One More Loop

Start the week letting your feet do their thing. Whether your scaling a mountain or commuting from the station; do it in @vivobarefoot shoes. ūüď∑#regram @nelbouchalova #trail #runners #running #mountains #mothernature

If you follow me on social media, you know that I have recently gotten in to trail running. It’s a fun mixture of two things that I have enjoyed for many years: running and hiking. One of the side benefits of trail running has been a lot of thinking and reflecting. As has been my habit, I think and reflect and never get to the computer to blog about it. The following has been bouncing around in my head – probably literally and figuratively – for a couple of months.

On Valentine’s Day this year I ran my first trail race. I had only been trail running for about a month and a half at the time and really not qualified to race. It was a free event so I went for it. The Mt. Tom Challenge isn’t a race as much as it is, as the name implies, a challenge. A challenge, in trail and ultra running parlance, consists of a loop trail that you attempt to complete as many times as possible – or want – in a set amount of time. Mt. Tom is a little different than most challenges because it is crazy steep and is held on what is traditionally the snowiest weekend of the year. The 2.6 mile loop starts out with an insane 1100 feet of elevation in just over three quarters of a mile. That’s hard to hike for most people. You have two hours to do as many loops as you care or dare.

With that slope and at least a foot of snow on the ground, I set off up the mountain with a group of people that apparently had lost their sanity as well. Also, it was cold! I thought I was going to pass out before I got to the top of the slope. Think of climbing that slope – very little running going on at this point – while also sliding down every other footstep because of the heavy snow. It sucked bad. Normally the light at the end of this tunnel of pain is a flat or downhill portion. The next section of this run was about a 3/4 mile flat stretch. That should be a relief except that the foot of snow was a little crusted on top and it turned out to be easier to walk than to run for the rookie me. At this point I am at around 1.6 miles of the loop and still looking for the pay off. The payoff comes soon enough with a one mile drop back to the start. Whereas the rest of the course was single track, the downhill portion opened up onto an old jeep road. Think fresh powder on a ski slope and then think about running down it! It’s worrisome at first but then it is just downright, freefalling, crazy! The finish was the original part of the uphill climb. I finished one loop. I didn’t die. No one had to helivac me off the mountain. I was grateful.

Then the crazy thing happened. The mad-as-a-hatter, out-of-one’s mind thing that prompted this blog post. I DID IT AGAIN! I drank some water, ate a handful of gummi bears and headed up that beautiful, funereal mountain once again.

Why! I don’t know. There is something that happens between drudging up a mountain and flying down one that changes your mindset from ‘this sucks’ to ‘I got this.’

I’ve often said that the hardest thing about running multiple loops is running by your house or running by your car. Starting the second loop from your ‘safe place,’ the last bastion of comfort, takes more than a modicum of fortitude. Starting back up a mountain after a handful of gummi bears! Same but in the ‘you’ve-last-your-damn-mind’ kind of way.

Because this is what I do and why I write this blog, I reflected on this behavior and whether it translated into other parts of my life. I know that I don’t always go for one more loop in all of the things I do. Sometimes it is easy to stop at your safe place. Many times I have stopped at my car and drove off rather than leaning into a challenge. There have been times that I accepted the challenge and pushed forward through whatever pain or mental anguish was ahead of me but probably more often than not I succumbed to a weak mindset.

I had a professor once who had a theory or a belief that when Sisyphus reached the top of the hill with that rock, for at least a brief moment, he felt joy. Until the rock rolls back down the slope and the monotony of his life is renewed. I would add to my professor’s theory that the trip down was renewing and refreshing as well. At least it is for me.

I think the answer to my question is that we need to mix the Sisyphean nature of our lives with things that bring us joy. I swear, when I run down a mountain, through trees and rocks and sometimes mud; when I bound through shin deep snow trying to touch the ground as few times as possible with my shoulder and hips rolled forward, I feel as alive as I did when I was ten years old. No cares! Truly the Joie de vivre! That joy is enough to carry me through one more loop.

Trail running then becomes a microcosm of our life. A way has been found to experience great pain and great joy in one loop. Obviously we can’t live a life in 45 or so minutes but we can begin to pause to enjoy the feeling of accomplishment when we are at our height, enjoy the refreshing, rejuvenating exhilaration of returning to the bottom of our climb and leaning into that feeling, that joy as we face the next climb.

Those climbs are everywhere. Those climbs happen every day.

Joy is everywhere. Find it. Lean into it. Climb again.


Running for Answers



Harrisburg Marathon Start 2008 by the author

On Saturday morning I went out for a little 17 mile run. Sure, 17 miles seems like a long way. Further, I would guess than most people drive to work in the Northeast. Further than most people have to travel to a proper grocery store. But I was running it. And running it quite well for a 46 year old guy. As I ran, I started to contemplate how I got here. Who in the hell voluntarily runs 17 miles? I have never been an athlete but I have done the marathon distance before – twice. Why? Not sure about that. But the following is what I thought about during that run:

Over 20 years ago at the age of 25 I decided I was out of shape and aging faster than I wanted to. I started getting in to running. I went out and bought a pair of “cross trainers.” Now anyone who is reading this that considers themselves a runner knows that you can’t be a runner in cross trainers. I was green and in those days I didn’t even know what questions to ask. I started out humbly, not even able to run a mile. I bought my first pair of running shoes and eventually I got up to where I could run three miles without falling down. I thought I was in great shape. I entered by first 5K. 3.1 miles. I was an athlete now! I could do this. I ran 27:56. Which if you are not a runner is precisely 9 minutes per mile. I thought that was awesome. I got beat by old ladies and guys who had a hitch in their giddy up. I had no idea how slow I actually was. I was embarrassed and determined to get better. Eventually I ran a personal record of 22:47. Not many years after that first 5K, I read an article about training for a marathon. It didn’t sound that difficult. So, just a month after my 31st birthday I ran my first marathon and followed that up with a second marathon the following year.

