Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Junior High memories

Funny how writing and running parallel each other for me. There's a certain rhythm to each and keeping on top and finding that sweet spot is both easy and challenging at different times. Right now my writing suffers from a lack of motivation while my running continues to become easier and easier.

After taking pause from a busy day of a conference call with the Independent Running Retail Association board, squeezing in a run, selling shoes and hosting a team night for junior high tracksters I managed to catch up on Keith Kelly's blog. Keith is supremely disciplined with his blogging which I'm sure has helped his layoff from running due to injury. Seeing Keith continue to pound away at the keyboard tells me I need to step up too.

I had the privilege of helping a few kids tonight with their first pair of track spikes. Those skimpy light shoes with little pins for traction that really haven't changed much since I got my first pair in 7th grade. I still remember those first real racing shoes. Blue Puma's with the traditional white stripe tapering to the back. Four spike plate with about 1/2 -3/4" spikes which were far too long for the tracks we ran on. They were spiked for the old dirt/cinder tracks while we had the "modern" black rubberized asphalt surfaces.

Back in the "day" it was hard enough to find spikes as there were no Foot Lockers or Skinny Raven's in Anchorage. It was harder to find the little elements to replace the ultra-long spikes my Puma's had. Fortunately, my dad was a aircraft mechanic and decided he could take them into work and grind each spike down to the proper length. I was able to use them for the championship meet without fear of tripping or stabbing one of my competitors who ran too close behind me.

The first 7th grader I helped decided to go with a pair of Puma's tonight. Fortunately, he had the right spike length straight off so that part was easy. They were gold with a black stripe and looked like the pair Usain Bolt wore in Beijing. Very cool shoes. Of course, I let him know my first spikes were Puma too which I'm sure made him feel even better about his selection. I hope he'll remember getting those shoes 30 years from now.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Just a little out of reach

Today was supposed to be the day I was going to be in Mexico celebrating one of the biggest events of my life. As I write I see old photos of me kayaking by the Arch at the end of the Baja Peninsula and me standing bare chested in the foothills above the Sea of Cortez during a run.

The plan was to have a wedding on the beach today and I hoped to add that photo to the collection above my desk as a reminder of special events. Unfortunately, the wedding is off and as I try to put things in perspective and deal with the immense disappointment, I try to find strength in those places that I have been able to rely upon in the past.

I've used the analogy about how running is a microcosm of life when I wrote college recommendations for my high school athletes. I'd write that the lessons they dealt with while running prepared them for the bigger challenges of college and life. The discipline of training and working through good and bad days. Coping with fear of competition and the doubts that you cannot meet goals or expectations. Humility in victory and defeat knowing that neither was a constant and you could be on the other side just as quickly as you achieved the former.

How many times have I put myself out for a race and set high goals and trained hard to only see the result not reflect the effort I had put forth? How many young athletes had I seen crushed by their disappointment of goals unfulfilled? I told them they should be disappointed. In fact, the level of disappointment should reflect the commitment they put into the goal. If you aren't disappointed it meant it wasn't that important to begin with and that you truly weren't committed. I've shed a few tears after particularly crushing efforts (Boston '02) when in the moment you feel like the efforts were wasted, especially when the race goes so, so badly.

Of course, the effort is only wasted if the end result is all that matters. When you are young it is what matters, but when you step back and appreciate the process and the journey you see that no effort is wasted. With a deeper perspective you can see many victories along the journey.

Being on the beach today wasn't a race or an end result, but I had hoped an important landmark to even greater possibilities. I've been looking at the calendar this week and been fighting the disappointment of the might-have-been's. I'm glad I'm bummed out because I really know how much it meant to me and that I was committed. I expect to be disappointed for a quite awhile but I also know that thanks to running I have found the ability to deal with disappointment while finding the victories I achieved during the process.

I think about all the injuries I've had while trying to run. The bad luck of weather or circumstances that I had no control over. Starting all over again and thinking "can I go through this again?". Most of the time I've been able to find the strength and motivation to challenge myself again. I have realized that I'm happier laying it on the line and trying to do the best I'm capable of. Fortunately, in running there is always another race down the road you can plan for. Those are far easier to see and prepare for. In this case I can't just spot another person as special and as amazing. I seriously doubt that it is even possible.

