Thursday, May 31, 2012

Deep Sigh of Relief

Celebrating with a cold one

I don't often drink beer.  But when I do, I prefer....a beer that salutes a long distance hiking trail. :-) Seriously, I can't even remember the last time I had a beer.  But this afternoon I'm celebrating.  And it feels damn good.  This morning another stressful chapter of my life has closed.  Since getting back from Antarctica, and especially since finishing Barkley, all of my time and efforts have been single in focus.  That focus was the preparation for my 2nd compulsory PhD graduate school examination.  A few years ago you may remember me posting a note about the horrible experience of my PhD Candidacy Examination.   During that exam, my committee did everything in their power to make me feel as stupid as possible and needless to say, I passed by the skin of my teeth.  Today was part 2 of that story.  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.

Now, I can finally shift my focus back to my actual research and try to get my work written up and published.  My tentative timeline for graduation is 2 more years (Spring 2014).  Preparing for these exams really is a vacuum void that sucks all of your academic time away.  I'm glad to have it back.

With all this said, however, I will first be taking a week off for some personal travel before diving back in to the research.  I think I've earned it.  So without divulging too much of my personal life on this here journal, all I will say is that I'm spending a week in a foreign country....and I CAN'T WAIT!  I'm really excited about this one.  It's been planned since January and it's one of the few things that's kept me going during those long study sessions.  

Also tomorrow, the folks that filmed the Barkley Marathons and are doing the documentary will be on my campus, and I'll show them around a bit.  I may even give them a quick tour of the -36C Ice Lab!  muuhaahaaa.  I'm excited to show them all what I do here.  Should be fun!

Lastly, on a side note, I say bon voyage to a new friend today.  For the past two months I've been cat-sitting for someone and tonight he finally goes back home.  He's been a great companion to have around during my long study sessions (despite having claws), and I'll miss him.  So goodbye Ace, my super ninja kitty...I hope you had fun here with me!

...and now to expand my celebratory beer into further debauchery downtown!

hike on everyone,


Saturday, May 26, 2012

Another Great Day at Black Moshannon

How can you not like baby geese?

After spending most of last week with my head buried in books, notes, and scientific journal publications, I decided I needed to unwind a bit this morning.  Last night as I was browsing through the local running club's page, I noticed that there was a 10k up at Black Moshannon today.  Naturally, I decided it was also a perfect day to dust of the kayak.  Funny, it was the same weekend last year that I dusted it off.

I've found that I've been having some fun again playing around in local 5 and 10k races.  Last weekend I ran a brutal 5k around the base of Mt. Nittany and finished in 6th place.  Even though my ideal race is anything 50 miles and longer, and I still feel that variety is, as they say, the spice of life.  I like to keep things interesting, and to always "mix it up".  Plus I figure a little speed work is always a good idea.  So naturally,

I thought, why not make the morning into my own little triathlon.....

This morning, I headed up to Black Moshannon Park, with the ol' boat on top.  I arrived 2 hours before the race, registered, and then promptly went out on a 10.5 mile trail run around the lake on the Moss-Hanne Trail.  It was a delightfully muddy disaster.  Lots of fun, lots of croaking frogs, lots of spider-webs, lots of laughing.  (So marked event 1 of my so-called triathlon).

Arriving back at my car at 9:45, I had 15 minutes to get ready for the start of the 10k race.  I pinned on my bib, swigged a liter of water, and jogged over to the start just as the announcer was giving last minute instructions.  The race was mostly flat with some rolling hills and I ran fast...but not too fast.  I made sure it hurt a little, but not so much that I wasn't able to keep a smile on.   Of course running almost 11 miles before the race probably slowed me down a tad.  I finished in 11th place, but first in my age group....*gulp*....35-39.   Still not used to saying that.  I was surprised at how much energy I had at the end.  I ended up sprinting past 5 runners in the last few tenths. (and so marked event 2 of my so-called triathlon).

After a nice cool off, I decided it was time to take out the kayak.  I hoisted her into the water and spent about an hour paddling around all the nooks and crannies of the "lake".  I don't know what it is about kayaking on open water, but no matter how crappy I feel, or how stressed out I am, it always brings me a wonderful sense of calm. least until the thunder clouds start to roll in.  I had such a relaxing tour out in the boat and when I finally did pull myself back up on land, I turned around and saw a family of geese.  What a great way to end the morning.'s raining buckets outside and I'm about to go bury my head back in the books, but for now, I am grateful to have had such a fun, energetic, and yet somehow calming morning.