So 14 years after that second marathon, what am I doing on a country road 8 miles into a 17 mile run and seemingly in pretty damn good shape? Well that is another story that will wait for another time but I did begin to contemplate what I have learned from running and why I felt relatively good for an old man training for his first marathon in over a decade.

  1. It’s easier to run a marathon than it is to train for one. Marathon training is long, boring runs on early Saturday mornings with no one cheering you on. Marathon courses are usually lined with people and other competitors and they give you food and drink along the way. You don’t get that in training. The lesson: The hard work is usually done behind the scenes. What gets you to the show is the practice, the studying, the time you have committed to your goal.
  2. Running a marathon is mentally more difficult than it is physical. Sure, there are morning when I can’t walk down the steps because my calves are inflamed. There are nights when I can’t sleep because my hips hurt so badly. But the worst thing is allowing your brain to convince your body that this won’t kill you. It takes a strong, positive mind to get yourself out of bed on a cold Saturday morning, hit the road and keep moving. Lesson: Much like above. There are times when you are working towards a goal and you just want to hang it up. It gets too hard. Your professor tells you that you’re not good enough, your family and friends think you;re nuts. The reality is that this is your goal and your work. You get to decide whether it is worth it or not. And you can decide that its not but let it be your choice.
  3. Running hurts and running fast really hurts. Sometimes you have to run fast or do harder workouts to get better. You may get better at these workouts but they will never get easy. Running repeats on a track, doing hill repeats, running 17 miles will never be characterized as easy. Same goes with life. If its getting easy you probably aren’t doing it right. If you are spending too much time in your comfort zone, you are not getting better – at anything.
  4. On the flipside, sometimes you have to go slow. We are in training, we don’t need to kill every workout. Some workouts are for developing stamina and those workouts are slow. Slower usually than marathon pace. Same goes for life. You also need to take the time to relax and enjoy life. Six minutes miles will get you to the finish faster which is good in a race but probably not in a life.
  5. Training for this marathon I feel much better physically than I did 14 years ago and I’m running the same if not slightly faster pace than I did back then. In fact I have run personal records at every distance but the 5K in my 40s. Getting older apparently has its benefits. I have already made the mistakes. At 25 I didn’t know what questions to ask. In my 30s and now in my 40s I have made the mistakes and learned from them. I have asked the questions and had them answered. The lesson is that there really is no replacement for experience. Easily the best teacher in many ways. Experience doesn’t necessarily mean that you learned it on your own but it means that you have learned what to ask, where to look for answers, and who to give your trust to.


So I’ll keep running, and asking, and answering, and learning


Yesterday I started a memorial string of runs to memorialize those killed and injured in the Boston¬†Marathon¬†explosion. The challenge is to run 30 days straight without a day off. To some runners this isn’t that great of a challenge but I don’t think I have ever run more than ten days in a row.

This morning at 5:30 when the alarm went of my first inclination was to hit the snooze. I’ll run later, although I knew I didn’t have the time. Suddenly thoughts started pouring into my brain. A young boy, Martin Richard, would never have to have this conversation in his head. More like he would never have the opportunity to have this feeling. As I climbed out of bed, got dressed and climbed on the treadmill, my thoughts turned to the circumstances surrounding Martin’s death.¬†

Mr. Richard, the father, had awakened that morning to run a marathon. He was probably feeling nervous and anxious. I know that’s how I felt the morning of my marathon. In his heart he was probably very happy that his family had come to see him run. I know that always means the world to me.¬†Although he was happy they were there, his focus was probably mostly on his race and was not very attentive to them. I was that way. Through 26.2 miles he was most definitely in some pain. I’m sure there were¬†agonizing¬†times for him as most of us mere mortals have¬†experienced¬†in the marathon. I remember thinking in my second¬†marathon¬†that when it was over I wanted my girls to see me run through the finish line. Over and over I thought about how it was important not to give up because I didn’t want my girls to see their dad as a quitter. I’m guessing Mr. Richard felt the same thing. Only for Mr. Richard his day ended even worth than the necessary pain of completing a marathon.

Mr. Richard’s family, Martin, his daughter and his wife, were decimated by a homemade bomb inexplicably set off near the finish line. Martin was killed. His daughter lost a leg. His wife with significant brain injury from shrapnel. His life would never be the same.

As a runner, I hate the fact that an event that I love has been tarnished. It seems almost personal to me. Like I had been attacked.

My solace will be to run. It won’t help the Richard’s. It will help me to heal and hopefully help the running world to heal.


*****After writing this I learned that early reports of Bill Richards running the marathon were incorrect. He was a spectator also. I still needed to say what I said.