Monday, April 13, 2020

The Reality of a New Normal

Crossing the line at the Elephant Mountain 50k

It was just a few months ago now that I was making somewhat regular weekend trips down to the greater Phoenix area (or as the locals like to call it..."The Valley"). I was taking full advantage of nearly weekly races put on by Aravaipa. I figured these were a good way to build myself up for my two peak races of the Spring: Black Canyon 100k, and the Boston Marathon (all with the Hardrock 100 on the longer July horizon)

After having successfully completed yet another run-every-day "Streak January", I was really honing my fitness and dialing in my running focus. For the past few years I have used my outings at the November MMTR to essentially mark the end of my running year, and then take most of December to rest and recover. When Jan 1 rolls around though, I commit to running every day, and to getting my self back into peak shape. Somehow, I even managed to do this last year while aboard a Research Vessel bobbing around the South Pacific near Antarctica. 

My 2020 Streak January peppered with bi-weekly races

Rewind for a minute....

The very first weekend in January, I began my year, and my streak with my traditional 3-hr virtual CJ's Resolution race. Back in 2014 I ran this event in-person in PA, but for the most part have participated virtually ever since. This includes the year I ran over 18 miles outside at South Pole. Over the years I've covered miles for this 3-hour event on loops outside of Boston, or loops in Lakewood Colorado....or in the case of this year, 2-mile loops in Buffalo Park in Flagstaff. Despite being a bit out of shape for this event, I always manage to surprise myself each year with around 22 miles. Without wanting to break tradition, I again aimed for 22 this year. Of course, I would also be running my loops on a snow-covered course, with over 100-ft of elevation gain per loop, and at 7200' altitude.

2014 CJ's Resolution race

Well, somehow this year, despite all of these components working to make the run harder for me, I still managed to eek out 22 miles. The only rule of the run, is whatever loop you're doing, you have to start that loop before the 3-hr mark. Well my last 2-mile loop was started at 2hrs and 59 minutes! As you can see by my track, I began hurting a bit the last 4-5 miles.

As the weeks progressed in January, so did my streaking, and my long runs. The very next weekend, I opted to escape the cold/snow, and head down to Sedona. It was the first time in weeks I was able to run in shorts. Of course my run did involve fording a VERY cold Oak Creek...twice, but I was so happy to be on dirt trails, I didn't care. I took my time and had a nice day of 14 trail miles. I even stopped for some photos.

Fun 14 in Sedona

View from the Top in Sedona (There was still a little snow there)

About this time, I was also frantically starting to get ready for the Spring semester to start up. I would be leading another graduate class, but this time related to Energy and Energy Policy. As I began pulling together various resources for the course, it was also about this time that I remember first reading about some new type of pneumonia that was being seen in significant numbers in parts of China. Interesting I thought. I remember thinking back to a movie I watched on a plane back in 2011 that involved some new virus spreading in Asia because a bat dropped its food into a pig enclosure, thereby somehow initiating a viral "spillover" event (turns out that film was 'Contagion').

The next weekend I headed down to Phoenix for my first of many jaunts down there in late winter. I had signed up to run a 20-mile trail course called the "Coldwater Rumble".  I don't know what it was about this course, but I had a near-pefect day on the trails. Despite going out somewhat fast, I ran well for all 20 miles. I even cranked out 7:30 mile at mile 11, and finished in under 3 hours (something I was convinced I wouldn't do). My exact quote on my logged run for that day was, "I can't remember the lasts time I felt this friggin' good!"

Finishing the Coldwater 20 miler in 2:58.

In between these long runs and races, I was maintaining my streak almost entirely on the treadmill at my apartment complex. There is almost never anyone in the shared fitness room, so I generally had the treadmill to myself most nights. It was a nice way to dial in my tempo runs and pacing as well.

The very next weekend, I decided to go out for a long run on some roads in town. The snow was sufficiently melted that I figured I could run the Lake Mary Rd. shoulder out to the lake and back. This would give me a solid 16 miles to test my pacing. I was aiming for about 8:40 overall pace and ended the run averaging 8:39.

Lake Mary Rd. Run

The following week, my class was finally in full swing and the pressure of the semester was starting to build. My focus was back again on my students and on prospective new students. I recall it was also this week that we heard in Arizona about a student at ASU who had come back from China, and had tested positive for the new virus that had been identified as the cause of the strange new pneumonia. The virus, a new strain of Coronavirus, officially dubbed "SARS-CORONAVIRUS-2 (SARS-COV-2), was responsible for the acute respiratory syndrome that was leading to the sickness and pneumonia being seen mostly in China (now being dubbed "COVID-19"). Apparently though, it had started to spread outside of China, as it was being learned that it had an incredibly long (and often asymptomatic) incubation period (up to 15 days). I remember thinking...."This could get interesting if it keeps spreading like that 'Pandemic' game or that 'Contagion' movie". I remember playing out a scenario in my head of what would happen if it spread through the US. Would the whole country go on some kind of lock down? I remember joking sarcastically with a colleague that we should buy face masks "before they sell out!"

