuss those. She mentions a slice of pizza she has tattooed on her ass, and then proceeds to show me a picture of it. Henceforth, 99% shall be referred to as Pizzabutt. She then starts to tell me about her life.

Almost immediately, the 1% difference became the Grand fucking Canyon.

I was not always a good husband, but I was a dedicated and faithful one. My marriage was bad for many years before I faced up to it. The reason it ultimately ended was that my ex wife cheated on me. To this day, I am not a fan of cheaters or cheating. The end of my marriage was traumatic to me in a deep and lasting way. She then began to detail that she had been married before as well. Twice, in fact. To the same man. She began to tell me how “stupid” — her word — he was because she cheated on him. She asked me what kind of man allows his wife to cheat on him. She told me how “stupid” he was when he took her back and remarried her and she cheated on him again. She told me how he had a beard, like mine, and at her request he shaved it. She told me how “stupid” he looked without it. She told me how repulsed she was to learn he had a double chin under his beard. She then began a body-shaming tirade wherein somewhere I found myself despising this woman.

I finished my pie while Pizzabutt rambled. I paid, and she drove me home. I wondered if I had been judging her too harshly, and I wondered if I should give her another chance at our originally scheduled date the next evening. I decided I would reserve judgement. A few hours later I was sitting down to lunch with my good friend Nicki when my sister texted me that I needed to come to Florida. The phone then rang. She told me that our father had died.

What followed was a blur of commotion during which many people extended several niceties to me to aid me in getting across the country as quickly as possible to be with my family. A bevy of volunteers lined up at the chance to take care of the legendary Piper, my Rottweiler. In a hilarious faux pas which I completely missed on the first go around, a woman texted me that she was a friend of a friend and that she could take care of my dog while I attended to my family. I told her it would not be necessary as someone else had taken him in. She then said it was cool and asked to get a drink with me when I got back into town. We ended up becoming friends and I later learned the hilarious story where she then immediately texted a mutual friend of ours, “Oh, my god! His dad died and I think I asked him out!”

During the chaos, I texted Pizzabutt and told her I would not be able to make our date. And I told her why. To her credit, she immediately called me and offered her condolences. This seemed to redeem her to me as during this time I took any kindness shown to me as significant. Maybe I had judged her too harshly. I told her I would be in touch while in Florida.

Once in Florida, she would randomly text me to complain about male friends she had and how they wanted to have sex with her. This felt weird and off-putting to be discussing with me specifically, but I didn’t make a big deal about it. I would text back that I was in the funeral parlor and that I would not be able to see my father’s body before he was cremated because of a Florida state law. Ya know, six of one, really. We’ve all got problems. (Snark added for effect; not included in original texts.) She then replied that it was “not cool” — Pizzabutt’s words — to talk about my father. I told her there was no reason for her to contact me again. And, I thought that was that.

Fast forward about three weeks, and I am back in Portland with Piper. My little apartment, my knitting circle, twice-weekly yoga, dinner in front of the TV (Sons of Anarchy) with a blanket over my shoulders and a farting Rottweiler on my feet. It was my little Portland life that I needed in order to heal from the death of my father. One night around 3am, my phone buzzed. It was Pizzabutt.

“Do you really never want to hear from me again?”

There was an inflection to the text that I noticed immediately. It was similar to the way my ex spoke. As if it were unthinkable that I would turn down the opportunity to interact. As if I were missing out on some great treasure because of nothing but my own pride. I put the phone down knowing any response at all, even a negative one, was exactly what she was looking for. The next day around lunchtime, I decided to answer.

“I don’t really see the point. I don’t want to hear about the other guys trying to fuck you and you don’t want to hear what I have been going through with the death of my father. It’s a big city. I am sure you’ll be fine.”

The blue reply button lit up immediately. What popped up on my phone was the generic “I didn’t know you were such an asshole” reply that I was expecting. A nerve had been struck. I blocked her number and moved on with my life. I texted another good friend, Susan, sent her screen caps of the convo (which she found hilarious), and we made a date to go out of drinks later. As the time to go out approached, my normal baseline reclusiveness flared up telling me to stay in. I am a textbook introvert, and going out sounded exhausting. However, another thought entered my brain telling me to go out with Susan, because when I go out with Susan good things happen.

We met at the bar along with another of her friends whom I had not yet met. We set about to debriefing my online dating misadventures and I came to the conclusion that I was done. I was finished. No more relationships for me. I was just going to get laid when I needed to and stay alone the rest of the time. Seems simple enough to me. I would probably discover cold fusion in the process. Why not? She told me that my plan was probably not going to work as I was a relationship person. As our conversation continued, she mentioned the woman who had accidentally asked me out when my father died. She told me what a fun person she was and how she also had terrible luck with dating. She also admitted while we would have fun, we were probably not compatible in any romantic way. Then, her eyes lit up and she struggled to find words. She looked across the table to our other friend. She snapped her fingers as we both tried to guess her thought. What came out sounded like nonsense to me.

“Cherry!”

I had no idea that “Cherry” was referring to a person. Once Susan had said it, our friend blinked, looked at me, nodded in agreement and calmly said,”Yeah.” Once again, I was surrounded by a flurry of activity.

“What are you doing New Years Eve?” asked Susan. Before the words landed in my ears, “Never mind. I know what you are doing on New Years Eve.” She began frantically typing into her phone. “Do you have pajamas? You are going to need pajamas.” Total confusion on my part. She then snapped of picture of me at point blank range and continued her frantic typing.

What I have come to learn is that “Cherry” was, and is, a person. Her real name is Angela. Many of my friends in Portland have been roller derby players and coaches, and Angela skated and coached under the name of Cherry Lipsmacker. Susan’s real name is not Susan, but Amanda. Susan is a derby name as well. As someone who has a terrible time remembering names, moving to Portland was especially challenging when I had to meet new people and learn multiple names for each. She was texting Cherry to ask if she could invite me to a New Years pajama party Cherry was throwing at her house. The picture she took was in response to Cherry asking if I was cute.

I owned no pajamas. I did not remember the last time I owned pajamas. I ended up texting with Nicki as I walked around Macy’s in downtown Portland grumbling the entire time. I basically was saying, “This is stupid. I don’t even want pajamas. I am never going to wear pajamas. This is a waste of time and money. And this party is going to be a waste of time. I am never going to see this person again. Why am I spending money on pajamas I don’t want and going to a party I don’t want to go to in order to meet someone I am never going to see again?”

Spoiler alert: Cherry and I celebrated our first year of marriage this past September.

I bought the pajamas and some slippers. I drove across town and knocked on a door of a house I had never been to; the same house I am typing this in right now. I walked into a room where every woman was wearing pajamas, but only one other man was. I came to find out he changed into his pajamas only after arriving at the party and making sure it was in fact a pajama party. It never occurred to me to have a backup plan. I figured, fuck it. Show up in my pajamas. Worst case scenario: I embarrass myself in front of a room full of people I never have to see again.

Cherry was not who answered the door. A couple of her friends answered. I remember her voice saying “hello” as she leaned her head out of the kitchen. I recall thinking that I don’t know which one was Cherry, but I really hoped it was her. By the way, if you had only heard her voice once, you would remember it, too. It is distinctive. Cherry was wearing a cheetah print onesie with a pink bra underneath, and she was fucking hammered. Understandable. It was 9pm, after all.

I had a great time with the group. I won my first ever game of Cards Against Humanity. Cherry and I interacted sporadically during the night. Since she was so far gone by the time I arrived, I love to make up details about what exactly happened the night we met. She never remembers anyhow. As the night wore on, more friends left. I ended up staying until 3am. Over the coming days and weeks, Cherry and I met up for what we have come to refer to as “not-a-dates.” One thing we definitely knew we had in common was that neither of us was ready to date. I am not sure if we ever became ready.

When I knew things with Cherry were good was when I felt like it would be okay if we never dated. I honestly felt a renewed sense of awe with the world which has stayed with me. It didn’t matter if we ever had a relationship. I felt better about life just knowing a person like her existed.

As I mentioned, we are married. We are very happy together. We have a second dog named Ripley who keeps Piper young. We have a cat named Sam who terrorizes Ripley and adores Piper. Tonight, on the third anniversary of meeting at a New Years Eve pajama party, we are hosting a New Years Eve pajama party. As this chapter comes full circle, we look to begin the next one. Cherry and I have decided that Portland is not the place for us to be any longer. We have made the decision to move across the country in search of new adventures, new opportunities, and new relationships.

As I leave Portland, I end a chapter which began nearly 15 years ago when I first became obsessed with the idea of living here. When my old life fell apart and it came time to start a new one, Portland was where I chose to call home. I moved here over three years ago, and I feel ready to leave it behind as a place I continue to love rather than to stay until I resent it. I am a nomad at heart. Portland is as close a place as I have ever permanently called home. I think I did Portland to the best of my ability. I don’t feel I am leaving here with any opportunity left unrealized. After all, I am leaving here with Cherry.

If I have any words of wisdom on the dawn of a new year, it is this:

Good things happen when you show up to a stranger’s house in your pajamas.

My First Steps Beyond: The 2016 Squamish 50K Ultramarathon

by aliferelentless

“There are mountains to cross, for all that are willing. There are never-ending treasures that await you.” – Reroute To Remain by In Flames

The morning was considerably darker in Squamish, British Columbia than was typical back in my hometown of Portland, Oregon. Without a cloud in the sky, I quickly spotted 4 satellites moving amongst the innumerable stars above. The record heat of the previous day lingered in the air and defanged the morning chill. I stood alone on a rooftop terrace and faced the south. The silhouette of the iconic rock face known as the Squamish Chief stood out only as a faint juxtaposition of black on black. It was just after 3am.

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Squamish Chief the evening before the 50K.

