Monday, December 3, 2012

2012 - Above All, A Humbling Year

Finishing the Impossible
(2012 Barkley Marathons)

Each year in late November, I manage to find myself tucked away in Antarctica waiting to fly out to a my field camp at WAIS Divide.  Usually, this means several days of waiting around for the good weather to cooperate. Of course this also equates to some uninterrupted time to reflect on the year as a whole.

Whenever I finally do sit down to compose this now traditional "Year-in-Review" post, it often brings a great sense of nostalgia.  There's nothing particularly special about the things I chose to do with my life...but I think there's something wonderful, if not therapeutic about looking back on your various endeavors and setbacks no matter how big or small.  I spend the whole year racing from one adventure to another, whether it be school-related, running-related, or hiking-related, and never really get to slow down long enough to reflect on those adventures.

Normally, I try to put some clever title together that summarizes what I consider to be the highlights of my year.  This year though, after thinking for a long time about how 2012 transpired for me, I was truly unable to put something into words.  It occurred to me that I've had such a fortunate year, and have been blessed and lucky enough to live through some absolutely incredible experiences.  I have so many things to be thankful for, and there are so many people that I need to thank. 2012 has humbled me above all...and I am grateful for this.

2012 in Review

2012 started the same way for me that the past 4 WAIS Divide.  Deep within the heart of West Antarctica, a small group of us were finishing up the last of the ice-core drilling.  Here is what I wrote about it on my January 1st post:

"Yesterday (Dec 31st), amongst a small group of friends and fellow scientists, the WAIS Divide Deep Ice Core (main borehole) drilling came to an end. The drillers pulled up the last and final ice core from the main borehole, WDC06A...from a depth of 3405 meters (~65,000 yrs).  
The atmosphere this year was much different than last year. A small group of about 20 of us quietly stood in the drilling arch as the last core came up to the surface. There was no glorious speech, no huge party, just a humble, subdued feeling of accomplishment. We shook hands, thanked everyone, and processed the core as usual. Later that night we prepared for a nice New Year's Eve dinner and contemplated a very poignant thought:

The WAIS Divide Deep Ice Core project was first conceived 25 years ago. In 1986 there was a short article written about how the U.S. should drill an ice core in West Antarctica. In the early 90's, the actual WAIS Divide initial proposal was first drafted. Yesterday, I was there for, and I witnessed, a 25 year vision come to an end. It was quite a powerful thought."

Later that same day, I brought in the new year, by going out for a short run to celebrate my 10,000th mile.

Logan, Giff, and I packing the very last ice core from 
the WAIS Divide main borehole (WDC06A)

Pouring out the bubbly, and celebrating at the
New Years Eve Party later that night

Running on New Years Day in Antarctica, 
to celebrate my 10,000th mile

When I made it home back to Pennsylvania in late-January, I turned my focus to an extreme training regimen.  Unbeknownst to everyone, I found out while still on the ice, that my application had been accepted for the infamous Barkley Marathons.  I had decided to keep this bit of information to myself.  Participating in such an event forced me to embrace an entirely different mindset from anything that I was used to.  I wanted to run the Barkley solely as a way to test myself.  It wasn't about notching a specific time, or was entirely to see what I would be capable of...sort-of along the lines of my PCT thru-hike.  I had spent weeks studying maps and preparing myself for my return home so that I could start what would be the most difficult 2 months of training I've ever endured.  And like I said, except for close family/friends....I told no one.

My training contained several facets.  I focused primarily on hills, but also upped my total distances, worked a little on speed, and even did some overnight and all-day hike/runs.  It was the most difficult 2 months of physical and mental preparation I've ever subjected myself to.  I was often doing hill repeats for hours, twice-a-day, with 5-10 hour back-to-back weekend runs.  By my "peak" week, I was up to almost 100 miles with over 30,000+ feet of gain.