The next weekend I found myself down in "The Valley" once more to toe the line at another Aravaipa race: The Elephant Mountain Race. I was slowly stepping up my events, so this time was running the 50k. Again, I had a really good day, and only started feeling a bit tanked in the last 5 miles. All day I remember thinking that I might be in the top 5 overall based on an early course out-n-back, but also kind of just assumed I miscounted. Turns out I didn't. I crossed the finish line in 4th place overall and headed home feeling pretty good about myself. Later that week I got an email from the race director and they informed me that the 3rd place runner had actually skipped a section of the course and was therefore assigned a time penalty. This put me in 3rd overall. They sent me my 3rd place prize in the mail the next week.

Elephant Mtn. 50k

3rd Place Finish (sort-of) for the 50k!

3rd Place Award

The very next week I was at it again. It was my last weekend before I would be heading down to run my first peak race, the Black Canyon 100k. I wanted to get in one last fun effort, so began looking for anything short and local. I came across a run up along the Little Colorado River about an hour north of Flagstaff, so immediately signed up.  The course featured some beautiful running right along the rim edge. I had another great outing and averaged sub-8-minute miles over the ~14 mile course. It was a great way to end my training and taper for a week before Black Canyon

Little Colorado Half Marathon

And then I waited. I had one full week to relax, do some very easy/short taper runs, and focus on work. It was now mid-February, and the new Coronavirus had made a big splash in the US. The Stock Market was finally beginning to react to the gravity of what might be coming, and we were starting to see our first fatalities from the COVID-19 disease in Washington. People were starting to get worried. There were rumblings that some organizations, businesses, and even universities were considering shutting down temporarily as well.

When the weekend approached, I booked hotel room down near Black Canyon City and headed down for the night to prepare for the morning start the next day. All went smoothly on the hour-long drive down and I was all sorted and settled by 10 pm.  I set my alarm early, and headed to the bus pick up spot for the race (which is a point-to-point event). We were all shuttled to the start and as usual, I mostly napped on the bus ride.

It was a busy scramble at the race start with hundreds of people mulling about in close quarters. It's funny how I think of that scene in my head now...and how absolutely antithetical it is to any sort of 'social distancing' mindset we find ourselves in today in April. At any rate, there was a bunch of amped runners, all digging their hands into community food bins, and sharing coffee cups...etc. Typical of a race start.

After a very long wait in the porta-potty line, we finally wandered out to the start track and just a few short minutes later, the race had begun. We all did one loop around the track and abruptly turned to head south along the Black Canyon Trail. I remember it being incredibly cold that morning and I had forgotten my gloves. Little did I realize I would be begging for those cold temps just 6 hours later.

I don't have any pictures from the race, but I do recall some specific memories and thoughts. For the first 15 miles or so, I felt like I was floating. I was running probably a bit too fast, but I remember it almost all trended downhill, so I was very comfortable. I was genuinely smiling and content along the course. As aid stations went by one, I kept thinking how surprising it was to already be so far into the run. I remember thinking around mile 20 that I was "already a third of the way to the finish!".  But, like happens often, things began to slow down. As I made my way through the half-way point, things began to get a lot hotter, and significantly slower. I was being very careful about nutrition and hydration, but still felt myself running out of gas too early. 

As the day progressed into mid-afternoon, the heat became quite a struggle and I shifted into survival ultra-shuffle mode. The only really sustained climbs of the course all come after mile 40 as well, so the 'worst' of the course, would come when I was least able to handle it. Still..I managed to mostly run though. As I crept up towards mile 50, I still felt like I was mostly in control and content with my overall performance. I passed mile 50, it soon became apparent that my pacing for the day, was indeed for a 50-miler...and NOT for a 100k.  The last 10 miles were incredibly rough and I sincerely struggled. I found myself walking quite a bit. What once started out as a legitimate goal of going sub 11-hr (or even 10:30), soon became a sub-12. By the time I had reached the last aid station around mile 58/59, I knew that even a sub-12 was unlikely. I was just hoping to finish before having to use my headlamp...but even that wasn't meant to be as I switched on my light just after passing mile 60. When I finally did round the corner of the last mile and see the finish off in the distance, it was a welcome sight. I mustered up a decent jog and crossed the line in 12hrs 14mins. I was a little disappointed, but also content that I still finished in a decent time, and had now checked off a Western States Qualifier early.