The day before the 50k and 23k races in Squamish features the 50 mile race. The heat during the race was incredible. In fact, Squamish was the hottest place in Canada that day when it was all said and done. The air hung heavy in less measurable ways as tragedy threatened to mar the otherwise festival-like atmosphere of the weekend. Days before, a local, well-respected trail runner and experienced hiker went missing while out on a hike with friends. As of this writing, he still has not been found. Authorities have suspended search efforts, but his family remains hopeful and wishes to continue the search privately. They are currently accepting donations towards this effort here. Less locally, it was a bittersweet day for Canada, as beloved rock band the Tragically Hip were performing their final concert after lead vocalist Gord Downie was diagnosed with an aggressive form of inoperable brain cancer earlier in the year. The concert in their hometown of Kingston, Ontario was being broadcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for free to all Canadians. Two blocks away from the house I was staying in, a couple thousand fans of The Hip gathered in the street to watch the concert together on a large screen. Despite the sadness of the day, locals expressed and shared their joy and hope with one another and with we visitors. It was genuinely inspiring.

The events served to offer perspective ahead of what was for me a considerable undertaking. Any obstacle I would personally face in the mountains would be nothing compared to what so many others were enduring. Under no circumstances would self-pity and despair be allowed to share my day. In some ways, this is the essence of endurance sports, and specifically trail running. No pity must ever be extended towards those of us lucky enough to voluntarily punish our bodies in such a manner.

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Dakota Jones wins the Squamish 50 mile.

Together with my wife, Cherry, and her sister, Jessica, I spent the afternoon hours at the finish line of the 50 mile race. Reports came in from the last aid station that Dakota Jones had a commanding 40+ minute lead on his nearest competitor. In the face of what is considered by many to be amongst the most demanding of all races in Canada being held in uncharacteristic and unforgiving heat, Dakota was under course record pace. I could not fathom the pressure he must have been feeling with each grueling step towards the finish. While victory was assured, the slightest misstep threatened to derail his historic performance. I watched Dakota step out into the final street. His stride showed no obvious signs of fatigue as he flowed into the finishing chute and across the finish line. Minutes ticked by waiting for his official results. The course record holder — who is a Squamish local — stood next to him as race director Gary Robbins announced that Dakota had officially set a new 50 mile course record with a margin of 47 seconds. It was incredible to witness.

I stayed at the finish line to watch the next several racers complete their journeys on the day. Chris DeNucci took second place and added to his already stellar record of performances. Coming around the final turn into the chute, Chris turned to me as I applauded and offered the most genuine of smiles and a thumbs up as he approached the finish. He would go on to compete in the 50 kilometer distance the following day in order to challenge for the title in what is known as the Squamish 50/50. He placed second in the 50 mile, fifth overall in the 50K, and won the Squamish 50/50 with his combined finishing times. The incredible Colin Miller from Canada took third in the 50 mile. Hannah Greene crossed the finish first for the women and fifth overall after what she astutely described as “a lot of running.” I have nothing but the utmost in admiration and respect for everyone who lines up to even attempt these distances, but seeing these incredible athletes conquer the course was truly a unique pleasure. Watching Dakota, Chris, and Colin gingerly shuffle to pose together for a podium photo was oddly reassuring as even the elites suffer out on these types of races.

Cherry, Jessica, and I ended our day back at the house with a spaghetti dinner. It is a simple tradition of mine before race day. I like a dinner of pasta with a sweet and garlicky sauce, some sort of vegan Italian sausage (Tofurkey brand, in this case), garlic bread, and a green salad. It is one of my most favorite meals on any given day, but I tend to reserve it for the nights before races. I did my best in the months, weeks, days, and hours leading up to this point to prepare my gear as well as my mind and my body. I went through last minute checks ensuring all was set for what would be an undoubtedly early morning. My race bib was secured to my shorts which were folded neatly and stacked with a pair of underwear, socks, a shirt, three Buffs, a hat, and my shoes. My breakfast of a banana along with a tortilla covered on one half with almond butter and the other with blueberry preserves and folded over was waiting in the refrigerator next to the two bottles I would carry throughout the race. With the heat of the weekend, I thought it best to carry a second water bottle in addition to my usual one. My left hand bottle would be filled with water and three scoops of Tailwind liquid nutrition. My right hand would be fresh water.

Cherry woke up and made herself some coffee. Jessica was buried under her covers as her race wouldn’t start for a couple hours after mine began. Her course started at roughly the halfway point of mine. In addition to a shorter course, she is also much faster than me and would finish her race hours before I could possibly finish mine. I was showered and dressed and fed. There was nothing left to do but head out to the starting line at Alice Lake up the Sea To Sky Highway.

Arriving at Alice Lake, there was a scattering of headlamps in the dark. Gary Robbins was organizing a group of volunteers who were gearing up to assemble the race start and guide the runners into the woods beyond the campgrounds and parking lots. I live by the concept that if you are early, you are on time. If you are on time, you are late. If you are late, you might as well never show up. I was plenty early. The first of three busses shuttling racers from a central parking area in downtown Squamish had not yet arrived. This afforded me the rare opportunity of a pre-race bathroom trip completely unaccompanied. I did not pass it up.

There are always goals entering any given race. Many of my fellow runners arrived at the starting line burdened by expectation and weighed down by hope. Some were seeking redemption from years gone by with races unfinished. Others were racing themselves, hoping to better a previous finishing time. Yet others like Chris DeNucci and Anna Frost were racing for podium finishes, and carrying the expectations of thousands every step of the way. Being my very first ultramarathon even attempted, I had the luxury of running without any expectations whatsoever. My goals were simple. I wanted to finish. I wanted to experience all the course had to offer. I wanted to end the day as unscathed as possible. It should be noted that this was also the order of priority for these goals. The most important thing for me on the day was to finish. And I was willing to bleed to do it.

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Alice Lake before the race began.

We runners stood together as Gary gave his pre-race instructions. I was surprisingly not nervous. I made the conscious decision that no matter what happened on the day, I would remain my biggest fan, strongest supporter, and kindest companion. Having such a person as Cherry in my life made this more lofty of a goal than it might outwardly seem. Her love and support are beyond measure. She set the template I was determined to follow. Mindfulness and self-awareness guided my training over the previous 6 months, and I knew they would be needed to get me through the day. I decided to trust my efforts in my training leading up to the start of the race. I decided to trust myself to make the best decisions to put me in a position to be successful in meeting my goals. And I decided to cease imagining all that could go wrong, and instead imagined all that could go right. When the countdown reached zero and the official race clock began, I stepped out onto the the Squamish 50 course as ready as I could possibly be.

The first miles of the 50 kilometer course are a joy. The pavement lasts only a matter of minutes and is quickly replaced by the soft, rolling trails of the lower elevations of western British Columbia. I had run these miles before, weeks earlier in the summer. I wanted to experience the first half of the race course before race day, most specifically the notorious climb known as Galactic. On race morning, I was glad I had. I was able to shuffle off the nerves of navigating unfamiliar terrain and instead check fully in with my body, my pacing, my effort, and my thoughts. The majority of runners quickly disappeared in front of me as the trails undulated between small yet beautiful lakes, leading us ever closer to mountain biking trails and our first real climb of the day.

There is an adage in long distance running; start slow, run slower. This has become my strategy as it has proven its own usefulness with each race I have run. I was not running hard enough to break a significant sweat, though the morning air was quite humid. My breathing was deep and slow. After a couple of miles, I started to approach some of the runners who had left me behind earlier. I prefer not to pass anyone for as long as I can during a race, but I felt it was time as my pace was just not the same as theirs. I greeted a woman as I passed her on her left. She seemed to be struggling early. I left behind a man I had shared the trail with for nearly 5k 0f our 50. I checked in with myself in order to make sure I was not overextending myself too early. I wasn’t. The hiking trail soon merged with a mountain biking trail and the fun began.

The trail soon formed a straightaway which emerged from the tree line and crossed under massive utility towers leading down the mountains and towards the town below. The terrain began to buck and twist as we neared a section of fast-flowing water. I caught a group of three runners who were taking a momentary break on the trail. They fell in behind me. The group was a woman and two men, one her husband and the other her brother. The woman was the clear leader of the group. She soon let me know they had traveled from Calgary to run the race. Her young son was back in a hotel room in town being watched over by her mother. She asked if I had ever run the race before. I told her I had run this section of the course before, but this was my first time running the race. In fact, I said, it was my first time running an ultramarathon at all. She congratulated me and wished me luck, and asked if I knew how far the first aid station of the day was from where we were. I broke the news to her that the station was not far, but that the first significant climb of the day separated us from it. Within moments, we were upon the first steps of Made In The Shade, a steep and technical trail leading us upwards.

Here is where I truly began to benefit from my course recon. If I had hit Made In The Shade for the first time on race day, it would have been a serious blow to my confidence. The section of trail barely registers on the elevation chart below the race map, dwarfed by Galactic which comes shortly after. The climb is intense. Brutally intense in places. Hands are needed to pull the runner up and over the roots, rocks, and mud that seems to go nearly completely vertical. While difficult, the climb is mercifully short. Knowing this helped me to lock into a slow and steady mode of climbing. The top of the trail is marked by a stationary exercise bike someone hauled out into the middle of nowhere for a joke. I greeted it like an old friend and stretched my legs to run again.

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Winding towards the first aid station.

The trail from here winds downwards through the trees before slaloming under more power lines. I knew this section would end at aid station number one. This was roughly 10K into the day. I finished off the remaining Tailwind in my bottle and shook my water. I had probably two-thirds of a bottle remaining. Entering the aid station, volunteers called out my number and marked my entrance on a chart. I pulled out a bag of Tailwind powder and dumped the contents into my empty bottle. A volunteer asked to take the bottle from me to finish the job. This would be the most effort I would ever have to expend on refilling my own water the entire day. Each and every volunteer I encountered was friendly, knowledgeable, and could not do enough to help make sure all of us had what we needed to survive until the next aid station. I cannot thank them or sing their praises highly enough. They were simply incredible.