A typical gas-line cut for hill training 
(1 mile, 1200' of gain)

A cold 10k in February

Typical long, hilly run in the park.

10,000 foot ascent training day.  Lots of ups and downs.

Finishing ~70 continuous miles on the Mid-State Trail

In early March, after maxing out my training, I actually took a few down days to relax.  I headed to to Florida over Spring Break to visit with my mom and had a chance to pop in a visit at the Kennedy Space Center...a place that's been on my "to-do" list for a while.

Admiring the "Rocket Garden"

When I got back from Florida I began writing my Thesis proposal for my upcoming big exam (more on that in a bit).  I had about 2 full weeks of so called "tapering" to give my body a little rest before heading to Tennessee.  One week before the big day, I packed up all my running gear and took the nice and easy drive down South.  I pulled into Frozen Head State Park and slowly began acclimating myself to the rugged surroundings.  I mostly kept a low profile and did my own thing while the other racers slowly began filing in.  I met some incredible people in those days before the race, and gleaned many helpful tips and tidbits.  At about 9:15 in the morning on race day, we lined up at the infamous yellow gate and headed out to do the impossible.

I like to think that I have a decent list of life accomplishments.  Graduating from College, earning a Masters Degree, Completing the AT and PCT, etc...but I find it hard to find any of my accomplishments throughout my entire life thus far, that I am more proud of....than finishing the Barkley Marathons.  No matter what comes to pass in my future, this one accomplishment will be the one I look back on with the most humility and am the most honored to have achieved.  It was a once-in-a-lifetime 3-day episode, that I will likely never be able to duplicate.  I owe many thanks to those who believed in me, and to those that gave me the chance to even try the impossible.  I am truly honored to be a member of the 12 finishers.

Here was my race report:  Barkley Marathons Race Report and Podcast

Lining up at the start (I'm in the middle - white hat)

The Start!

Scrambling down Rat Jaw

Laz recording a lap finisher during the first night

Drinking the last of the water at the Tower on loop 5 
(about 5 hours from finishing)

Coming up the road to the finish: ~59 hrs 41 mins

Getting a congratulatory pat on the back from Frozen Ed
(And a chair from Stu)

So glad to be done... 
(It was nearly impossible to get up out of that chair)

After the Barkley, I didn't slow down.  I immediately began prepping for the next two big upcoming calendar events: the Massanutten 100, and my PhD Comprehensive Examination.  I only took about a week off from serious running before jumping right back into the heavy miles.  In retrospect, this probably led to my future heel pain, but at the time I was feeling confident.  I ran a local 50k quite well just 3 weeks after the Barkley and so I perhaps went into the MMT with a touch of hubris; it came back to bite me.  When MMT race-day came, I had quite a unique experience running through the mountains and woods of Virginia as I struggled to keep from dropping.  I wasn't injured, I wasn't sick....I simply lost motivation on a level I wasn't familiar with.  After such a overwhelming experience at the Barkley, I was realizing that finishing other 100-milers would never quite be the same.  Somewhere around mile 85 during the MMT, I finally made peace with this fact and I finished with a smile on my face.  I learned a lot during that event, and came away with a huge amount of respect for anyone and everyone that finishes these damned races.

Start line at the MMT 100

Struggling around mile 40

After my experience at the MMT, I shifted 100% of my focus to preparing for, and passing my final PhD compulsory exam:  The Comprehensive Examination. This required step in my PhD education track involves me preparing my ~25 page thesis proposal, presenting in front of my committee, and then getting grilled about it.  Here is what I wrote in my blog entry about it:

"Today, after months of preparation and a 25 page written Thesis proposal, I participated in my 2+ hour PhD Comprehensive Examination. This was the last academic hurdle that I had to face other than my eventual PhD Dissertation defense. It was much different than candidacy, but unpleasant nonetheless. It was structured as more of a in-depth committee meeting where points of my proposal were picked apart. I don't feel that I did very well, but I didn't feel as stupid as I did following Candidacy.