The drive home was long, but it gave me some time to reflect on the course. I came to realize that I needed a little break from desert running. I decided I would spend my time running up in Flagstaff for a while before heading back down to "The Valley" again.

Finishing the Black Canyon 100k

BC 100k course

Over the remainder of February I eased back and took things much easier. I had a couple of slower-paced trail outings with a fellow colleague: One in Sedona, and one near Walnut Canyon. On the first Saturday of March, I had what would now be my last official 'race' of the year. I took the short drive up to SP Crater (look up what the SP stands for ;-), for a half-marathon with some work friends. It was a really nice course and featured a beefy climb up onto the shoulder of the crater right at the half-way point. I managed to finish in really good time and had a great day overall. Little did I know that everything was about to change.

SP Crater Half Marathon

SP Crater with its distinct lava flow

By the next weekend everything was changing. I still managed to get out with one co-worker for a longer run in Buffalo Park (the same park I ran my CJ Resolution Loops in January), but it was the first time where we were conscious about maintaining some distance between us while we ran. On that Friday, the last day of classes before Spring Break for the University, we collectively found out that the entire campus would be going to an on-line format immediately after break. This would mean all faculty had to re-develop their material to be delivered exclusively online. This could mean pre-recorded lectures, but often meant using Zoom for classroom calls. Whatever the solution though, it meant a lot of hours re-working material and what was supposed to be a nice/relaxing Spring Break, would now be somewhat stress-filled. 

C and I had made plans to rent a small teardrop camper over break and spend some time camping down in the White Mountains of AZ. We planned to stop in Pine, AZ to visit with Barkley Frozen Ed as well. I even installed a ball hitch on the Subaru, and the wiring harness myself. I was quite proud of my effort.  But...all of this was canceled as we realized that it was not a good time to be traveling. It was on that Friday before break, when all of this went down, when the gravity of what was happening was finally settling in. Here in Flagstaff, we had gone quite a while without any active COVID cases. In some ways, it just felt so far away. But by that weekend, we had our first few cases and even our first death. Combined with the University going on-line, and the City declaring a stay-at-home order, it had immediately become so very real.

The camper we booked (and canceled) for Spring Break.

So rather than relax, camp, and otherwise unwind....we found ourselves stuck at home, preparing new course material. I began following coronavirus stats using a COVID-19 Data Portal and watched as state and national levels began climbing at exponential levels. We were beginning to surpass other large nations that were initially considered the hardest hit. It was hard not to get a bit despondent about it all. We tried to stay positive while stuck at home by planting an indoor garden, growing some of our own bean/seed sprouts, and baking bread. A couple of times, I even pulled out my old guitar and strummed a few songs. In some ways, it was a bit exciting to be on a kind of 'lockdown', but that novelty wore off quickly, and the realization that this would be more like a very long remote field deployment...began to weigh on us. Thankfully, despite a city-wide shutdown of all non-essential services, we were still allowed to go out and recreate. So, I could still go running or biking. I also managed to get Scootie McScootface out of storage too, and was able to take some fun spins around town as well. Thank goodness. 

But...we were also learning quickly that grocery stores were becoming barren wastelands. Thankfully we had stocked up early enough that we weren't hit by the scarcity of paper and cleaning products. 

Bean Sprouts!

Mmmmm homemade bread!


Yeah...pretty damn dorky....but hey ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Over the first week back after break, we all struggled to get our classes fired up properly on-line, and things were a bit bumpy all around. Eventually we got there, but it was also becoming clear just how many people were losing their jobs (including many of my students), how rents wouldn't be paid, and how the economy in general was going to get hit really, really hard. Unemployment was being projected to top 15%, or even 20%....and all the while we simply weren't getting any clear direction or leadership from our federal government. Somehow the answer was simply to drop national interest rates to 0%, and throw an insane amount of money at various bailout programs. I wrote a post in an online forum when all this happening about how maybe this would actually start the push for a much needed universal healthcare in the US. One can hope no? Here's what I wrote...

"Here's what gets me. For all the talk of how the US can't afford universal healthcare, with the stroke of a pen, we just wrote a check  ($2 trillion) that might have covered over 2/3 the annual cost of all healthcare in the US on average for an entire year...and that's with doing nothing else regarding tax reform etc.

According to the CDC, during 2015, health expenditures per-person were nearly $10,000 on average, with total expenditures of $3.2 trillion.

If we also implement even just a little minor regulation/oversight, as well as some reform to hospital charging/costs models, and a roll back of the last big round of tax cuts, I don't see why we can't absolutely afford a premium universal health care system in the US."