I perused the foods available on a table before me. I decided to eat whatever I felt like eating, within reason, during the race. Listening to one’s body is critically important in these types of things. The first thing I grabbed was a small wedge of watermelon. It tasted like heaven. Being in the early stages of the race, this first aid station was not stocked as deeply as other might be. There were potato chips, cookies, and other snack foods. A jar of pickles caught my eye. My body told me to eat one. I grabbed a mini dill pickle from the jar, retrieved my bottles from the volunteer who had filled them, thanked everyone for being there, and set off on the trail. There was a gentle, slow climb before some more rolling gravel road sections ahead. I knew this was a good section to get the legs turning over beneath me again. Galactic was nearing with each step.

I didn’t exit the aid station alone. I found myself running next to a man and we introduced ourselves. Exchanging names and hometowns on the trails is pretty common. Most of the runners I had met thus far were from Canada. Many were surprised when I said I was from Portland, Oregon. This runner, Ben, was surprised as well, because he was also from Portland. People from Portland generally love to talk about Portland as much as runners tend to love to talk about running. Over the next few minutes of conversation, we discovered we lived only a few blocks apart in the same neighborhood in north Portland. We had also lived a couple of blocks apart in downtown northwest Portland when we each were living the single life in apartments. We talked about our favorite routes to run in Forest Park. The trail flowed beneath our feet with ease. Shortly, I recognized the sharp left run off of the service road and into the trees. A sign greeted us. Galactic.

Some races are notorious in their entirety, such as the Badwater 135. Yet others have specific sections that are known to bring many a runner low, such as the Powerline on Orcas Island. Galactic is one such section. It is a slow and steady slog up a mountain. It is unrelenting, mostly dark, and in some places, quite treacherous. The runner must enter a different mindset entirely when making climbs of this sort. Aside from the most elite runners, the vast majority of the pack are relegated to a steady march upwards. Such was the case with me and Ben. He insisted I take the lead.

Our pace was respectable on the climb. We soon encountered a line of runners who had left me behind many miles before. This is fairly predictable for my experience in races. I am not fast, so straightaways are where I tend to lose ground to sprinters. What I am is strong, tough, and stubborn. When the terrain and weather get bad, I tend to perform better. I typically catch and pass people on both uphill and downhill sections of races, especially if they are particularly technical trails. Catching a dozen runners in front of me on Galactic was no problem. Passing them was impossible. I knew the trail. I knew how narrow and potentially hazardous it was. I checked in with Ben and he agreed that our pace was tolerable. We locked into step behind the group and pressed on.

Sections of Galactic open up with no warning offering runners and hikers views which are equally breathtaking in their beauty and the effort expended to experience them. Moments like these remind me of why I venture out onto the trails in the first place. They remind me of the immeasurable beauty our planet contains at any given time regardless of our own often petty circumstances. I turned to Ben. “That is worth training for.” He looked out over the expanse of trees we had navigated earlier in the morning. “Yes, it is.”

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Worth training for.

The climb continued with many a false summit to the trail. The group would scurry forward whenever the trail became even the slightest measure more forgiving. I knew we still had a ways to go, so I would close the gap when the runners ahead of me would slow for another climb. The relatively slow pace of a long climb is an opportune time to conserve resources. The climb, while considerable, was not usually what breaks runners. It is the descent on the other side. We topped out on Galactic after 2,500 feet of climbing. We had over 3,000 feet of descending to do, nearly every inch of it technical and punishing.

Descending a technical trail is not generally the most appropriate place for a group effort. Attempting to match a pace faster or slower than your own while at the mercy of gravity can lead to disaster. I needed to pass some people, while Ben needed to pass and leave me. We shouted our contact info and our well wishes to one another before he disappeared around a steep corner. I set my entire focus on the trail directly before my feet. The descent down Mt. Constitution following the climb up the Powerline trail in January nearly ended my day during the Orcas Island 25K. I spent the months afterwards preparing myself mentally and physically for the punishment ahead.

Ankles buckled. Runners fell and cursed in front of me. Gravity won again and again as fatigue started to set in on the course. I shifted both water bottles to my right hand to leave my left open to help guide me. I generally look to follow the path of flowing water when descending, but the trail in this section was particularly dry and dusty and seemed to mock my attempts at strategy. I decided to enter into short bursts of controlled falling down the steep sections, catching myself with my left hand and using the trees to break my fall. Downward, downward. I continued. I knew the second aid station was not far. The distance between that and the third at the midway point of the race was short compared to all others.

Entering the second aid station, I sent a text to Cherry to update her on my progress. She was set up at Quest University at aid station three. In my preparation for Squamish, I knew how difficult the front half of the course was. I figured if I could make it into Quest before the time cutoff, I would finish the race. The course winded away from aid station two and through the woods. I locked into a comfortable pace and ran while basically meditating as the terrain no longer required my full attention. I passed a few cars on the right side of the trail where people were camping in their vehicles. Without warning, there was a woman clapping above my head. I looked up. She was on the balcony of a large faculty building in order to greet runners into Quest University. I waved my appreciation and exited the tree line. I turned left around the corner of the building. Volunteers called out my number on the radio and that I was looking strong. I thanked them and told them I felt strong. Up a short hill, I saw Cherry waiting for me. I waved and entered the aid station for the midpoint of my first ultramarathon.

Few things in life have the regenerative properties of a clean, dry change of clothes. This was my first priority entering Quest. I took my dry duds and headed off to change. I kept my shorts I had been running with, but changed my socks, underwear, and shirt. The change was dramatic and instant. I updated Cherry with my progress and my feelings. I felt good. As good as I could reasonably feel at this point in a race. I knew there was a long way to go and that I was far from hitting rock bottom, but I was ready. Just as I was at the starting line, I once again felt ready. I told Cherry I was going to eat lunch while in the aid station. This was only a slight exaggeration. More pickles, potato chips, watermelon, a cookie… I ate them all as I tried listening for what my body was telling me it needed. An arm wrapped around my shoulders. “What do you need?” asked a volunteer. I told him I thought I was good. We turned and took in the stunning view from the gorgeous campus.

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Entering Quest Aid Station. Photo by Angela Modzelewski (Cherry)

“It is easy to suffer here. This is amazing.”

He squeezed my shoulders, “You are amazing!” he said. I felt like he meant it. Cherry stood with my two fresh bottles at the ready. I took them from her and said that I was ready. I kissed her, told her I loved her, and turned to continue the race. She told me she would see me at the finish line. The smile was impossible to erase from my face.

The course exited the opposite end of the small campus and began another immediate climb, the second longest of the day. I could see two runners who had left the campus minutes before me beginning their climb and disappearing into the trees. The paved road turned to gravel before I hit the trails once again. A volunteer sat at the opening in the trees and stood to cheer as I passed. She told me it was just another climb. No biggie. Nice and shady. I thanked her and pressed on.

Within minutes on this climb, things started to feel off. A wave of something resembling sadness came over me and washed away the euphoria of the halfway point. My stomach also started to turn. Reality came crashing in to remind me that the worst the day had to offer was yet to come. I knew this beforehand, but now I felt it. I locked into the climb and focused on keeping my feet moving. Shortly, I started catching glimpses of the two runners who left the university just before I did as they went around corners ahead of me. The gap was closing and I felt less alone. As I neared them, another runner I recognized from the university came down the trail past them both. I asked him if he was okay. He said his stomach was upset and he was done. He was returning to Quest to drop from the race.

It is always a sobering experience seeing someone’s race end before the finish line. I have not yet had the experience of a dreaded DNF; did not finish. This runner was the first I had seen formally ending his own day at Squamish. I felt awful for him. I wanted to tell him he had come so far and the end was nearing by the moment. His mind was clearly made up and trying to convince him otherwise seemed like it would prolong his suffering. He passed and we each continued on our own paths. Upward, upward.

The next section of the race is where I have the least memory. The race had turned into work, pure and simple. I was on my feet and moving forward. This is another key component of running long distances. It is part of what attracted me to attempt an ultra in the first place. Each progressive distance seems to provide its own challenges and mysteries. The allure of running beyond the familiar is intoxicating. I was quickly moving ahead of the trails I had scouted out earlier and past the maximum distances I had raced on trails before. Most of my races have been half marathons. I have run one marathon before in my life, and it was not on trails. Everything between me and the finish line would be brand new.

I set out on this section of the course with the idea of running only aid station to aid station. I would not allow myself to think beyond these shorter segments of the overall race. Moreover, I would do my very best to keep my attention exactly where I was and nowhere else. As miles and hours tick by, this becomes more of a challenge. Sometimes my thoughts on the trails echo the waning hours of the day when I try to sleep. Unwelcome thoughts find me when I am tired and unable to escape. I prepared for this. I almost welcomed it.

The fourth aid station brought me a bit of rejuvenation. Fatigue was building by the second with no real way to stop it, but the notion that I had checked off four of the five stops separating the start line from the finish felt like a tangible accomplishment. “I am here. I am doing this,” I thought. I felt a sense of gratitude. There wasn’t a particular object for this. I suppose maybe it was for myself, for challenging myself and for honoring my struggle through the day and the months before. I left the aid station ahead of the two men who were in front of me on the previous section. When I left, they were both sitting down. I made a mental note; no matter what happens ahead, there would be no sitting.

I was soon sharing the trail with a young woman and we began talking. She told me she was from about an hour away from Squamish. She asked if I had ever run the race before. I told her it was my first attempt at an ultra. She told me I picked a doozie. There was something just beneath her words and threatening to break through. She was definitely struggling. I continued chatting as inanely as possible. “I am thinking about dropping,” she interrupted. I told her if she just kept moving exactly as she was, that she would finish. Her voice broke. “You’re so nice. I love our trail community. Thank you.” We proceeded along the trail. A couple of mountain bikers came up behind us. We pulled to the side of the trail to let them pass. They could see the anguish on her face. “Hey,” said one of the bikers in his signature Canadian style, “you know, this will be over sometime. Whatever this is.”