I spent the time presenting my proposed thesis chapter and detailing the finer points, all while answering specific questions concerning shortcomings and potential issues with said chapters. After about 2 hrs and 15 minutes, I left the room to sit in the hall alone while my committee again decided my fate. 10 minutes later I was again, and thankfully, greeted with hand shakes. I passed. Again.  
Thank God.

I understand the merits of having such exams, but they really have an enormous stress impact on me. I spent weeks studying every fundamental of glacier physics and climate history that I could. I simply didn't know what I might get asked and it really had me worked up. How do you prepare for the possibility of "anything"? I simply had no way of knowing if I studied enough. My thesis proposal was fairly decent, but I was again terrified of the questioning portion. My sleep has been terrible because of it too. I haven't necessarily been the most fun person to be around these past few weeks either. In the end, my exam ended up having much more over-arching questions, and not so much detailed equation or fundamentals questions. Whatever...I passed.

In addition to getting my first paper published, passing my comps has thus far been the academic achievement I'm most proud of. It signals that the end of my academic career is starting to get within sight. Some time in the next year or two, I will be putting together the final chapters of my thesis and defending my dissertation. From there, my future is unknown...but needless to say I've started opening my eyes to the job hunt.

The absolute very first thing I did upon passing my comps was to take a one week vacation to Japan. It changed my life. Here is what I wrote about it:

"My short 8 days in Japan have completely opened my eyes. It is truly a wonderful country. The people exude an absolute sense of kindness and compassion. When I struggled with the language, they were incredibly eager to help and work with me to clarify what I was trying to communicate. I was always welcomed no matter where I went and was always greeted with smiles. Once outside of the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, there are Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples that can be found around every corner. There is a constant feeling of calm, an almost perpetual collective meditation. Even in busy tourist areas, it's not hard to make a few extra turns and find yourself down a remote trail and be immersed in a beautiful and peaceful surrounding. No matter where we went, there was always a wonderful little surprise that made it worth it. Putting down the Lonely planet guide, and traveling by instinct allowed us to unearth the secret gems that most visitors never get to experience. I have absolutely fallen in love with this country and her people."

Here are just a couple pics from that trip.  There are more here.

Shinto Inspired Walkway

Beautiful Seaside Geology


Leaf Beatles

Flower Park

Typical Fuel-Efficient Japanese Vehicle (I Want One!)

Beautiful Temple

After getting back from an absolutely eye-opening week in the beautiful country of Japan, I finally was able fulfill a lifelong dream:  Going up in a hot-air balloon!  I found a local business in State College that hosts rides.  It wasn't cheap, but was definitely worth it!

Here are a few pics from the ride:

Setting up the balloon

Flaming it up!

Flying over Beaver Stadium


After the ballooning I settled in for the summer.  I worked on my thesis while also squeezing in a very quick 3-day road trip to Texas and and an even quicker running of the Finger Lakes 50's.  During the evenings I was putting in time at the local Fitness Club.  I needed their sauna for proper heat training and Badwater prep.

Driving along the Natchez Trace Parkway (TN, AL, MS)

Running in the Finger Lakes Fifties

Two short weeks after running at Finger Lakes, I packed up my bags and headed west with my family in tow.  I was headed out to run the infamous Badwater Ultramarathon.  When I found out I was accepted back in February, I could hardly believe it.  I was certain that my resume was too thin.  When I got the acceptance letter, I gladly took it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and mentally prepped for it.  Little did I know the crazy experience I would have.  I faced very new and overwhelming obstacles during the race, like I've never experienced before.  Specifically, I ran the entire 135 miles with a horrific stomach illness.  My full race report is here, but one particular quote from it sums up how I was able to finish in spite of my horrible situation:

"I started running this race on the morning of July 16th, 2012....exactly 7 years to-the-day of my father's passing. I was running it for him....and I know he was there in my support van. I think it was in those most hopeless moments when I couldn't think of a single logical reason to continue, and was in utter agony...that he was filling my next water bottle."

