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Peak Experience in the Sierras: Western States

(Part One of a Two-Part Blog on this writer’s experience pacing David Nichols in the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run.)

I’ve enjoyed and written about many peak moments in nature — trekking in the Himalayas,

Dave Nichols stands at the starting line, all smiles. How would he feel 100 miles later?

Dave Nichols stands at the starting line, all smiles. How would he feel 100 miles later?

commingling with curanderos in the Amazon, countless hikes and river swims in the Bavarian Alps, Rockies, Sierra Nevada, Big Sur and dozens of other stunning places. I’ve also experienced a fair share of endurance running — ten marathons, a pair of 24-hour relays, and countless 15- and 20-milers deep into forests and along mountain ridges.

Never have I experienced a greater combination of nature and endurance than the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. And I wasn’t even competing. I was a pacer for David Nichols, who traveled from Lexington, Ken. to tackle the mighty Sierra Nevada and, more specifically, the same trail cut by the 49ers during California’s Gold Rush. Along with Dave came my fellow pacer, Evansville, Ind.-based marathoner Craig Luebke, and Dave’s brother Don, our crew chief – the pit boss for our “driver”, as it were.

Competitors mingling at 4:30 a.m. on race morning.

Competitors mingling at 4:30 a.m. on race morning.

Western States is the Super Bowl of ultramarathoning. The best 100-milers in the world, along with about 400 super-conditioned athletes, flock to Northern California to duel on terrain and in weather conditions that make you sweat just viewing the topographical maps. Between the start at the Squaw Valley ski resort and finish at the 50-yard line at Auburn’s Placer High School, there are mountains. Passes. Scree-filled escarpments. Nasty ascents and descents. Creek and river crossings. Rocky trails. Sandy trails. Single-track ridge trails from which, if you look over the side, you can see the American River a thousand feet below, ribboning toward Sacramento. Canyons. More canyons…

My guess is that Dave won’t be training through canyons anytime soon. I think after 29 hours of trudging up and down the American River canyon system in heat pushing 100 degrees, he’s good on that experience for a while.

Which brings up the weather. The Sierra Range in early summer is typically very hot, with temperatures approaching 120 degrees in the heat-protected river canyons. At the highest point of the Western States course, 9,000 feet above sea level, it can also be very cold, with several feet of snow still on the ground. Wind is almost always a factor. How does a person deal with all this, and still cover 100 miles in a day?

Our cast of characters after the Montrail 6K climb up Squaw Valley, which Craig and I ran.

Our cast of characters after the Montrail 6K climb up Squaw Valley, which Craig and I ran.

I drove up to Tahoe City out of both curiosity and commitment, part of a memorable year of racing. As one who will never run a 100-miler, I thought it would be great to taste the experience as a pacer. Also, I’d spent three years in nearby Nevada City as a college professor, during which I’d hiked and run countless miles on similar terrain; local knowledge never hurts. Plus, it would be fun to run with Dave again, after the 5K, 10K and half-marathon duels we had between 2006-2010.

The experience turned out to be far more than I could have imagined. It wasn’t a run. It was a testament to endurance, resilience, adaptability, strength, courage, determination and guts. I could go on and on …

…and that’s what we did. We ran on … and on … and on …

Dave, in front of the fully loaded crew SUV. We'd load and unload the back many times in the next 30 hours.

Dave, in front of the fully loaded crew SUV. We’d load and unload the back many times in the next 30 hours.

After three days shopping, running together, setting and re-setting plans for pacing, going to official meetings, and double- and triple-checking gear checklists, Dave and Don declared us ready. The first realization hit me: you are no longer in marathon land, Bob. When racing marathons, you typically don’t eat, nor do you stop for more than a few seconds – if at all. Ultras require eating to sustain the body, plus designated stops on the course for clothes changes, first aid, food, drink, pep talks, and getting weighed to make sure you haven’t lost too many pounds.

It’s not merely a different type of race. It’s a different world entirely.

Craig and I at the top of Squaw Valley's gondola lift, elev.  8,900 feet, aka the finish line of the Montrail 6K.

Craig and I at the top of Squaw Valley’s gondola lift, elev. 8,900 feet, aka the finish line of the Montrail 6K.