Another descent lie before us. It was steep and technical, but I knew from studying the map that it was not terribly long. My trail companion moved aside and told me to pass. She would need some time. I told her my name. She told me hers as I bounded downwards over a section of exposed roots. A corner separated us for the rest of the day. When I last saw her, she was hugging a tree with an expression of utter despair on her face. I looked up her name afterwards. She would not finish the race.

I soon passed a man in a yellow shirt as the trail opened up a bit. I had seen him on several sections early in the day, and I was happy to see he was still doing well. The fifth and final aid station lie ahead. I was aware of a time cutoff that I was working on beating. I exited aid station five with about 45 minutes to spare before the cutoff. Behind me lie three major and several relatively minor climbs. Ahead lie Mountain of Phlegm, a steep and technical climb up and over one last summit before the final push back into town and to the finish line.

The loosely formed group I had been leapfrogging with over the previous few hours set off from aid station five determined to notch our respective finishes. 39 kilometers had been conquered thus far. The 11 remaining held enough excitement for the entire race.

I had been running with a pair of teachers from the Squamish area when my pace led me ahead of one of them. The other ran with me for some time until she needed to scoot ahead of me down the trail. We were all locking into our own survival paces that we needed to maintain for the duration of the distance. Any faster or slower felt like torture. I carried on down a relatively smooth section of winding trail when the teacher in front of me suddenly appeared around a corner. She was running towards me and waving. “Bear.”

She stopped when she met me. “There are bears. Bears on the trail.” I kept moving forward, walking now. When I rounded the corner, a few runners were bunched up. They spoke in unison as I approached, all warning me of the bears. The woman from Calgary took out her phone to show me a picture. I have a bit of experience with bears, and certainly enough to know to treat the situation as serious. So long as there were no cubs around, I felt that things would probably be fine. As if on cue, a young tree ahead began to shake violently. Two bear cubs were climbing up it.

Shit.

“Okay,” I said pointing to the phone, “Where is this bear now?” The group told me it was just around the next corner. I walked past the group and looked around the corner, announcing my presence with shouts and claps. I didn’t immediately see a bear. I continued forward. There she was. Just off to the left of the trail, the mama bear was staring down our group. She made no movement to flee, nor did she vocalize any aggression towards the group. She was standing her ground, and she wanted us to know it.

More runners caught our group as the minutes piled up with none of us able to continue. Seven runners now. One volunteer. The volunteer was on her phone trying to get some advice on how to proceed or to get someone to come out to handle the bears. Listening to her, it became clear that she didn’t know where we were. Others in the group were starting to panic as we held our position in the woods. Some were suggesting going off trail, which would have been a very bad idea in the very thickly forested mountain terrain. Cliffs were everywhere, and rarely evident in advance. The bear showed no intention of leaving. I am not sure exactly how long we were stopped, but it was considerable. Perhaps 45 minutes to an hour. At some point I thought to text Cherry.

“There is a bear and cubs blocking 8 of us. We can’t go anywhere.”

More runners caught the group. One of the final two to find us was a local man who had experience with the bear population. He and I positioned ourselves in the front and rear of a group of racers with the intent of moving past the bear while showing the remaining group how to do the same. We stood close together, waved our arms, clapped and shouted, and walked past the bear. She was utterly unimpressed. Her gaze followed us as we neared a small creek crossing. This creek was the unofficial second starting line of the race, about 42K in. Once we hit it, the group took off running.

I found myself alone in the woods. Running. Tired. A little stressed. For a good portion of the race, every dark shadow under a fern was a bear. Every stick snapping behind me was an angry mama bear chasing me down. I made up some time over the course of about a mile. It had been over twenty minutes since I texted Cherry about the delay. I let her know I was moving again.

Mountain of Phlegm was still ahead. The adrenaline of the bear encounter wore off quickly and a fresh level of fatigue cut deep into me. I was bleeding energy both physical and mental with each labored step. As I entered the final significant climb of the day, I was hitting a new low. The clouds are growing dark. The temperate began to drop.

The last couple hundred yards up Mountain of Phlegm are what I can only describe as a “motherfucker.” In fact, I repeatedly described it as such out loud while my heart felt as though it were going to burst from my throat. I could actually see my heartbeat in visual distortions of the world around me. My body was working in what it perceived as extreme overtime. There was a steep, muddy, root-covered scramble which lead to a large stone slab that I recognized as the summit. Hitting that stone leaves the runner but one way forward; you must summon a burst of speed and strength to carry you over the steep, smooth, featureless rock face. Cresting the summit of Phlegm, a volunteer gave me a reserved round of applause. Again, as if on cue, the weather now compelled me forward.

The dark clouds met directly overhead. Trees cracked and swayed as the winds suddenly picked up. There was a single rumble of thunder all around, and hail began to fall. The summit was no place for me to be. I began the final descent down the mountain.

At this point in the race, each and every step was painful in its own way. I found my concentration leaving me when I most needed it. I began to coach myself.

“You will never experience this again. Feel everything. Hear everything. See everything. Be right here, right now.”

The descent carried over all manner of terrain in a relatively short amount of time. There were roots and rocks, mud and sand, and, when my legs were at their most desperate, stairs. Coming down a steep descent late into a race, stairs are quite simply the last thing most runners want to see. It was a stroke of mad genius in designing the course though the mountains. One final kick in the gut to make one feel the full weight of the accomplishment which was coming to a close. The hail turned to rain, which in turn began to fall heavier with every inch I moved down the mountain.

Looking forward, I saw a house to my left. Then a neighborhood. There were steep rock faces to my right. Climbers poured out onto the trail in front of me, the weather chasing them to their cars. When one would see me coming and noticed my bib, they stood respectfully out of the way and congratulated me in the pouring rain. There were a couple of course marshals huddled under a small awning. “Keep going. You’ve got time. You are going to do this. Just keep going,” one said. The course then lead away from the rocks and through parking lots near the Squamish Adventure Centre, and then down the Sea To Sky Highway. The main city of Squamish was on the other side of the highway. I had wondered the entire day before how I was to cross the busy freeway. I was about to find out.

The driving rain made seeing down the road section of the course leading back into town and eventually to the finish line impossible. As per usual with me, the rain was a mercy. This was no time to be looking any further than the very next step. I had navigated 31 miles through the mountains of western British Columbia without significant incident or injury. This was more than could be said by more than a few of my fellow runners on the day. I was keenly aware of this and did not take it for granted. The bill of my cap kept the rain from flushing my contact lenses out of my eyes. I was completely drenched. I could not be any more wet had I jumped into Alice Lake. Each passing car would sound their horn in support. In my weakened state, this was startling. I smiled in spite of myself. The path lead behind a small park next to the waterfront before cutting right to a narrow path under a bridge allowing me to cross below the highway.

Coming up the path, I was met by three course marshals. All three were applauding. One with a clipboard instructed me to continue across a set of railway tracks and look for another marshal. I crossed the tracks after checking both ways. It would be a hell of a thing to get taken out by a train so late in a race. The marshal saw me approaching and started to cheer while I closed the hundred yards to where she stood. The rain was nearly done falling. Pedestrians stopped and joined her in congratulating me. There was a sharp left turn onto the street I had seen Dakota Jones running up the day before. A line of orange safety cones stretched ahead. “Follow the cones home,” said the marshal.

“Be here, right now.”

My mind briefly took me back to when I returned from Iraq. It was a moment I never gave myself the luxury of dreaming about before it happened. It was my third overseas deployment. I knew how special the experience was. I took the same approach with the race. I never allowed myself to think about crossing the finish line. I began the race without expectation. I would finish it the same.

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The author and Gary Robbins. Photo by Angela Modzelewski.

I took each step as deliberately as any I have taken in my life. I stepped off the concrete road and onto the soft grass of the park leading down the finishing chute. 50 yards. I could hear Cherry and Jessica cheering, though I could not see them in my narrow field of vision. I kept my eyes on the ground about five feet in front of me. The inflatable arch marking the finish line loomed overhead. My feet stepped over the timing strip marking the official end of my day. My favorite ultrarunner in the world, Gary Robbins, stood before me as I stepped off the course. Gary caught me as I caught him and we held a tight embrace. My eyes closed to hold in warm tears. “I am so proud of you,” he said. I felt like he meant it.

The Takeaway:

On most every single time I have completed a new distance of long-distance running races, I had sworn that I would never run so far again. I said this after running my first 5K, which I followed with a half marathon. My first 10K had me making similar claims. Finishing my first marathon had me cursing the distance and wondering why I had done it in the first place. Something different occurred in the waning miles of my first ultramarathon. The levels of suffering in the previous miles were immense, but I understood it. It all made sense to me. I get why people do this. I knew immediately that I wanted to do it again. I will run more ultras, and I will definitely return to Squamish and beat my time on this course.

In a final little bit of humor, Gary looked me in the eye as we released one another at the finish line. “Listen,” he said, “I’m sorry, but we ran out of medals. We will mail you one.” I couldn’t help but crack a smile at this. Of course they ran out of medals before I crossed the line of my first ultra. It was perfect. I received an email today that I should expect my medal in about a month from now. I will proudly share a photo of it when it arrives.

I also must acknowledge the sacrifices made leading up to Squamish by my partner in life, my wife, Cherry. During the course of training leading up to this undertaking, Cherry coached me and spent countless hours on trails and in parking lots waiting for me as I ran over 900 miles during my training program. Her support never wavered and was instrumental in sustaining me when the novelty wore off and the hard work began. I cannot begin to express my gratitude for this.