In public forums, medical and science experts were trying to speak up, but were being drowned out by false statistics, unproven/dangerous medical treatment recommendations, or narcissistic non sequiturs about high TV ratings. US deaths from the new COVID-19 disease were now getting into the thousands, and no one at a national level of authority was making an effort to comfort people, or tell us some simple truths like, "things will be very difficult, but we'll all be here for each other in these times, and we'll make sure our medical staff and facilities are properly taken care of".  Nope...nothing like that. There were no unity moments like this. Even local governments were speaking up more about such matters.

On the running side of the things for me....I was now reduced to what I called "sanity runs". Basically, all social distancing and stay-at-home orders had forced me to stay indoors most of my days. This means my short solo runs would be the only thing keeping my sane.  I recall one run where I ran to what was literally the end of an unfinished road. It simply stopped at the woods abruptly. I remember thinking in the vain of Shel Silverstein..."So THIS is where the sidewalk ends...". I saw some Elk roaming around on this run and thought how simple life must be for them right now. Made me a bit envious in some sense.

Where the sidewalk ended...

Some Elk roaming about...

The past couple of weeks things have really brought about some significant changes in all aspects of life. First, all races/runs have been canceled through at least June (including Western States)....along with essentially every other formal gathering or event of any kind. My Boston Marathon date will have to wait, as well as many other plans I had made. As of writing this tonight, the Hardrock 100 is still scheduled for July, but I'm not necessarily optimistic that it will still happen. As my friend Travis pointed out, after having not been in the starting field for Hardrock for 8 years, I may now find myself in the starting field 4 years in a row (because of last year's snow cancelation, and this year's COVID-19 pandemic). I suppose it's still possible by July we'll be able to have a running event like Hardrock, but honestly....there are so many more important things to think about right now that it just seems somewhat insignificant. C and I are just trying to take it one day at a time, and do what we can to stay sane. We have a bedroom blocked off as an "office"/"classroom" now for our scheduled classes....which basically alternate. When we still could, we made a few trips to the humane society and seriously considered adopting a dog.

I still get out for runs when I can. I recently discovered Woody Mountain in town and have been making frequent trips up to the fire tower. I also made one full run up Mt. Elden in town (which was a bit snowy over the 2000 feet of total climb up to 9200'). But otherwise our routine is almost entirely at home. We make our necessary trips out to get groceries...wearing our face masks of course. Sometimes I'll take Scootie out for an afternoon ride....but mostly we're just thankful that we both still have jobs. So many of our students don't. In addition, many small businesses in town are really in trouble. I can't imagine what it's like in larger cities like NY. 

I watch the statistics pages like a hawk as I have family in both NY and Florida. I have new habits of checking in with them daily (mostly). In many ways, and quite ironically, this has brought us all a bit closer together.

Long run up to Woody Mt. Summit.

Mt. Elden up-n-down

View of Flagstaff from atop Mt. Elden

View of San Francisco Peaks from near Woody Mtn.

Fire road up to Woody Mtn summit

Summit fire tower on Woody Mtn.

So here we are. All caught up to today. The US now has the most diagnosed cases and deaths from COVID-19 in the world. Now, like many of you I imagine, C and I are mostly just waiting...and trying to get through the last few weeks of the semester. I have been having long daydreams about thru-hiking, or spending a week camping and hiking 14ers in Colorado. I think about how isolated we've inaccessible everything else now is, and it makes me think back to my silly trek to the North American Pole of Inaccessibility. Mentally, I'm treating things like a long field deployment to Antarctica. I've been through isolation like this many many times before and have a lot of experience on how to successfully forge through.  

But....That still doesn't make it any easier.

So. Please stay safe and healthy everyone....and PLEASE keep practicing social distancing. It really does save lives. Listen to, and trust the experts and do what needs to be done even if it stinks right now.

Don't worry about your 401ks...worry about all the local businesses and people that are struggling now. Order take-out a few nights a week if you can to support them. Leave them a big tip.

If you don't need your $1200 stimulus check, consider donating to a food bank, or other charity in your town or state that really needs support.

And lastly, please think of, and thank, all of the medical personnel that are risking their own lives every day to help fight this pandemic. It's easy to forget that they all have families at home too...many of whom they can't even see due to quarantine measures.

We will come out the other side of this....likely quite different, but I also believe stronger and hopefully more compassionate.


North American Pole of Inaccessiblity
(really inaccessible now)

The most remote place I've ever been. Just 4 people in tents in Antarctica.
Over 50 miles away from the larger camp of ~40 people (WAIS Divide).
Over a 700 miles from McMurdo Station.
Several thousand miles from the nearest real town.

If I can overcome that isolation, I can overcome this isolation.