The morning before race day, Craig and I entered the Montrail 6K, a 3½-mile up-the-gut ascent from the base of Squaw Valley. We ran up an intermediate to advanced-level ski run, climbing from 6,400 to 8,800 feet. We also scouted for Dave, because he’d be moving up the same hill the next morning – for the first 3½ miles of his 100-miler. Yes, Western States leaves common sense in a cloud of Sierra dust. Aren’t you supposed to go down a ski run? A never-ending stream of quirky moments added to the fun, such as Dave asking me at mile 59 the next night, “Why are we stopping to look at the stars?”

“Because you’ve gotta see them,” I said, breaking into a teaching moment. Guess I reverted to my years at Ananda College, about 50 miles away. “They’re amazing up here… hey, there’s Scorpius. Cygnus. Orion. Cassiopeia…”

“If I miss my time by 30 seconds…”

I did have a reason (which I’ll share later). This type of repartee occurred countless times on the trail, multiplied by 369.2014-06-28 07.06.55

The 369 official entrants started at 5 a.m., and were cheered into the first climb by hundreds of crews, friends and family members. We hustled to Robinson Flat, the first crew stop at the 30-mile mark. We had to drive to Auburn, then drive right back up Foresthill Road – about 110 miles in all. Along the way, we passed through miles of charred forest from last summer’s fire, which would’ve erased this year’s race had volunteers and trail crews not spent nine months restoring 19 miles of trail. Craig and Don also received their first taste of narrow, windy Sierra Nevada upslope roads with their steep turns and four-digit drop-offs, which led to a comical moment involving fear.

“Oh yeah,” I said to Craig, at the height of his angst, “we’ll be pacing Dave on trails with drop-offs like this – at night.” I couldn’t resist.

I’m sure that Craig will exact sweet revenge on me one day in the future.

Where did the smile go? At mile 30, Dave looked tired and depleted. The realization of Western States' physical brutality had set in.

Where did the smile go? At mile 30, Dave looked tired and depleted. The realization of Western States’ physical brutality had set in.

We waited at Robinson Flat for an hour and a half, during which I marveled at the crew set-ups, the fantastic race organization, and the runners themselves. When Dave came through, he was on goal pace – but looked like he’d run through a desert and smacked a wall. We were concerned. This is not how you want to look or feel with 70 miles still to go and the midday heat cranking up. Don was already feeling an inner tug, as in, “do I act as his crew chief or his worried older brother?” He’d fight that fight a few more times.

A word about Don. The focus of an ultramarathon is the runner, and then the pacers enter the picture for the second half of the race. Hardly ever are support crews recognized. Don is a recently retired, fun-loving Midwesterner, borne of rock & roll and hard work, a former competitive runner in his own right. He did an incredible job keeping us organized with equipment, stops and taking care of Dave’s needs. Every stop required different gear. We made numerous adjustments during the race – the most significant of which I’ll get to – and Don left the running/strategizing portion to Craig and me. However, he took on the tough, unsung stuff, not the least of which was an agonizing instance where he had to talk to his brother about whether or not to leave the race. I vaguely knew Don before this weekend. Now, I know him. He is an amazing group leader.

We took care of Dave, sent him back on his way, and headed down to Foresthill, the only town on the Western States Trail.

Foresthill is a cozy hamlet in the Sierra foothills, about 20 miles outside Auburn. It serves as the symbolic center of Western States, even though it falls 100K (62-mile) into the race. Since we didn’t expect Dave at the next crew stop, Michigan Bluff, for several hours, we pulled up chairs, ate sandwiches, and watched the front of this race – the elites, astonishing in their fitness and efficiency. They passed through town running 7:00 to 7:30 miles, which I’d take for a 26-mile marathon any time. We watched eventual men’s winner Rob Krar run down Max King along the frontage road – one of two strips of pavement on the entire course. We also watched eventual women’s champ Stephanie Howe lope by, her long stride, waist-length hair and 5-foot-10 runway model’s body not what you’d expect for an ultra runner’s physique. Then again, these are outliers. What should we expect?

Craig figures out our revised pacing plan and the pace Dave needs to run, while Don does what any normal person would do on a beautiful, lazy summer afternoon in the Sierras.