Lastly, it’s a rare thing in life to be able to so effectively define oneself in such a clear way from the course of one moment to another. Much of what I am in terms of labels are things which are largely out of my control. When I am referred to as a vegan, an atheist, or something as inconsequential as a non-smoker, I am defined simply by way of not making the same choices others have made for themselves. It is an odd thing. There is no end to the things I am not, and to define myself in this way seems like an exercise in futility. Ultimately, these things are not concepts I spend much time at all thinking about. They operate in my periphery and only become defining traits when in the presence of those who choose differently than I have. Other labels define me strictly in the past tense, and they are the ones I find myself most at odds with on any given day. I am a veteran. I am an ex husband. They describe me as what I once was, but am no longer. In this undertaking, I have chosen to define a moment in my life that will remain with me by my own choosing. It is nothing that could ever be ascribed to me by anyone else or without my own efforts. It is nothing that can ever be altered or taken away by time or circumstance.

I am Joshua.

I am an ultrarunner.

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Gear used:

Shoes: New Balance Leadville 3

Socks: Drymax Max Protection Sage Trail Running Socks

Underwear: Nike Pro Combat 6″ Compression Boxer Briefs

Shorts: Brooks Sherpa 7″ 2-In-1

Shirt: Nike Printed Miler

Hat: The North Face Better Than Naked Hat

Bottles: CamelBak 21oz Podium Chill with Nathan hand grips

Terror takes root in Forest Park.

by joshuawriteshere

I was about two miles into my 5-mile run this morning when suddenly the beast was upon me. I had just made a turn uphill making my way to the steepest climb of the run when barking behind me grew near. Looking over my shoulder, what I believe to be a cross between a golden retriever and a corgi caught my eye.

The little guy meant business. He was chasing me down and barking aggressively. He was soon joined by another adorable and diminutive litter mate who just seemed happy to greet me. The first dog was still voicing his displeasure at my existence. We ran together for roughly a half-mile when I knew I needed to make a move up a trail his owner was unlikely to take. So, I turned and faced off with him until he finally stopped chasing me. He never did stop barking.

Finishing my run a few miles later, I took down the steep switchbacks leading to where I had parked at the trailhead. When I arrived prior to my run, there had been only one other car in the area. A Toyota Prius. Portland city statutes dictate that at a minimum a Prius or a Subaru must be present at any gathering of automobiles anywhere within city limits. It does not stipulate whether the Subaru must be an Outback or Forester. That is left of to the discretion of the citizenry. Now, the lot was full with about 20 cars.

Walking past one of these cars, my attention was caught by a loud voice speaking. The driver of a Subaru Forester was chatting into his phone with his door open, leg propped up in the doorframe. He was a tall, slender, white dude with curly brown hair draped down over his shoulders. His manner of speech and volume was closer to a sermon than a conversation.

“…the notion that one may be granted redemption through acts of violence.”

My thoughts immediately turned to the crazy and tragic events of the past few, well, forever as violence and confusion sometimes seem to be the only constants in our modern world. I imagined the authorities swooping in on him momentarily. He continued his rant.

“And that is why Lucas framed the Star Wars universe the way that he did.”

You can all stand down. Merely a fellow nerd. Carry on. As you were.

I may be a little tightly wound as of late.

 

Quick training update: 7/13/16

by joshuawriteshere

I am under 6 weeks out from toeing the line at my first ultramarathon. This is somewhere I  never expected to find myself, but that’s life. Today was a track day which focuses on speed and intensity over time instead of mileage. Weather is in the 80s and sunny in Portland. My workout consisted of a 15-minute warmup run followed by 5 minutes of running at 85%-90% of my absolute max speed with 1 minute of recovery jogging before the next 5-minute run for a total of 8 5-minute interval runs with 1-minute of recovery in between and then ending with 15 minutes of cooling down running.

It was exactly as much fun as it sounds.

The training program I am on is yielding results both physically and mentally. This week is the peak of my training volume. This coming weekend features a 22-mile trail run on Saturday and 12 on Sunday. So, that’ll be neat. After this I start progressively ramping down my weekly mileage up to the week of the actual race.

I am not going to lie; I am looking forward to being done with this. Knowing myself, running the race won’t be the end of anything. I will find something beyond this to work towards. But what I am looking forward to is the end of this rigid training schedule I am currently on. I am grateful for it and would not be anywhere nearly as prepared had I not stuck to it, but I am just ready to have a bit more flexibility back. I’m fully aware of the strain it has placed on the relationships in my life including with Cherry. She has been incredibly supportive and has gone above and beyond to help me succeed. I am also looking forward to running just for fun. I predict I will knock the snot out of some half marathons this fall and winter.

When walls hit back.

by joshuawriteshere

After my dog I grew up with for 15 years died, I felt a void and needed another being to take care of. For some reason I ended up gravitating towards a tortoise. I wanted to name him Turbo. He was small, with a shell about the size of a golf ball. Visiting him one day, I noticed he seemed sluggish even for a tortoise. The shop owner told me he just needed his water. He picked him up and placed him directly in a bowl of water that was in the corner of his enclosure. His neck extended and his face contorted into what I imagine as a smile. His change was immediate. I related very much with this being that felt so rejuvenated by the cool and the damp. When the time come to take him home, they told me I needed to have a plan for who would take him if and when something happened to me as he would more than likely outlive me. I had no one to leave him to, so I didn’t take him.

This time of year is the hardest for me. It is a perfect storm of weather and events on the calendar which all conspire to remind me of things I would rather not remember. I suppose it begins with Memorial Day; a stupid holiday that perfectly encapsulates the detachment my country feels from the wars waged in its name and the people who fight them. It is a day for shorts, sandals, cheap beer, and the official kick-off of the early summer patriotic dick-wagging which continues until my neighbors reenact rocket-propelled grenade, mortar, and improvised explosive device attacks in the street outside my house on the 4th of July. In between are my father’s birthday and Father’s Day, reminding me of the morning two-and-a-half years ago when at the age of 61 my father laid down in his driveway and died the day before my own birthday.

All things considered, I find it to be a supremely shitty time of year.

I am currently hitting the peak of my training cycle for my first ultramarathon. My training routinely leaves me spent both physically and emotionally. That is, of course, the point of the training. I am putting my body and mind through hell in order to survive and maybe, just maybe, even enjoy the longest distance race I have ever attempted this coming August. I will be running the Squamish 50. For those of you in the know, yes, I am aware that I have chosen quite foolishly for my first attempt at the ultra distance. The race has been described as the most difficult in Canada by many a runner. I expect it to push me beyond any limit I currently place within my mind and my body. I welcome the experience.

Last weekend I had an 18-mile run scheduled. I had no trail support that day, so I opted to carry anything and everything I could possibly need over the course of the day including an absurd amount of water. I carried a CamelBak bottle in each hand and wore a Salomon S-Lab running pack on my back with a 1.5 liter bladder and two 500 ml soft flasks in the front. My shorts were Nike Wildhorse 7 inch trail shorts, my shirt was a Nike printed Miler t-shirt, my socks Drymax Trail Max Protection, and my shoes were New Balance Leadville 3 trailrunning shoes. For what it is worth, those shoes are my chosen model to carry me through Squamish. They won out in a showdown between them, Pearl Izumi Trail N3, Nike Zoom Wildhorse 3, and the Altra Lone Peak 2.5. They aren’t the sexiest shoes in the world, but they are goddamn tanks. In addition, I carried many various food items from Gu and Honey Stinger waffles to a sandwich. It was like wearing a weight vest while running the 18 steepest miles I had at my disposal that day.

The run started off as well as can be hoped for. I sipped on the water in my pack and made sure to take in calories on a 20-minute schedule while maintaining and slow and steady pace. The first third of the run featured the steepest trails, with over 2000 feet of climbing tallying up rapidly. I felt fine. I listened to a podcast in one ear and just kept moving. As I neared major trail junctions, I felt a sense of satisfaction when I passed them after finding them empty. I had gotten an early enough start to avoid the weekend crowds in those areas as I carried on to other sections where only fellow trailrunners and fastpackers dare to tread.

As the miles passed, I found myself feeling a growing sense of dread. Truth be told, the last couple of months have seen this feeling hovering in the periphery nearly every second of the day regardless of what I am doing. Pushing my physical limits has a tendency to strengthen me emotionally in the long term, but breaks me down in the short. This was the case last weekend. Dread was soon accompanied by despair. I continued moving forward.

I descended a steep fire road connecting to a service road I would need to follow for what I knew to be a rather boring 1.5 mile section leading to my second-to-last climb of the day. My knees protested each step after my 14th mile. Shortly after turning up the service road, I ceased to be on the trail anymore.

My first full-blown flashback happened during a concert in Chicago years ago. My experience with them is that I can suddenly be unplugged from my surroundings and begin experiencing another time and place. That first time was one of the lowest points in my life. I have since feared experiencing one while driving or being otherwise preoccupied with something that requires my full attention for my safety and the safety of those around me. Luckily, I haven’t had such an episode. Much of the time, I experience the feelings and emotions of being in another place while still being in touch with where I actually am, tentatively as it may be. Sometimes I am just gone. On that trail I was just gone.

My body took over and my feet continued to stop me from kissing the earth. I knew the trail well and followed it without actually experiencing it. When I dropped back into my surroundings, I found my dread and despair had grown in intensity while waiting patiently for me. As I turned up my next climb, tears mixed with sweat as I leaned into my physical pain in order to ground myself.

Years ago, before being diagnosed with PTSD and major depression, I was moving a ladder. It was mounted in a metal bracket and had become stuck. As I applied more pressure to it, the ladder broke free and my hand caught the edge of the bracket, splitting my knuckle open. I felt almost nothing, but saw blood on the floor. I set the ladder down and looked at my hand. I bent my left index finder, looking into the blood escaping a wound which was white underneath. I split my finger to the bone. I distinctly remember it not hurting until the next day. That is when I finally mentioned it to someone. I saw a medic who told me I had waited too long for stitches. I still have a deep 1/2″ scar across that knuckle.