Here are some pics:

Early on at Mile 3 or so...Still Feeling OK

At the Finish...I somehow made it!

The Team!

After Badwater, I had some time to recover.  I came home and took it easy for a few weeks, before heading out to Colorado to do some labwork and climb some 14ers!.  When it was all said and done, I prepped over a dozen ice samples, and was able to knock out Mt Quandary, Democrat, Cameron, Bross, Lincoln, Longs, and Massive!  This brings my 14er total to 14!  Here is the post highlighting the details:  Colorado!

A Prepped Ice Thin-Section With Possible Melt Layer

Mt. Lincoln Summit

The Keyhole Slot on Climb up Longs

On Top of Longs

When my ice lab work was done, I stuck around for for a few extra days to run the Leadville Trail 100 for my third go at it.  I had missed the sub-25 hour buckle in 2011 by a mere 36 minutes and was now back to try again.  Despite a slightly longer course, and a very busy year of running, I actually faired really well and finally crossed the finish line in under 25 (24:17).  Here is a quote from my race report after I came to realize it was never really about earning the large buckle after all...:

"All in all, I had an incredible time and was able to walk away with a large buckle...even though in the end I came to realize that the buckle is not really what matters. I saw amazing star-lit skies, ran long beautiful single-track, finished my 3rd Leadville race, saw many friends, congratulated my pacer from last year (Sophia) as she finished her first Leadville in 28 hours, 50 minutes.....and had an experience I'll never forget.

Thanks again never fail to imprint indelible memories in my mind."

Here is the FULL Leadville Race Report. and a few pics:

Mile ~40, leaving Twin Lakes


The Prize

As the Fall Semester began and the school work started flowing again, I began to prepare for some upcoming science conferences and to wind down my year of ultrarunning.  I still had a few races on the docket, but for the most part, the high profile races were done.

Just before heading out to San Diego for the annual WAIS Divide Antarctic Science meeting, I decided on a whim to run a local 100k (Pine Creek Challenge) as a final long/training run for the upcoming oil creek 100 in October.  I had no intention of running it hard nor fast...but after finding out the course was on an entirely flat bike path, I decided to push a bit.  

I headed out at the start and took the lead.  From there, I never lost it, and ended up winning my very first ultra outright in 10:21:55  It was a very interesting and new experience for me.  Here is a relevant quote from my race report:

"Within a few miles I was far enough ahead (running about 8:20 min/miles), that I could no longer see anyone behind me. The rail trail makes enough turns where it doesn't take too long to lose sight of people in front or behind. It was then, that the uncomfortable feeling set in. That feeling of never knowing how much your lead is. Are they 5 minutes back, or 50 minutes back? Is someone getting a second wind and will catch up to me? If I walk through this aid station, will someone gain on me? It was mind-numbingly exhausting….yet somehow exhilarating. I've read many race reports from top runners, and have always been fascinated by stories of the mental games that go on in the leaders' heads during a race. The worrying, the wondering, the panic. I got to experience a small taste of that, albeit at a fairly inconsequential and obscure local race. Still, it was a race."

Here is the full Report:  Pine Creek Challenge and a pic:

Winning My First Ultra

I immediately left for San Diego to talk ice-core science and on the way back was able to stop through Houston and road trip back.  This road-trip gave me the opportunity to hit all of my remaining states except one (North Dakota).  Here is my posting from that wonderful little continental jaunt:  Road Tripping and a few pics:

Visiting the New Madrid Earthquake Museum
(Boot Heel of Missouri)

The Arch!


I was quickly back in school, and updating some research results and making a brand new poster to present at the International Ice Core meeting in France that I was heading to in just two short weeks!  At the end of September I flew out on my third international jaunt of the year...this time to Europe!  The conference was held on a peninsula that juts out into the Mediterranean along the Azure Coast.  It was spectacular.  I even got in some coastal trail running while there.