Craig figures out our revised pacing plan and the pace Dave needs to run, while Don does what any normal person would do on a beautiful, lazy summer afternoon in the Sierras.

Meanwhile, we had work to do. Dave was struggling, and Craig, Don and I had to decide whether to pace him at Foresthill, or pick him up in Michigan Bluff, at mile 55. That would mean extra running for both Craig and me. While we thought about it, our numbers cruncher (Craig) got to work, figuring out what was needed for Dave to finish under time and get that belt buckle. Since I was the first pacer, I prepared my drinking belt, headlamp, flashlight, running gear and gels, and suited up.

Our decision was made after we arrived at Michigan Bluff, once a gold rush boomtown of 3,000, now a sweet enclave of 40 homes. Michigan Bluff was where Leland Stanford (he of the university) set up the first of his mercantiles and ferried supplies from the San Francisco docks to the gold rushers. (To this day, horseback riding remains a ready source of local transportation.) As the sun carried daylight with it into the far horizon, still no sign of Dave. Craig ran to the other side of Michigan Bluff to serve as our lookout. I started stretching as Don switched into big brother mode and entertained the idea of convincing Dave to bow out. “Problem is, he keeps thinking he’s gonna disappoint the rest of us,” Don said. “But I can’t let him stay out there if he comes in here all messed up.”

“I’d never be disappointed. Just getting out there and going this far, on this terrain, in these mountains is quite the accomplishment,” I told him. “I’m just happy to be here with him.” I meant it, though I did relish the chance hit these trails at night.

Finally, Dave popped into view, about 90 minutes behind what we’d expected. Why? He went through hell between 45 and 55 miles, where the American River canyon system kicked into high gear with bone-crunching climbs and falls in high heat. It used to claim prospectors back in the day… and took its shot at Dave as he baked in the relentless sun. Since Dave is from the Midwest, maybe the mountain remembered how it used to punish pioneers.

Dave weighed in – down nine pounds since the race began – and he and Don took the 300-yard walk to our pit stop. I can only imagine what was said. Minutes later, Craig ran up and told me we were pressing on. As I stretched again, Dave showed up, sat down, and we applied cold compresses on his quads, wrapped a cold towel around his neck, reloaded his drinks, and gave our little pep talks. I thought I was in a fight corner between rounds.

 

We set out at 8:56 p.m. Our goal: to make the river crossing at Rucky Chucky, mile 78, by no later than 4 a.m., hopefully sooner. While that sounds slow to a 5K or 10K specialist, consider the circumstances: Dave had covered 55 miles, the terrain was beastly, and he had to reserve enough strength for the final stretch.

After not running at all for six hours, due to the terrain and his flagging spirits, Dave started jogging again. We bit five minutes off the clock within the first two miles of flat and gentle downslope. Certainly, having another runner with him helped, someone to talk to, especially after spending 16 hours on the course alone. Also, he knew we were running against the clock – a daunting prospect when there’s still 45 miles to go. He had to negative split the race (run the second half faster than the first) … a concept I understand and have done in marathons and shorter races, but boggles my mind when you’re talking about 100 miles.

There was another big change: he began to rehydrate. He’d dehydrated himself beyond the weight crucible Western States sets: if you lose more than 4% of your body weight, they reserve the right to remove you from the race at a weigh station (every 10-15 miles). They rarely do it, but the fear was in his heart. He took extra drink bottles out of Michigan Bluff, and I kept telling him to drink. His legs loosened up, he started running better, and we clicked off time while enjoying beautiful Sierra foothill countryside, along with favorable trail conditions. His legs were celebrating after the mess they’d traversed all day.

At mile 59, as we ascended Volcano Canyon, I decided to make sure he drank up. That’s when I started pointing out the stars. Dave couldn’t figure out what I was doing, but when you’re in the Sierras on a warm summer night, the stars look like golf balls, and it can feel like you’re one with the heavens. If you bust your ass for a hundred miles, you deserve the experience. That’s what I told him. I also made sure that, while stopped and allowing his legs to relax, Dave took his mind off the race for a second and drank every drop, since he could reload at the Bath Road aid station a mile away.