You never lose by loving.
You always lose by holding back.
Barbara DeAngelis

Within the emotions of today I can see that I achieved a level of joy that I wouldn't have been able to if I hadn't been completely invested. Even the melancholy of hearing songs we shared forces me to be pensive as I wistfully think about special times and moments. That will never disappear and that's okay. I don't mind the tough training days or bad races either. There were a lot of special things that came along during those journeys as well.

A year ago I was in Cabo on vacation and running and trading emails with my eventual fiancee. I also fell in love with the song Satellite by Guster and I associated the lyrics with her. I guess today's title lifted from one of the final lines turned out to be more true than I had hoped.

In two weeks I'll be in Cabo again. I'll be by myself running mile after mile in the foothills trying to prepare for the Boston Marathon again. I'll rest my legs on the beach during the day trying to rest up from the morning run and get ready for the evening run. Certainly the thoughts of what might have been will be there and how full circle I'll have come in one year.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Certainty of death, small chance of success...

Like last year at this time I'm training for Boston. Though I hope to run the marathon in April, I'm actually focused on a indoor mile race next month at the Boston Indoor Games.

After neglecting my "real" speed over the last few years its been a challenge trying to turn the muscles from plastic back to rubber. At my age I've found that the muscles fuse together much faster than they stretch back - that is if they ever do.

Pushing back against the ravages of time is a constant battle. Whether it's a runner trying to fight
against a reduced VO2 and hardening muscles or an old man trying to drive down the road without backing up the traffic behind him. Although I sometimes find the turn signal flashing while I'm driving a straight line, hopefully I can keep producing good running results as well as hang onto my drivers license until I reach 100.

The pressure of racing a mile at a big meet has been good for forcing me into going back to basics. Left to my own devices I'd much rather do tempo and long runs while prepping for the next marathon. Running fast at my age hurts! Risk is high, payoff low for runners nearing 50 who try to run the races young runners are better attuned to. Right now its been a tight rope of stressing my system enough to progress, while at the same time not getting injured. Gimli, in Lord of the Rings, probably put it best in describing an aging runners dilemma of training fast.

"Certainty of death, small chance of success... What are we waiting for?"

So far so good although copious amounts of massage therapy has been crucial in keeping my muscles from imploding. Little by little the drills have become smoother, my knees are rising higher and I can actually tell that I'm running smoother instead of looking like I'm flailing against a 50 mph headwind.

Two weeks to go and a few more speed sessions left. According to Schopenhauer I should be really be moving by then.

"Just remember, once you're over the hill you begin to pick up speed."
Arthur Schopenhauer

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Memories contained in a shoe

Its been almost one year since I last posted here. With the passing of Laird and the emotion of writing and trying to squeeze into words the feelings and memories I had of him I had lost the energy and enthusiasm for writing.

Today is the first anniversary of Laird's passing. I have wanted to return to writing again and have had encouragement from many but I haven't felt ready. I figure that today would be a good day to return and to pay honor again to a great friend who has shown himself to me several times in the past year in memories and dreams.

Memory is a way of holding onto the things you love, the things you are,
the things you never want to lose.

Three days ago I was at the Dome doing a speed workout for a upcoming mile race in Boston. While my days of speed are long gone (something I'm reminded of each time I step on the track lately) I have been trying to reclaim some semblance of quickness to avoid completely embarassing myself. I decided to bring a pair of spikes I had just located in a box as I am considering wearing spikes for the race and figure I better get my calves prepared.

As I prepared to put the spikes on I looked at a bit of dirt still clinging to them from their last race. As I tried to figure where they had last performed I realized that it was in 2000 at a Open/Coaches race after the high school invite our team had run. It was two days after I had turned 40 and my first competition as a Masters runner. This was no small event as the university squad had come and several of us post collegians had put together a squad to compete against them.

I have run this race many times and it was always tough to coach all day and then perform in front of your team knowing they were going to yell all the things you had been saying to them each day in practice and each race. I had run well on this course, but had never come close to breaking 16 minutes for the 5K and this day I would be lucky to make the top-ten with all the excellent runners.