Over the following days, then weeks, then months, I recalled splitting myself open and bleeding on the floor. At this time, I was in deep denial of the fact that I had become emotionally wounded. I found myself fixating on that wound as it healed. I found myself mourning the loss of the pain reminding me where and why I hurt. Pain from splitting my finger to the bone made sense. It had an origin and a timeframe. The pain I was carrying day-to-day was more elusive and frustrating. This is when the idea of intentionally cutting myself came to me.

Today, I realize that part of what makes me able to succeed in pushing my limits is intrinsically linked to what used to make me take razors to my own skin. Running hurts. Some runs hurt worse than others. But it always seems to make sense to me. Setting out on a run informs me roughly how much I will hurt and for how long.

I finished those 18 miles. I have 20 on the calendar for tomorrow.

The Runisher War Journal: A Training Diary pt. 2

by joshuawriteshere

On the second day of back-to-back weekend long runs in the coastal mountains of western Oregon, I faced a difficult decision. During long runs, I tend to communicate with another version of myself that reports back to me on the status of various systems working to keep me on my feet. I call this version of myself “Control.” The following is a transcript of that conversation.

Me: How are we doing, Control?

Control: You know, overall, things are going really well. You bounced back really nicely from your long run yesterday.

Me: Good to hear. Let’s have some details.

Control: Right. Well, you are definitely sweating a bit more than yesterday, but that is to be expected due to fatigue. And, it is warmer today than it was yesterday. Lungs are great. You are breathing really well.

Me: Awesome. Yeah, I felt like I was sweating a lot, but I didn’t know if that was cause for alarm. I also felt like my lungs were doing great. Glad to know that wasn’t just me.

Control: To be fair, I am just you.

Me: I know.

Control: Do you? Really?

Me: Yes. Of course.

Control: I mean, you can’t really count me as an impartial-…

Me: Got it, Control. Point made. Continue, please.

Control: Okay, heart rate is pretty good. We are definitely feeling the miles from yesterday, but nothing is spiking. Looking healthy.

Me: Roger. Vital systems are doing well. How are the legs?

Control: Oh, the legs are beasts. Absolute beasts. You really bounced back from knee surgery last year. The legs are tired but turning over nicely. No knee pain. Really good news from the knees.

Me: I can’t help but feel like there is something you are not telling me, Control.

Control: You…look…awesome. All black outfit. Tough. Grr… So rugged.

Me: You are definitely avoiding telling me something. Are we…are we slowing down?

Control: I don’t notice anything. That’s so weird.

Me: Hey, it’s me. It’s you. It’s…it’s us. What is going on?

Control: Are you…I mean… No, it’s nothing.

Me: We are slowing down. Something feels off.

Control: I’m sorry? Oh, nice work on this running playlist. Clutch is my jam.

Me: We are definitely slowing down. Okay, Control, you need to tell me what is happening. I am tense from pretty much my nipple line to my knees. What is this?

Control: (singing) Pure rock fury, the solution is so clear!!!

Me: CONTROL!

Control: Mmm…I was hoping to avoid this.

Me: It’ll be fine. Just tell me what it going on. We can work through this.

Control: …

Me: I won’t be mad. Just…just tell me.

Control: Yes, you are slowing down. And, you are tense in your midsection. It is impacting your stride.

Me: Okay. What is it? What is going on?

Control: You have a choice to make.

Me: Okay. That happens a lot on runs. We have worked together to set priorities before. What is the choice?

Control: Right. So, here it is. You can totally keep running. Or…

Me: …Or?

Control: Or you can totally keep not crapping yourself. But you can’t do both.

Me: Wow.

Control: Yeah.

Me: So, there it is.

Control. Right there.

Me: Are we sure about this?

Control: Without a doubt. You have to shit. It is just a matter of how you are planning on doing it.

Having to do math in the middle of a run in rarely a good thing. The stakes are raised when the calculations have to do with how many more steps you can take while simultaneously keeping yourself together, so to speak. I was traveling and as such had been eating foods that are different from what I am accustomed to eating in my day-to-day life in Portland. Sampling new things is one of my very favorite aspects of traveling. I love it. Occasionally, there are unforeseen consequences to my gastronomical walkabouts. I had run smack into one. It was time to pay the toll.

The sensation had started fairly early in the run, but by the time I was on my return leg and still 3.5 miles away from my car which was parked next to the closest bathroom, it had become impossible to ignore. I was in genuine pain with each step. When I would walk, the pain would retreat into severe discomfort. I was caught weighing the benefits of getting to the car faster and risking disaster en route vs slowing my pace and prolonging my distress while sacrificing the benefits of the training run.

It is one of those quirks of running that is common knowledge once you are in the circle. Along with living with a new puppy, the lives of runners tend to revolve around poop to a slightly higher degree than the public in general. I have a ritual of being awake at least 3 hours before a race or long run. This can be a chore when I travel to the east coast, like I did for the Walt Disney World Half Marathon earlier this year. A 5:30 race start time dictated I wake at 2:30. Some of you may be surprised to learn there is a 2:30 in the morning. On top of this, coming from the Best Coast means I am essentially waking at 11:30 P-fucking-M in order to have those hours before the race. While it is nice to be able to make adjustments and get all zen before a run without feeling rushed, the major reason I do this is because it gives my body enough time to wake up and take a big, satisfying shit before I toe the line.

There ya have it. Not the most glamorous detail of my pre-race ritual, but it is the truth. I don’t want to run and have to shit. I just don’t. I know, I know. I am so high maintenance. Anyhow, being 3.5 miles from the nearest throne could spell disaster in an urban setting such as a road race. In the woods, the situation becomes much more manageable.

Living and running in the Pacific Northwest, I often get asked the same question; “What do you do when it rains?” The answer is simple: I get wet. When people find out I run fairly long distances, the conversation invariably twists and turns through asking about how I drink water (I carry water), how I eat (I carry food), and, of course, how I go to the bathroom.

It is always a particularly amusing thing when I am at a fairly long trail race such as a half marathon and I see dozens of people diving off trail and lining up at a single Porta-Shit strategically positioned in the middle of the race. I find myself wondering how they cannot seem find a tree in the middle of the friggin’ woods. Some of these locations will attract people who otherwise don’t spend very much time in the wilder parts of the planet and as such they are not always sure what to do when nature comes calling. This is nothing to be ashamed of. Being able to go to the bathroom without a bathroom is a skill any trail and certainly mountain runner needs to develop.

In the previous entry, I mentioned some of the gear I frequently carry on my longer runs. Included in this list was some sort of sealed packet of wet wipes. There is one and only one scenario in which this simple piece of gear becomes a lifesaver, and I was currently living it. I knew I could not get back to the car before having to go, especially if I wanted to maintain any sort of beneficial pace on what was a training run, after all. The trail I was on was a narrow section of technical single track which continued downward in elevation for another 2.5 miles until meeting up with the Pacific Coast Trail which would lead me back to my car. The constant downward pounding of running downhill was compounding the issue. I just had to go. Simple as that. What do you do when you have to shit? You shit.

This is my fourth time on this section of trail, having run out-and-back on it the day before and now being on the return leg of another run. I recalled an area to the right of the trail on the way back which had gotten my attention as I passed it before. I filed the location away for this exact scenario. Most of the terrain on either side of the trail was too dangerous to be able to navigate. In this locale there was a downed tree which cleared an area wide enough to walk and provided branches in order to steady my climb. This is one of the very few times I would ever recommend anyone head off trail. The idea is not to stray too far from the trail, but to distance yourself from oncoming traffic so as not to give anyone else an unwelcome surprise. People don’t usually like coming around blind corners to be faced with another human being evacuating without warning. It’s generally frowned upon.

I climbed up about 50 yards above the trail. The downed tree was massive and also afforded some additional luxuries not typically found in such sparse facilities. Translation: there was a good, solid branch to squat over and another placed in an area which made it easy to hold onto. The best plan is to dig a small hole, take down your shorts or pants or whatever, and get as low down over the hole as you can. You may have the initial thought to squat only slightly, but this is leaving far more of yourself and your clothing in the line of fire. You are probably not as much of a sharpshooter when firing from the rear as you may think you are. Get low. Set yourself up for success.

The wet wipes are for exactly what you think they are. Cleanliness is enough of a positive, but running and sweating with a less than pristine derrière can lead to discomfort and even skin breakdown. You can bleed. It is not a good look for anyone. Just clean yourself up. You deserve it. If you are comfortable doing so, carrying a sealable plastic bag can come in handy to transport the wipes to a proper receptacle, but if you are without one, toss them in the hole and then bury the whole thing when you are finished. Hand sanitizer would be a good addition to your pack, as well. Just throwing that out there. Seeing if it sticks.

A little bit of a heads up; be prepared for more of an “aroma” than you might otherwise be accustomed to. This is when you will learn just how much a modern toilet full of clean water does to provide you with a less than traumatic restroom experience. Toilets truly are the unsung heroes of modern life. That being said, you can survive without one when you need to. Get away from where anyone else is likely to travel. Dig a hole. Do your business. Clean yourself up. Bury your shame. And carry on, my wayward son.

There will be peace when you are done.

 

The Runisher War Journal: A Training Diary pt. 1

by joshuawriteshere

The calendar is about to turn on another month. April was my first true month of training for my first ultramarathon coming up this summer. I am currently in the last third of a recovery week, which I can tell you was very much needed.

Three weekends ago, I headed out to the Oregon coast with Cherry and the dogs where I was to run in the coastal mountain range for a weekend of back-to-back long runs. We arrived Friday night and Saturday morning I hit up Cape Perpetua Scenic Area for my long miles. When I pulled on the door to the visitor’s center, it didn’t budge. I never thought to check what time they opened. Or what time it was, for that matter. Luckily, there were some trail maps in a rack next to the door. About the time I grabbed one, there was a voice from behind me.