All told, we stopped for a minute. I took a good-natured ribbing on the course for this move, and Craig and Don joined in later. (OK, boys, you’re right: I’m unconventional. But hey, whatever works…)

(Read Part Two)

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Meditation Tools for Our Daily Lives – Interview with Author William Blake

(PART ONE OF A TWO-PART INTERVIEW)

To order “A Creative Toolkit of Meditations”

Meditation is a word with as many meanings to people as forms of practice. It can mean devotion, contemplation, reflection, mindfulness, heightened awareness and focus, or simply peace and quiet. In most Eastern religions, it serves as the center of daily awareness and contact with the deeper self, or soul. In many Western religions, its importance is somewhat to entirely less. Some religions incorporate or feature meditation in their practices; others ignore it altogether.

However, millions of people in the U.S. practice meditation in one form or another. Its benefits are physical, mental 9781452574394_cover.inddand emotional, and its value longstanding.

Given all the variables for this ancient practice, sometimes a book comes along that breaks down the basic premise of meditation — and then provides equally simple exercises that will benefit all of us. Retired college professor William Blake has written that book, A Creative Toolkit of Meditations, now available on Amazon.com and through bookstores nationally.

A direct descendant of the great poet William Blake’s brother, Mr. Blake offers twenty simple tools with a basis in mindfulness that are specifically adapted to people with busy lives, tight schedules, and countless things on which to focus. In other words, nearly all of us. He spices it up with an excellent bit of memoir and personal storytelling, to give us background on his own journey, as well as the tools he presents to help us with ours.

What follows is part one of a two-part interview with Bill Blake on the back story of A Creative Toolkit of Meditations, and the book’s value to all of us.

WORDJOURNEYS.COM: First of all, Bill, what motivated you to write A Creative Toolkit of Meditations?

WILLIAM BLAKE: I diligently studied and practiced seven spiritual traditions, spending a year or two for each one. Each delivered a useful message and helped me climb the steep, rocky path leading to greater functionality and happiness. Yet these practices, and their books, didn’t provide me with a coherent model. Depth and breadth were lacking. So I began writing the book I couldn’t find: a short, simple, reader-friendly book conjoining growing up and waking up, presenting a variety of easily mastered meditations with illustrative anecdotes, all of which encouraged readers to construct their own meditation practice. In sum, I attempted to write what I couldn’t find in any bookstore.

'A Creative Toolkit of Meditations' author William Blake

‘A Creative Toolkit of Meditations’ author William Blake

WJ.COM: You spend a lot of time in the book working with “real-time” meditation practices. Can you elaborate?

WB: I invented this phrase, or at least didn’t borrow it. “Real-time” means a meditation that is done posthaste. You’re eating with a friend, and he makes a remark that irritates you. You observe and feel this agitation, and then you release it by breathing it in slowly and deeply and then breathing it out slowly and deeply. You friend has no idea that you’re fully experiencing, and then letting go, of your negative feeling toward him. That’s real-time meditation. It makes conscious what’s here-and-now. With sit-down meditation, you’re sitting down in a meditative posture and conducting a meditation that will last at least a few minutes. It could direct your attention to a troublesome or enriching incident that happened yesterday. An efficient toolkit includes both styles of meditation. Both augment mindfulness, i.e., conscious awareness.

WJ.COM: We talk about being conscious, but what does it mean to be in a state of full consciousness?

WB: First, we experience a knowing (not a belief, conviction, or mere mental understanding) that I am consciousness. I am consciousness is not a belief, but a recognition. In short, full consciousness implies that we’re aware of our own awareness along with the object of awareness. If I’m fully conscious, I’m aware of my hand on the steering wheel, and also aware that I’m aware of my hand being on the wheel.   

Second, full consciousness is the sense of being connected with everything. Everything is connected with everything. I am the plate, bread, butter, potatoes, and beans right in front of me, and then I am the whole table along with whatever is on top of it, and then I am my wife’s smiling mouth and lips.

Third, full consciousness expresses awe and Wow! as we experience inner and outer realities. Objects, from a sunset to a coffee cup, have enchanting shapes, colors, textures, and smells. This enchantment is caused by our perception of “focal points,” which are the most concretely perceived part of any scene. If we look at our desk, we can see dozens of objects and can identify them by name. Yet each milli-second, we’re subtly attracted by a single object.