Laird had been coaching with me that day and we quickly began our warm up as soon as our last team had finished. I remember how nice it was to have someone to warm up with and that we were preparing as "teammates". I usually end up warming up by myself, but today was different.

The race started off very fast and it was all I could do to stay close while Laird sped off near the lead. Little by little I worked my way past the college runners and eventually got up to 5th place nearing the finish. As I went through the gate to the finish with 250 meters left I could see Laird on his way to victory with two more teammates a few seconds behind. That gave me a little more energy and as I saw the stadium clock ticking I realized I could break 16 if I pushed it a bit more. Closing my eyes for a few strides I managed to hit a 15:58 and beat all but one of the college lads.

I remember ripping off those spikes immediately after the race as my feet were on fire. The warm down with Laird was such a joy as we felt so good about our efforts and we shared our reflections of the race. It was a special day - the kids ran well, the coaches ran well and I got a birthday cake and song from the team after Laird and I finished the warm down.

Its funny how 4-5 ounces of spikes can hold so many memories but those spikes will be special not because I ran fast in them but rather because of who I was with while I was wearing them.

Laird, you are missed and remembered daily. Thanks for making those shoes and that day special.

We do not remember days; we remember moments. - Cesare Pavese

Laird cruising to victory in that race. I'm about 20 seconds behind well out of view

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Layer after layer

Yesterday was Laird's memorial service and it was a powerful reminder once again what an amazing person he was. Many have told me that they have found this blog to be a helpful resource in the past week, especially for those who are out of town looking for infomation. I decided to print my eulogy to Laird for those of you.
In the past week I have been thinking about Laird and managing to balance my grief with the joy of all the memories I have of him. In the time I’ve been around Laird since I first got to know him 18 years ago there have been so many experiences we shared. Recovering those experiences have been like peeling an onion with each memory peeled back revealing another and another.

Each layer has brought me back to something I recall about him. Just last night as I was trying to piece together something for today I hit on something I hadn’t remembered for maybe 10 years. Laird and I were running with some other coaches while he has in high school out on the military base on a cold winter day. I wasn’t in great shape and eventually the other guys pulled Laird ahead and I got dropped halfway out. It wasn’t a big deal, but the group got further and further ahead until I couldn’t see them. So I’m out there all by myself feeling pathetic and slow and a couple of miles from the end I see something coming towards me in the distance and in a bit I see Laird has doubled back by himself to help his feeble, old coach in. And that was just the kind of guy he was.

Laird was a team guy. He understood that he was going to be better if those around him were better too. Laird was going to be a great runner without anyone’s help but everyone was going to be better and have more fun if they worked together. Our XC team hadn’t gone to state as a team for 2 straight years before Laird joined the team. We won 3 straight state titles Laird’s first 3 years. His senior year Laird won the individual title but he was asking how the team did after he won.

One week before Laird’s memorable dual with David Dyer in the state meet. Laird, Jerry Ross and Joe Anderson placed 1-2-3 in the region meet. As Laird and Jerry came down the final meters Jerry led by a foot. But rather than both of them sprinting to beat the other they kept the same pace and Jerry won the race. Perhaps Laird could have thrown in a final surge to take the win but he was more thrilled to see a teammate and friend like Jerry get the victory.

In “To An Athlete Dying Young” A.E. Housman writes about the young runner who won the race for the town. The consolation in his death, Housman says, is that he never got old to see another break his records. But that wouldn’t be the case for Laird. Laird would celebrate his records being broken and he would likely be the first to congratulate them. Laird never looked at his opponents as competition but rather as partners in achieving their best. He valued them pushing him to run faster and he wanted to help pull them to their bests. He appreciated his competition and respected their efforts. When the race was done Laird would likely be running warm-down laps with the opponents he had beaten while laughing and talking positively about the race.

I wish Laird’s life with us had been a marathon instead of a mile. But that’s what Laird was - a miler. He loved the simple beauty of the distance. He had a limited print of Roger Bannister, the first man to break four minutes for the mile.