“Need help with anything?”

A woman with a broom had come around the corner when she found me trying to make heads and tails of the map. I explained I was looking for some trails to run.

“How far are you going?”

“I am looking to do ten miles.”

“Oh, geez. Okay.”

Within moments, I had a plan. Guided by the friendly maintenance worker, I texted my route to Cherry who was back at our room on the beach. I secured my gear for the run, started my GPS watch, and promptly (unknowingly) headed down a completely different trail from the one I had thought I was heading down.

The first mile ticked by as I smiled and spent more time taking in the scenery than watching the ground in front of me which was treacherous mass of exposed tree roots piled up like giant, brown spaghetti. The trail followed the rocky coastline, separated from the beach by US Route 101. The trees formed a perfect canopy above my head. There was a gentle breeze and thick cloud cover. The temperature was in the mid-40s. These are damned near perfect running conditions in my book.

I am a gear nerd, and I know some of you are, too. So, for your gee-whiz information, here is what I was wearing/carrying that day:

FEET: Drymax Maximum Protection Trail Running socks, Zensah compression calf sleeves (neon orange), Pearl Izumi Trail N3 trail running shoes.

BOTTOM: Nike Pro Combat 6″ compression boxer briefs, Pearl Izumi Fly Endurance shorts.

TOP: The North Face Better Than Naked short sleeved t-shirt, Nike Element half-zip long sleeved shirt, Salomon S-Lab Advanced Skin3 12 (catchy name) running hydration pack with soft flasks in the front pockets.

ACCESSORIES: Buff (santana orange) on my head, iPhone 6+ on my left bicep carried in an Amphipod arm band which smells like death no matter how many times I wash it, Klipsch S4i Rugged ear buds with Comply foam tips, and I always carry a Camelbak Podium Chill water bottle with a hand strap from a Nathan QuickDraw Plus set. I think CamelBak makes a better bottle while Nathan makes a better strap. Boom. Best of both worlds. For time, navigation, and heart rate data, I was wearing my new Garmin Fenix 3 Sapphire HR watch. This thing owns. I will definitely be writing a review soonish.

I also had my Salomon pack and any available pockets filled with snacks, emergency supplies, etc. I keep a waterproof rain shell in my pack in case of emergencies, though if I deploy it on a run something has probably gone very wrong. I generally prefer to run in the rain than to run in the rain and a cloud of my own body funk. My usual rain shell for this purpose is the Outdoor Research Helium II. Great little shell. Highly recommended. I also always have a pack of moist towelettes in my pack. When nature calls in the backcountry, these go from luxury to necessity right quick. Bring these. Always. You are welcome. I would recommend carrying a knife as well. Fixed blades are generally better in survival scenarios, but I don’t want the bulk during a run so I opt for a Kershaw Blur folding knife. It is my everyday carry knife. I love it. Great, great knife.

There are a few reasons why I was so loaded down with gear, even though I don’t normally carry this much crap with me when I run. For one, I had never run any of the trails I was heading out on at all. I had never even hiked them. It was essentially an overabundance of caution making me bring the kitchen sink up a mountain. I am also simulating my ultra experience as much as I possibly can during my long runs on weekends. It is a weekly dress rehearsal and I am testing out every piece of gear I am likely to or possibly might think about bringing with me into the mountains of western British Columbia. If something doesn’t work, I would rather know during a training run months ahead of time when I have the ability to replace the item (and then wear test the replacement) or can make the determination if it is something I need to carry at all.

Anyhow, the first mile was a breeze. There was minimal elevation change as I followed 101 south along the coast. Soon, I came to a fork in the trail. The trail was marked in this section with a name that was vaguely familiar to me from consulting my map in the parking lot, and I followed it to the left and began a 4-mile climb.

It. Was. Glorious.

The week before had seen me facing many of the same roadblocks this weekend was placing in front of me. I was lost in unfamiliar territory despite consulting maps and experts. I was moving slower than I had hoped. However, there were some differences that made this experience diverge wildly from the previous weekend which had seen me punt my beloved water bottle in frustration. For one thing, I had processed the previous weekend. I got through my training runs and focused on what I had gained from them. I spent time and energy afterwards looking for the silver lining to what had seemed like a completely negative experience while it was happening. This is huge. It allowed me to enter the next week of training with more realistic expectations and gave me options for when my plans went wrong. In this mindset, I was able to face the miles ahead knowing they were going to suck. It is amazing how much of a difference this makes.

Don’t confuse what I am saying with a general sense of negativity. Expecting a run to suck is not the same thing as dreading it. In fact, it is possible to fully expect a run to suck all kinds of major ass while simultaneously looking forward to it. This is precisely what was happening with me this particular weekend. I was more focused on doing whatever was necessary to get the miles in rather than focusing on some arbitrary and ultimately unrealistic metric of success such as a quicker pace per mile. No, you see, I am a trail runner. I run mountains. Some miles make you pay for them a hell of a lot more than others do. I was prepared for this and when I was in the midst of it, I was basking in the experience.

The run took me away from the coast as I ascended into the interior of the forest. The trail was technical and unrelenting in its climb. Following a couple of switchbacks which stood out on this section because I had not encountered any thus far, I met with an intersection of a couple other trails. There was a sign leading down and to my left towards an alternate route to reach the visitor’s center where I had started. My watch told me I had one more mile before turning around. I continued the climb.

I found myself on a section of trail which was quite different from the winding mud and roots of the previous 4 miles. I was now running up what was just as much a creek bed as a trail. Water was pushing against and over my feet as I followed a path of loose, grey rocks meandering more or less straight upward. The air grew colder by the yard. The tree cover was thinning above my head. I knew I had to be near the summit.

Reaching the high point of the mountain I was on, I still had roughly a tenth of a mile before I was supposed to turn back. I carried on over the crest in the trail and soon found another intersection of trails. This one was near a road and had a large, full color map. It was at this point that I realized I had indeed run on a completely different trail than I had told Cherry I would be running on. I contemplated running back on the section I had originally intended to be running on in the first place, but decided that I had already explored 5 miles up and wanted to keep to the devil I knew on the way back down. After finishing the entire run, I consulted a hiking book and found that the trails I had run were marked as “difficult.” Hiking books want people to try trails and are more often than not kings of understatement. The trail was difficult and technical and steep. It was also an absolute blast.

When I got back to our room, I walked in, dropped my gear, and collapsed onto the floor flat out on my face. This is where I stayed for about ten minutes. I felt like I had earned my miles and had likewise earned the feeling of exhaustion I was experiencing. Now, it was time to refuel and rest. Tomorrow there would be 7 more miles. And I would be glad I brought my kitchen sink with me.

Next time…

Miles.

by joshuawriteshere

 

Twenty minutes into what was scheduled to be an easy 8-mile training run, I glanced at my GPS watch to see I had barely covered one mile. I punted my handheld water bottle and waited for it to come down. When it didn’t, I realized with a frustrated sense of amusement that I had connected with the bottle far better than I had intended. It came crashing to Earth momentarily.

This was not the fabled runner’s high you have likely heard about. This was not my best self. This was me up against a wall I had not anticipated. I was hot and I could not cool off. My heart rate was elevated far beyond what I would expect in the given terrain. The trail itself was not at all as described in the hiking book where Cherry and I had researched. As is my custom, I turned my frustration inwards. I became angry. Unreasonably angry. What’s more, I was able to consciously tell myself I was unreasonably angry and that I needed to get my shit together. Unreasonable me was currently in the driver’s seat, unfortunately, and he thought I should yell and beat myself up and continue on my way while being a general pill of a human being to anyone within earshot.

It took me about 3 miles to dissect what was really going on. Yes, the book I had consulted lead me astray. Yes, my heart rate was unusually elevated. Yes, it was hot. It was sunny. I was in an exposed area. I was running up and across the top of dark brown rocks when the thought finally broke through to me.

This looks like Afghanistan.

The trail I was running on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge was east of the city of Hood River, Oregon. This is a generally more sunny region of the state as it serves as a sort of transition between the lush temperate rain forests of the west to the desert in the east that constitutes the largest portion of my home state of Oregon. The vast majority of my running is done in the trees which act as a sunblock and air conditioner in the greater Portland metro area. I visit Forest Park nearly daily, and it has become a sanctuary for me. The air in those trees is nearly always cool and damp. It is usually so dark that I don’t need sunglasses even in the brightest summer days. It is hilly. It is muddy. It is alive with songbirds, slugs, and newts. It is almost as opposite an environment to what I experienced in my time in Afghanistan and Iraq as I can find this side of the Mariana Trench.

In this section of the Gorge, there are few trees. There are vast stretches of dried grass and brush covering rolling fields of dark, volcanic rock. I had nothing above my head. I had nowhere to cool off. The book was wrong. The trail was marked exceedingly poorly. What I was perceiving as poor physical conditioning on my part were actually panic symptoms. This is not a new phenomenon for me. I have written on this before. It continues to be an issue in my life. It likely will be for the rest of my days. The difficulty comes in identifying that it is happening while it is happening. My mind is wired to turn viciously self critical when I find myself struggling. Rather than being my own best friend and advocate, I turn into a bully. I say things to myself that I would never consider saying to another person. This is a very difficult combination to overcome.

After about those initial 3 miles, I started putting the pieces together. Maybe I was not such a loser after all. Maybe I was not in poor shape. Maybe I was having a very normal reaction to a scenario which was not normal for me. Maybe I needed to back off on the self criticism. Maybe I needed to be nicer to myself. Maybe I needed to adjust my expectations of what success would look like that day.

I met up with Cherry on another part of the trail and talked this through with her. She is still relatively new to life with a combat vet who brought some stuff home with him. I decided that today success would be marked by getting in the miles, no matter the time nor the effort it took to get them. I doubled back on the 3 miles I had already tackled and then ran circuits around a shorter loop trail back by the parking lot in order to complete the day.