WJ.COM: Can you elaborate on how it draws out from a single object?

WB: For example, I’m now observing my computer screen. I notice the whole screen. Yet the focal point object is the shining silver surface of the hp logo contrasting with the blackness surrounding the hp letters. A milli-second later, my focal point is the straight right vertical line of the typed page on the screen. In another milli-second, my focal point is blue tip of a pen sticking up, with five other pens, above the rim of a circular cloth container. Full consciousness perceives one focal point after another, all day long. They produce the awe of life.

WJ.COM: It looks like the writer in you found plenty of appeal with this book, too, especially when you broke down how different traditions view “consciousness”. How did you present that comparison in the simplest possible form?

WB: Here’s how I summarized various traditions’ verbal pointers to What We Are:

• I must have and be awareness to experience anything. (Modern)

• I must have and be nothingness to experience anything. (Oriental)

• I must have and be the light to experience anything (Quakerism

• I must have and be here and now to experience anything (Everyday talk)

• I must have and be spirit to experience anything (Hindu and Western)

WJ.COM: You narrow down the various goals of meditation to two words – inquiry and mindfulness. Can you explain their differences – and also why they are such drivers of transforming lives when brought together?

WB: We practice inquiry when we have an issue: uncertainty about joining a church group, confusion over which career choice to follow, unhappiness with a mate, a lingering health problem, which political campaign to sign up with. Of course, we can also address these issues by reading a book or by meeting with experienced friends to access their wisdom. There’s more than one inquiry route to mindfulness.

To expand mindfulness, we practice it with both real-time and sit-down meditation. In addition, we are always breathing, and the breath is always manifest and available. By simply noticing our breathing, we become more mindful and stop beating ourselves up with negative thoughts about ourselves or someone else. With sit-down mindful meditation, we can move into the Silence and then deeper Silence. After a while, our minds slow down their assault of negative thoughts. Peacefulness assumes its rightful place in our lives. In short, inquiry provides useful answers to difficult questions, and mindfulness progressively cuts out trashy thoughts and feelings.

WJ.COM: What are points in common between the two styles — and at what point do they come together?

WB: Both styles feature Silence. Inquiry meditation asks a question and then passes into Silence which doles out answers. Mindfulness meditation starts and ends with Silence. It thus stresses an increasingly peaceful mind.

If both inquiry and mindfulness meditation are employed, we’ve got two strong, flexible walking sticks through our dense mental forest. One reinforces the other. As we clear out overgrown brush and tangled roots, or practice inquiry, we dive deeper and deeper into peaceful mindfulness meditation.

WJ.COM: A most impressive aspect of your book is how you present meditation to the dynamics of today – the hurried lives, bombardment of mind-numbing messages and external stimuli, pressure to make ends meet. Why is it so important for us to bring our practice to bear on the situation at hand, rather than trying to escape or “rise out of it”, as some practices might suggest?

WB: Americans encounter several debilitating issues every workday. Americans work longer hours than employees in any other modern industrialized country. Until about 100 years ago, marriage meant joining a community of extended family members who helped to raise our children. Now, both parents often work and children are farmed out to paid keepers. In addition, we’re submerged in a legalized society where we must be careful to follow the rules. A solid vocational or academic education requires many years of study. About 50% of recently graduated engineers can’t find decent work with decent salaries. For most adults, their environment is not a relaxed and enjoyable one. An hour’s crowded freeway drive to work and back isn’t fun. Many goals and payments have to be met.

With this pressure to conform, meditation can teach us to be fully present in each moment. The freeway traffic is heavy, but the cars are brilliantly colored and designed. A variety of radio music, interesting news programs, and even poetry are available to breathe in and out. The hills and trees can be beautiful, and buildings are often designed with exquisite form and color. As you walk into your work office, you observe Margie has white strings threaded through her dense black hair. George is as comically gruff as a bear and moves like one. Your desk is uncluttered and clear, with all the its pens, staplers, and a computer screen accommodatingly ready to work. You think, Today at least half the time I’ll serve my customers while being present and mindful. Meetings will be enjoyable with all their confrontations and absurdities.    

(PART TWO WILL APPEAR ON MONDAY, JANUARY 27)

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