My own little triathlon.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 - Race Report

Coming into Veach Aid Station (mile 41)

Well I've come away from another 100-miler successfully, but it was a real tough one for me.  Real tough.  I struggled terribly with this race.  Putting the Barkley aside, I can honestly say that this was the most difficult 100 I've done...specifically from the mental aspect.  Certainly the physical component of the MMT100 was right up there, and arguably the toughest course I've done (especially with all the rocks), but it was my mind and heart that nearly failed me this past weekend.  I'm not sure if the finishing the Barkley has spoiled me forever in standard 100-milers, but somewhere around mile 35, I was overcome with a very new and incredibly overpowering emotion.  Let me explain...

I remember reading Andrew Thompson's 2005 Barkley race report when he described a feeling he had on loop 5.  He described it as, "a profound loss of purpose".  Now granted, Andrew was in a 3-day sleep-deprived haze, but I never really grasped what he meant by that statement.  When I ran the Barkley, I never lost focus.  I was single in purpose and drive, and was determined to make that 5th gate no matter what it took.  In every ultra I've run, there's always been some level of that drive, that determination, that has motivated me to "get there"; get to that finish line.  The same can be said for my thru-hikes.  It's not a stubbornness per se, but more as Andrew would say, a "sense of purpose".   

This past weekend, at around mile 35, I no longer could come up with a single reason why I should keep running.  I wasn't smiling, I wasn't having fun, I had tripped/fallen several times on the rocks, it was hot, I was miserable, and I had no golden images of the finish line stanchion in my head.  I just had no desire to continue.  None, whatsoever.  I didn't care that it would be my first DNF, I didn't care that I wouldn't get the buckle, I didn't care that people were passing me, I didn't try to catch/pass others, I didn't care about trying to keep at it to get that sub-24 buckle, I didn't care that I would be embarrassed to have finished the Barkley only to have failed at MMT...I just didn't care about anything.  It was the most profound sense of apathy I've ever experienced in a race.  I really just did not want to be there any longer.  I didn't even care...that I didn't care, which is what really surprised me.  How could I be so ready to quit and not be at least disappointed?  I was truly emotionless about it all.  For a large part of this race I was completely alone too.  I think having a pacer would have been a life-saver, as I was honestly very lonely.  (I was in the "solo-division", which meant I wasn't aloud any outside aid)

Add to all this that the aid stations were very far apart, which was very morally deflating.  One stretch was 10 miles long and included a very technical part.  It took over 2 hours to get through this section.  There was a decent amount of climbing, but it was the rocks that were a killer.  They just didn't end.  I fell several times, stubbed my toes more than once, and was just plain clumsy all day.  It reminded me of running at Rothrock, but only for 100 miles instead of 20.  Every aid station I came to, without hesitation, I sat down in a chair.  There was no sense of urgency to keep moving.  I probably spent a cumulative total of 45-60 minutes at aid stations.  Had I been efficient, and motivated, I truly feel I could have broken that 24-hour barrier, but like I said, I had no sense of purpose.

So what kept me going?  I honestly don't know.  I think it was a couple of things.  I thought a lot about all the volunteers that were out there for us runners, giving up their time.  It made me feel terrible about quitting.  I also thought a lot about how pissed off I would be next week, and that I would have to come back to run it again next year for "redemption".  At the time, the thought of having to see the course again was awful (despite it being quite beautiful).  I thought of my mother checking on my web-status updates on mother's day, and what she would think when my status would suddenly go to DNF.  I thought of others who were watching my status, and I thought I needed to at least do it for them.  Somehow,  I was able to completely turn off my mind and go into a sort of unthinking numb state...with a single thought of just "move forward".  Aid stations went by painfully slow.  When I did make it to the 96 mile aid station, I was able to somehow re-awaken, and finally be at peace with my run.  I exited the trail at about 5:40 am onto the road in the dark, and ran the last 4 miles by myself as the sky began to light up.  It was finally the magical moment I was waiting to have all day.  I crossed the finish line just before the sun poked its head above the mountain ridge line.  It was lovely.

So there you have it.  My less than glorious finish at the MMT 100.  I am definitely glad I stuck it out, but even today I'm not that moved by it all.  It actually kind of saddens me a I want that excitement back, that sense of accomplishment.  But, I am content to pass this one off as simply "not my race".  I'm not saying I wouldn't ever do it again, but for this particular year, it just wasn't there for me.  I am definitely still excited about Badwater, so I know that drive will be back!

As far as blow-by-blow race report, I'll give a few details below, but honestly I tuned so much of the race out, that it's hard to remember straight in my head.