Here are a couple pics from that trip:

The IPICS Conference Attendees

Beautiful Trail Running Along 
Mediterranean Sea Cliffs

Local French Village

Uninhabited Island of the Coast

After a successful conference, that featured ice-core science from around the world, I prepped for my last big ultra of the season.  I was making a repeat appearance at the Oil Creek 100 race, an event that I fared well at in 2011.  Again I had no intention of running hard or fast, but still managed to eek out a new 100-mile PR by a few minutes and earn another sub-22 buckle!  I learned the hard way about going out way too fast in an ultra and had a rather miserable back-50.  Still, I was quite thrilled with the outcome.  Here is a relevant quote from the Full Race Report:

"If you were to have asked me how I was doing, or how I was feeling, about 12 hours into Saturday's race….I would have said "Terrible!". I made a very rookie mistake this past weekend while out for my last long ultra jaunt of the season: I ran too fast, too early. Early on in the race I was feeling good, and I got caught up with running with some great company, and disregarded what was a much quicker pace and heart-rate than I prefer for hundred milers. As the miles ticked away, I kept thinking that I was running too fast, and that it would all come back to bite me in the ass. But, as the first 31-mile loop came to an end, I still felt surprisingly well. Then about 15 miles later I wanted nothing more than to curl up in a soft bed and say "screw it". I was lethargic, sore, cranky, and just plain heavy. No matter what I tried, I just couldn't get my feet to come up off the ground with any sort of authority. Yet, in spite of a struggling mental state, an uncooperative body, and cold temperatures, I managed to cross the finish line 8 minutes faster than last year, and 5 minutes faster than my 100-mile PR."

Somewhere near Mile ~55

Just after Finishing in 21:43:21

My 2nd Sub 22 Buckle at Oil Creek

As soon as the following week began, I had to start prepping all of my field equipment for Antarctica.  This season I am not only going back to WAIS Divide as a science technician, but I will setting up several of my own surface experiments. I had a lot of gear to prep.  Somehow in all of this prep work, I still managed to squeeze in my final race of the season down in Maryland.  The Fire on the Mountain 50k.  I did quite well in this race too, but realized in the last few miles, after my knee started screaming at me, that I desperately needed some down-time from running to allow some nagging injuries to heal.  

80 Hand-Built Platinum Temperature Sensors

Beautiful Leaves and Great Running at FOTM 50k

Coming into the Finish!

From the Full 50k Report:  

"Well I had the wonderful pleasure this past weekend of participating in the annual "Fire on the Mountain 50k" just across the border in Northern Maryland. The race is touted as being feisty with quite a few steep climbs and descents, speckled with some longer hills, and even some fire-road running. All-in-all, it turned out to have a really good mix of running and never had me feeling bored."

And so that brings us to today. Here we are again, back in Antarctica. I flew into McMurdo on the 28th and have been spending the week around town packing cargo and getting through all of my "refresher" safety training.  I am literally scheduled to fly out to the deep field in about 3 hours.  I wanted to spend more time, and put more thought into this post, but I knew I would not get it uploaded before losing my good internet connection for two months.  Just going through the process of putting this all together, I realized just how incredible and fortunate of a year I've had.  6 years ago, I never in a million years would have expected that I would have had a 2012 like I just did.

Like I said in the post title, I've realized that above all, this has been a humbling year.  I have imprinted permanent memories in my mind, met so many wonderful people, and found much happiness at home.  I do not know what 2013 may bring, nor do I expect to even guess.  I have my name in a few race lottery hats again, but who really knows how those will turn out.  For now, I will simply be grateful for every day that I get to wake up and keep enjoying new experiences.

hike on my friends, and never stop exploring.

Enjoying a Run Around Antarctica Yesterday
(Mt. Erebus in the Background)

WAIS I come!