The mile requires a perfect combination of all elements. You need endurance, strength and speed. If you can combine all the elements you can achieve the perfect race of consistent pace, strength over fatigue and finally speed in the final straight. Laird managed to combine all the elements with his relationships with others. Laird had generosity of spirit, humility of self and unshakable loyalty to his friends.

For those of us who saw him run the last meters of a races his finishing kick was powerful, blazing fast and decisive. Just like the vortex Laird created when he blazed away from the competition, all of us have been pulled along in many different swirls of memories and relationships. Seeing so many people here and talking with many of you, it’s obvious that Laird’s life was unfairly short, but it was also so powerful to affect us all and so many. Like all of you I am so sad that he isn’t here to continue having that affect. But I’m more comforted by the knowledge that I was lucky to be close enough to that vortex and allowed to be pulled along.

As I was running this morning I was talking to a friend about Laird and about how I was glad I had the opportunity to give him a photo a few weeks ago of the last race he ran and that I was glad we had the chance to do it together. But at the same time I felt bad I hadn’t talked to him one more time in the past weeks. She told me that I need to focus more on all the times we spent together rather than that one time I didn’t call. I know many of you feel the same way. Let’s continue to focus on those times we spent with Laird. If there’s one thing Laird didn’t do is live in regret. We owe it to him to not regret that missed opportunity at the expense of the great experiences we all share.

Laird, I love you. I miss you. You have affected my life and inspired me in more ways than you will ever know. Thank you.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The hand of a friend

Yesterday I spent severely overdue time with one of the most amazing people I know. It has been nearly seven years since I last saw Kaarin Knudson. I consider the opportunity to get together this weekend with her a huge help in light of this past week's events. 

It's not possible for me it to think about my relationship with Laird and not think of Kaarin.  Again, it wasn't just because they were amazing runners, they were incredible individuals period. That I was lucky enough to coach one of them would be enough. To have that opportunity at the same time goes beyond lucky - it was truly a blessing.

"Ah, how good it feels, the hand of a friend"

Like Laird, I can't possibly convey what a titan of a individual Kaarin is. Last year when she called me to tell me that she had developed a very aggressive form of breast cancer, it was a moment of concern and sadness for me followed by 30 minutes of positive conversation that almost made forget that she was going through the toughest race of her life. The only time I have never felt better after talking to Kaarin was when I had to tell her about Laird's death. 

I think Kaarin also knew that we had to meet this weekend before the memorial for Laird so she made the drive up from Eugene where she lives. We had a four-hour "lunch" and talked about the great memories we've experienced and caught up on where we are at. Invariably the topic would circle around to Laird. Kaarin was one year older than Laird at Dimond High but their lives in many ways were a carbon copy. Both won state 800 and 1600-meter track titles, both won individual state cross-country titles. Both were graceful, beautiful runners, the picture of perfection you see when you close your eyes. 

They dated through high school and college while at the University of Oregon. Though their relationship ended after college the mark both left on each other is indelible. Everything one would say about Laird is the same they would say about Kaarin. It's obvious that each of their live's were richer for the time they spent together.

To meet with Kaarin yesterday and again today gave us both the opportunity to buffer our grief with the great memories we have shared together and with Laird. I expected that each memory we recalled would make us sadder and shed more tears, but rather we seemed to smile more and laugh at the funny stories and situations. After a couple of hours we were joined by another friend, Ryan Moody, who had driven down from Seattle to meet with us. Ryan was a fellow Dimond grad who also ran with Laird and Kaarin.

We avoided being thrown out of the crowded restaurant for hogging a table for so long and found a quiet booth at the bar where we took up another six hours recounting an incredible amount of memories. Again, the conversation continually circled back to Laird. We finally had to call it a night, not because we had run out of conversation or interest but rather time. I suspect that we could still be draining beers and talking about all the great times we shared and shared with Laird. It was a positive evening that did so much to help us deal with our need to communicate our feelings with another who felt the same pain and shared the same memories.

Kaarin has finally finished her chemo treatment and her hair has grown back. She has also begun running again and has come up with some very powerful goals for herself in the future. She has asked me to help her with them and I simply couldn't be more honored that she wants me to assist. The opportunity to help her with these goals will be so much fun and I look forward to the coming years and more close contact. I also look forward to passing along our journey. 