I rolled into the camp on Friday about 2pm and quickly set up my tent in far back-corner of the tenting area.  It was a nice spot, albeit tick-infested.  I went through all the pre-race hooplah, got my bib number,  and dropped of my 4 drop-bags.  I decided to try to get to sleep early and give myself plenty of rest.  I slept terribly though and finally got up, after tossing and turning, about 2:45 to get geared up.  It was quite cold out (high 30's), and I was already shivering.  I ate some muesli, taped my still-barkley-healing feet (which worked out great), and headed to the start tent.  The event tent reminded me a lot of the Vermont 100 tent.  Actually, the entire race atmosphere reminded me a lot of Vermont.  Very small with that homegrown feet...I really enjoyed that aspect of the race.

We were off fairly quickly, and the first 4.1 miles featured a steady, and very runable, road section.  I made quick work and dove into the first trail section ready to attack!  About 30 feet in, I tripped on a rock, bashed my knee, and scraped open my hand.  I immediately realized I forgot to wear my leather cycling gloves....damn.  It was the start of what would be a very long day.  The rocks were brutal.  From mile 5-10, there was a gnarly ridge-line section that was very similar to what I'd see here on the mid-state trail.  Almost impossible to run, as the rocks are just to clumsy to work around.  There was a lot of, run for a few steps, hike a few, run a few, hike a few...very awkward.  I was feeling pretty good for the first several hours, despite all of the wipe-outs.  Somewhere around 11 o'clock it started getting pretty hot out.  Aid station volunteers were putting ice in our water bottles and I was starting to get miserable.  It was probably at about mile 33 (Elizabeth Furnace), when I sat in my first aid-station chair, and just didn't feel like getting up.  I made the quick up-and-down to Shawl Gap (mile 37), and that's when I felt the apathy come on.  I had 65 miles still to run, and no reason in my mind to run them.  They told me the next 4 miles was on road, which kind of lifted my spirits.  Anything but rocks I thought.  I figured, "what the heck, might as well do the road section".  Coming into Veach at mile 41 (first picture above), I was not happy.  I sat again for a while and pondered what to do.  This is about when I started to turn my mind off and "just go".  I tried to mentally break the race up into manageable sections, but with 10-mile aid station splits, this was hard to do.  My memories from here get hazy.  I remember running with a fellow Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, we talked for a while about it.  I also remember running with a chatty, and high-spirited woman that kept me motivated (who reminded me a lot of my Leadville pacer Sophia), but mostly I was alone.  The climb up from Habron Gap I remember as being long.  When I hit Gap Creek the first time (mile 70), it was nearing the end of the day.  I put my headlamp on and talked for a long time with the aid station volunteers.  They kept nudging me to get going, but I just kept sitting for a while.  I somehow convinced myself that the change-of-pace to nighttime running would be nice, so I finally did head out.  I made it to the turn-off sign at mile ~72 after the Jawbone climb just as I turned my headlamp on.  There were three volunteers there cheering wildly for me.  On the sign post, I saw the 2nd pie plate that said, "Mile 98 - Go Straight" and I wanted desperately to fast-forward into the future to the next time I'd be at that sign.  The following ridge section was the most demoralizing of the entire course.  It was night, the rocks were brutal, and it went on for a never-ending 6 miles.  It took me almost 2 and a half hours to get to the Visitor's Center at aid station 77, and even the road-section down to the center seemed like it took FOREVER.  The climb up to Bird Knob was actually a nice section for me and the aid station at the top was very remote.  Just two people running a make-shift tent out of their car.  In some way, it reminded me of the Hope Pass aid station at Leadville.

From mile 82 to mile 96, I have very little memory.  I was in a horribly dark and low place.  I do remember the climb after mile 90 taking a very long time and I was within ear shot of a few other runners.  But that's about it.  When I finally did make the descent back down to the Gap Creek station for the 2nd time, it was like the curtain finally opened.  I was almost done.

The last climb would be Jawbone a 2nd time, which was nice as there would be no surprises.  At the top, I saw the sign again indicating where to go if at mile 98 and I stopped for a long time looking at it.  I remembered how several hours ago I was wishing more than anything to fast-forward and be here at 98. I took a long time realizing just how hard it was for me to make it through those last 27 miles.  Then I slowly made my way down the mile or so to the road, dodging the last of the rocks.

With 4.1 miles remaining, I popped out on to the road just as the sky began slowly lighting up.  I jogged tenderly for the entire way down remembering spots along the way from the previous morning.  I breathed in the morning air and I finally was able to smile again.  The birds started waking up and I felt good for the first time in 60 miles.  At the bottom, the course does a short loop through the woods and dumps us out on the far side of the finishers tent.  I made the short loop around the grass with a handful of people cheering me on.  I cross the finish in 26:26:12 (at 6:26 am), shook a few hands, and promptly sat down to a mostly empty finishers tent.