When all was said and done, I got the miles in. I paid for them more than I had anticipated, but that is the nature of the sport I love. This is an endurance sport.

I must endure.

Gear Review: Altra Olympus 2.0 Trail Running Shoes

by joshuawriteshere

IMG_3670.jpg

Altra Olympus 2.0

Wow.

That was all I was able to say when I tried on my first pair of Altra Olympus 2.0 trail running shoes. I knew these shoes were in the works back when I wrote a review on the previous version. Altra is a company I really want to love, but about whom I have some serious reservations. This shoe is the embodiment of that.

Clearly, Altra listens to those who wear their shoes and use this information to update and refine their designs. I appreciate this about them very much. On the Olympus 1.5, there were a few fit and comfort issues regarding the upper and a glaring weakness in the tread on the outsole of the shoe. Immediately out of the box, these problems seemed to have been solved. I ordered a pair of 2.0s and was blown away by the update in styling and the addition of a more aggressive Vibram outsole. Trying them on, I found I was better able to lock down the ankle and heel than I was in the previous incarnation. All really good things. Taking them on my first run, I was honestly in love. As so often happens in life, I was merely blinded by lust as some serious issues started to come up.

After a couple of runs, I had decided that this was going to be my long mile shoe in preparation for my first ultramarathon later this year. I found a good deal from a retailer I trust and ordered 3 more pair.

Yeah. I liked them that much.

The first problem came when I took one of the new pairs with me on a weekend trip to run some trails. I ran the first day in my original pair with no issues. When I switched out to my newer pair, they just did not fit right. My right foot was hitting the front of the toe box while just standing on flat ground without even heading downhill. I wondered if I would be able to remedy this with some creative lacing, but I could not. This pair would have to go back. No worries, as I purchased them from a reputable source.

When I returned home, I decided since I was batting .500 on fit that I should really try out the other pairs to make sure I would not have to return them as well. The next pair I tried fit like the first pair. No problem. The final pair had the same issue as the second pair. Frustrated, I took some measurements and found variations between allegedly identical shoes that were off by as much as a quarter of an inch. I sent back two pair and opted to roll the dice and simply exchange them for more of the same.

While waiting for my replacement pairs of shoes to arrive, I continued running in the original pair and the one pair that fit well from the second shipment. I rotate my shoes constantly and do this for several reasons. Not the least of which include: 1) I like it. I get bored with the same thing all the time, and so do my feet. I also think this probably helps to avoid repetitive stress injuries in my feet, though I don’t make a definitive claim as such because I just don’t have the data. 2) It helps to make my shoes last a bit longer. I run 5-6 days a week most weeks. Having time to dry out and decompress is good for shoes, so I don’t just wear the same things every single time I run.

My farthest run in the Altra Olympus 2.0 was approximately 8 miles. I enjoyed the initial comfort and stability the shoes provided. The Vibram outsole is state of the art and absolute perfection. They should carry that forward to the next version. The problem became that the shoes lost their fit very quickly, and I found myself ramming the front of the toe box even in the shoes that previously fit me well. This was frustrating, and about this time the inner arch section of the upper on the right foot simply tore through. I just looked down and was seeing my sock through the upper.

IMG_4365

Less than 70 miles. Ouch.

The shoes had less than 70 miles on them.

They retail at $150.

Yup. Ouch.

The combination of fit issues combined with obvious problems in quality control left me completely dissatisfied with the Altra Olympus 2.0. What initially felt like “the” shoe for me just became a nightmare. I have since returned all pairs of the Olympus 2.0 I ordered. Luckily for me, I usually purchase at retailers with stellar records of customer service. I am currently waiting on several new pairs of shoes to arrive in order to continue the search for the right combination to carry me through my first ultra.

I really and truly want to love Altra. The problem is that at this point it feels like I am personally funding their R&D as a consumer, and that is something I just cannot afford to do. Related to this, I also own the Altra Lone Peak 2.5 which I love. The inner arch upper of the right shoe has also started to tear at very low mileage. I will be replacing those, as well.

Damn it, Altra. I really want to love you. Maybe someday.

Maybe someday.

My Fourth Fifteenth.

by joshuawriteshere

Today is March 15th. Aside from the occasional mention of the ides, there are few who find much worth commemorating about that date. For me, the 15th of March is an anniversary, and an “unniversary.”

On March 15th, 2002, I married my high school, well, not so much sweetheart as nemesis. We were both 21 years old and though we had known one another for nearly eight years by that point, we had only been in a romantic relationship for about five months. It was a rocky five months punctuated by some of the most viscous and unproductive fighting of my entire life, including my multiple tours in the Middle East on the dime of the Department of Defense. I was very young and cursed with a detestable certainty about too many things which I hope never again to repeat. Luckily, I only lived with this particular mistake for a decade and some change.

After ten years of marriage memorable for far more bad than good, I found myself suing my estranged partner for divorce. Though she had moved on figuratively with multiple other men (some more married than others) and literally to her own apartment outside of the house for which we shared a mortgage so underwater James Cameron would have interest in filming it, she would not even grant me the simple mercy of divorcing me. Eventually, I found myself staring at walls I didn’t want to own in a town I despised in a state I had no interest in making my home for another moment. I made the decision to ride out my divorce and bankruptcy proceedings in sunny Florida.

I chose Florida for a few key and important reasons. One major reason was that I had absolutely no intention of staying there. I knew I never wanted to live in Florida, though I do happen to love a few unique features the state has to offer. Aside from those precious things, Florida fit me like a european athletic cut Speedo. I had known myself for the better part of 31 years, and having met me before I was well aware of my predisposition for attaching emotional meaning and resonance to places and things. I knew that wherever I would be spending my divorce would be forever stained by painful memories which I would prefer not to see on a daily basis once the crisis subsided. Florida was where I would lick my wounds. It was not where I would grow roots.

Time seemed to slow to an agonizing crawl once legal proceedings began. Weeks between court dates felt unthinkable to survive. I wanted desperately to feel better and understood on an intellectual level that I would in time. Planning for the future was simultaneously torturous and necessary as each day felt as precious as it was painful. My marriage ended without my own awareness of the fact. Walking out of a courtroom in Illinois, I asked my lawyer when I would next need to be flying back up from Florida in order to stand before a judge again. He told me I would not be needing to. I was divorced. I had missed this key detail in the legal jargon between him and the judge. My ex’s refusal to cooperate with legal proceedings made any decision on the judge’s part simple.

I expected this day to shatter me. When it came, I did not even know it was happening. I walked alone to my car with my certified copies of my divorce decree in my hand. As I sat in the parking lot, I consciously felt the cue for tears to flow. Instead, an indelible smile strained my face. I felt pure relief and joy unequaled in my memory.

Returning to Florida renewed my sense of purpose with regards to moving on with my life. I had made the decision not to date until I was no longer legally married. Ostensibly, this was born out of a sense of propriety as I was still a legally married man. In actuality, this was self-preservation. After a decade with the same woman, I had no idea how to enter the dating world. There were train wrecks of encounters of a sexual nature and otherwise following that court date. There was so much sorting out to do within myself that it is best summed up by the moment I found myself standing in a pharmacy aisle in Target, phone in hand, Googling which condoms were “best.” I was clueless about damned near every single aspect of being an adult mammal.

Somewhere in the months of uncertainty leading up to my freedom, I made a promise to myself to spend my first wedding anniversary as a single man in Portland, Oregon. Portland had been on my mind for the better part of 15 years by this point, and I was all but convinced it was where I would choose to launch Joshua 2.0 following my Florida beta test. I had met some lovely people on Twitter (some of whom I am lucky enough to be friends with in real life today) who called Portland home and were more than happy to answer my questions as I passed sleepless nights in the eastern timezone. One evening, I decided that I had broken enough promises. I booked a single roundtrip airline ticket out of Orlando International Airport to PDX.

I arrived in Portland on March 13th. My first text after landing was to my Twitter and real life Portland friend, Nicki, letting her know my plane had arrived. Her reply to me was perfection.

“Welcome home.”

I walked to pick up my rental car and was told the subcompact I had reserved was not available. The clerk asked if a new Dodge Charger would be a suitable substitute at the same price. I then drove to the bar/music venue/hotel/former brothel I would be calling home for the majority of the following five days. My room would not be ready for some time, but I was more than welcome to have a seat in the bar and order food. I do not eat meat or animal products, so a bar offering food most often meant a plate of french fries in the best of circumstances. Staring back at me from the bar menu was a variety of hummus, falafel, pretzels, sides, and salads which had me overwhelmed until a hemp burger stopped all deliberations.

My room had a full-sized bed with a small chair in one corner and a sink in another. There was not enough room to be able to open my suitcase anywhere in the room other than on the bed. It was very Tom Waits. I placed my belongings on the duvet, sat in the chair in the corner, took one appreciative glance around the entire room, lowered my head, and cried.

There had been many tears in the months leading up to this moment. There were tears of fear and anger. There were tears of loneliness. There were tears of mourning and hatred. The tears falling in Portland, Oregon were of accomplishment and gratitude. From the moment I saw the trees piercing the mist obscuring our final approach into Portland International Airport, I was overcome with a sense of belonging I had never felt in any place I had visited or lived previously. Though I was utterly alone and only in town temporarily, I knew I had found home.

I thought I had an idea what to expect on that first March 15th following my divorce. It was impossible to imagine anything other than the heartache that had been omnipresent in the months and even years prior. I expected a bittersweet anniversary to meet me in Portland, Oregon. When the day finally arrived, bitter never showed up. I made the decision that day that March 15th would no longer mark an ever increasing tally of anniversaries of my wedding day. That March 15th, 2013 would ring in my first “unniversary.” March 15th, 2016 is my fourth “unniversary,” and the fourth I have spent in my adoptive hometown of Portland. Today was my fourth fifteenth.