Consider that nearly 20 years ago Kaarin was a 14-year-old, 5-4 freshman who talked faster than the human brain can process. I never could have imagined that the befreckled waif, who surprised us all when she popped out of the woods in her first state meet and placed fifth would be the 5-10 (still befreckled) woman who inspires me with her strength and kindness today.

Thanks Kaarin. 

Saturday, January 24, 2009

A Run in the Park

Its amazing what a simple little run will do for one's spirits. I had probably my best run in about 6 weeks today on the Forest Park Trail here in Portland. It wasn't particularly fast or far but for the first time in what seems like forever, I was able to run without the dull ache or pain I've been dealing with. I'd almost forgotten that there is any other feeling.

Between the injury, food poisoning and Laird's passing (read the Anchorage Daily News link about Laird) I really needed a lift like today. My reason for being in Portland was to meet with Adidas and see a new trail shoe that is set to release in 2010. The shoe is a new design solution that has excellent promise for trail running with its Formotion heel unit that allows for adaptive response to the uneven ground.

I became involved with the shoe this past August when I met in Salt Lake City with a trio of Adidas employees who wanted my input on different aspects for the shoe. The basic approach of the shoe was generally in place so I don't want one to think I helped "design" the shoe. Rather, because of Skinny Raven's experience with so many trail shoes we see, even and the feedback we receive from all the trail shoes we sell, our input was helpful in what aspects were important and those that weren't. We spent nearly three hours in August talking about tread height and patterns, upper materials and mesh densities and even lacing systems. 

I expected to see a early rough sample in November when I was in New York for the marathon, but sadly the person who brought it along with other models had his entire bag stolen in Ohio before coming to NYC. So the first visual I had was a rendering two months ago, but as it was a drawing it was difficult to completely grasp the shoe. So today I met up with Ben Evans, our store rep for Adidas, and his boss Scott Schilter who manages all the specialty reps for the US. Scott used to be our rep for Skinny Raven, but once he proved himself with our store Adidas realized his potential and promoted him. Scott is in the Skinny Raven rep Hall of Fame for his brave run with me on the Lost Lake trail and his overstated story about the bear we ran into that he tells everyone else in the US. Suffice to say, to my peers in other shops around the country the story comes off as I personally wrestled the bear into submission while Scott ran past.

Anyway Scott unveiled the first of three preproduction samples as we got ready to start the run. It was beautiful! I had certain expectations but it really looked cool for a first-round shoe. As preproduction samples come in size 9.0 for men I am able to run in many models, from all vendors, well before they are produced for the public. So it was great to be able to slip the shoe on and try it on a real trail as well. 

It fit really well straight off, though the heel was a touch loose. Its expected that there may be subtle things that need to be addressed at each step of the design/testing process so its not a problem that one may notice something. In fact, it helps to have that feedback so changes can be made. In the new adi-zero XT that comes out this summer I tried two different versions that had changes I felt in the fit that others did too that were addressed in the final product. Designers value constructive feedback and make notes of every small detail and compare to other feedback. They're "only" shoes but there is a lot of work that goes into getting it right through the various stages. It's not as glamorous as one might think. I get to deal with more of the finished product, but a lot of the process must be pretty mind-numbing.

Running was flat out great! Light weight, smooth transitioning and just a very comfortable ride. A nice mix of soft dirt and a touch of mud just to challenge the traction. It really helped that my leg felt good and being on dirt and varied terrain only helped more. After almost no exercise this week I expected to feel sluggish and heavy, but rather I felt really good and the excitement of the new shoe only enhanced the experience.

Scott, Ben and I met up for a great post-run breakfast and we dissected the shoe a bit more with Scott taking notes to pass along to Dave Jewell, who works in Germany and is behind the project. All the vital "organs" are in place for the shoe so little things like eyelet placement, stitching to compliment color,  or toe cap options are things we focused on. 

There are a few details I'm not at liberty to publish right now like photos or the name of the shoe, but I can promised that it is going to be a wonderful shoe and will be a prominent shoe for Skinny Raven when it comes out in 2010. I get to keep this early sample, so if you want to know more come to Skinny Raven and I can show it and tell you some of the details.