I ate lots of food, drank a ton of sodas and water, and passed out for a few hours on a mattress in the corner.  In the afternoon, I accepted my pewter buckle award (23rd place overall) and solo-division mug.  The announcer mentioned my Barkley finish as I accepted my awards and I got a hearty and surprising ovation from the was quite humbling.

As a side note, I would like to send a congrats to all that finished this very difficult course...and especially Gary Knipling who finished his 15th running!

Not much else to really say.  Like I said, it was a terribly difficult race for me and I'm glad to be home now resting and recovering.  My sole focus for the next 2+ weeks is to prepare for my upcoming PhD exam.

The buckle

The mug!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Preview

Well...this weekend is yet another race that I'm signed up to run.  And it's a beast.  The Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 (MMT100) is notorious for being rocky, gnarly, feisty, and just plain tough.  It's also apparently 103.7 miles, not 100.  I'm used to playing around on rocks with my training here in Rothrock St. Forest, but frankly I'm still pretty beat up.  I don't know that I've truly recovered from my self-destruction at the Barkley (and then Hyner 50k).  I've tried to maintain a decent training schedule since, but have been a bit behind in the miles.  I have no doubt that I could finish the MMT, but finish it competitively?  That's a different story.

Kind of not sure what to do here.  I have a lot of work and studying to do on preparation for my PhD comprehensive exam, which is in just a few short week.  Perhaps it's not the most responsible thing to head out of town for 3 days right now either.  Add to all of this is that the soles of my feet are still a bit sensitive following all the skin re-growth after Barkley AND I've been having some moderate heal pain now too.  Of course there's the cranky toe that still acts up from time-to-time too, but I rarely notice it anymore.  Frankly, I've been asking a lot of my poor body as of late.

Is there a way to truly "take it easy" on a hundred miler?  If so, then I'll go and do it.  If not, well perhaps I should sit this one out.  Just not sure.  I kind of feel like I did last year before Oil Creek.  Not really sure if I wanna do it, but with a kind of, "Hey, lets give it go and see what happens" attitude.  Although it's unlikely I'll get a 5th place finish again.

Right now, I'm still leaning towards heading down and giving it a go.  Yes...I am stubborn, but I'm also a realist when it comes to potential injuries and won't push it.  I will see how I feel on Thursday and if all AOK, I will drive down and go for it.  I really do enjoy running along the dirt (and rock) paths through the mountains.  It's a place where I truly feel in alignment.  I don't want to miss out on that.

I will be running in the "solo division".  This means I will have no crew, no pacer, no aid other than approved aid stations.  I also will not be allowed ipods, or other luxuries.  Keeping it simple....the way I like it.

On a somewhat happy side note, I did come to the realization today that with my Barkley finish, I've already qualified again for the Hardrock Lottery next year!  I wonder how many applicants use Barkley as their qualifying run?  Kind of weird.

There will be live tracking at the MMT 100 event, so for anyone who wants to see how I'm doing, I'll be trackable here:

The race starts Saturday morning at 4:00 AM.

Elevation Profile

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

5 Years Ago - Appalachian Trail

Starting the Approach Trail up to Springer Mountain (1-May-2007)

Has it really been 5 years?  5 years since I took that first life-changing step up the Appalachian Trail- Approach Trail?  Has it really been 5 years since I strained and hobbled my chubby and out-of-shape body up that first 8 miles to the summit of Springer Mountain and the start of what would be a 2175 mile journey?

I guess time really does fly when you're having fun.

...How things can change.  If you would have asked me 8 years ago where'd I'd be in 8 years, and what sort of things would I have accomplished, I might have told you that I would maybe have a bigger house, nicer car, and perhaps a few more Microsoft certifications.  Never in a million years would I have guessed that I would have ended up where I have.  I have seen more, and experienced more life in that past 5 years, than I had in my previous 30.  While certainly I would have preferred different circumstances to have triggered my need to pull that steering wheel in a different direction, I am incredibly content at where I've ended up.  

I had considered trying to pour my soul into a post about how profound my last 5 years has been, all of the beautiful things I've seen....  Blah blah blah.  The honest truth is that I've found some semblance of true happiness and I will keep seeing where this road takes me.  I have been very fortunate to have been able to do the things I've have, and have not taken any of them for granted.

So hike on my friends, and please, whatever you do, don't settle.  Go after it....whatever IT is.


here is a little more walking down that memory lane from 5 years ago...

Packing up my gear

Heading out to Airport

Amicalola State Park - about to start up the approach trail

Springer Mountain Sign

First official step on the AT

On a side note, one thing that I did think about is that if you add up all the miles I've hiked and run in these 5 years, roughly 11,000, and divide that into those 5 means I averaged 6 miles a day, for every single day of those 5 years.  That's pretty cool.