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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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A Busy Summer of Writing Arrives

A few writing and book topics on a very hot Summer Solstice:

I love writing in summer. The longer daylight hours, warmer weather, presence of trees and plants everywhere, and completion of a college year seem to conspire to throw this writer’s creativity into high gear.

This summer is especially prodigious. In six weeks, on August 1, Dr. Steve Victorson and I will celebrate the publication of our book, The Champion’s Way. Developed from Steve’s doctoral dissertation at Boston University, The Champion’s Way has been a dream project as a book writer, editor, former sportswriter and coach: a look at the 11 distinctive qualities that champions master over all others. However, we make this discussion engaging, with more than 50 interviews with various Olympic and World Champions, along with dozens of other sports anecdotes. Anyone can become a champion of themselves in life, business, the arts, education or sports. That’s our core message — master the 11 qualities.

We spent more than three years writing and rewriting this book. What is especially endearing is that the book is releasing during the first days of the London Summer Olympics — a perfect companion read to see how these great athletes tick.

The Champion’s Way will be available for pre-order in the next few weeks on Amazon.com. The official website will be up by July 10. Meantime, visit our Facebook page.

• • •

The other book I’ve been writing for years, Voice Lessons, is also finished. Am now conducting the final polishing edit after ten years, three complete rewrites, and a restructuring of the plot after it almost sold to Dutton in 2003. The novel is a father-daughter-daughter relationship piece set against the backdrop of a legendary music group that reunites after many years. The main protagonist, music legend Tom Timoreaux, heads out for a long-awaited reunion tour with his band, The Fever, and hires his daughter, Christine, as a backup vocalist. In the course of the book, she becomes a superstar. I won’t spoil the surprises and emotional content of the book, but I will add that the book also provides a panoramic backdrop of the last century of American music, and how the rock and roll pioneers not only drew from many influences, but lived and breathed music in ways that would be really refreshing to see from more of today’s stars.

The book’s official website – with “backstage” passes, Fever “tour schedules,” lyrics to the 80 original songs I wrote for my characters, and much more to entertain music fans everywhere — will be available for viewing in August, and publication is scheduled for Spring 2013.

• • •

Also releasing in Spring 2013, Backroad Melodies, my fifth collection of poetry and essays. This will be my first released poetry collection since The River-Fed Stone in 2008, and it will feature 50 new poems plus 10 essays — including a multi-paneled tribute to my friend, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder, drawn from our many discussions, good times and readings.

One of my personal favorites from this collection is the essay, “For The Lifelong Love Of Learning,” in which I share my own personal experiences with students and faculty through Education for Life, one of the best and most principled systems ever created to inspire, motivate and inform students on what ultimately matters in their intellectual, emotional, spiritual and physical development.

We’ll keep you posted on Backroad Melodies. Look for preordering and other information by Holiday 2012.

• • •

Not to be outdone, we will begin our new e-book line in Fall 2012 with The Best of The Word Journeys Blog, featuring the most popular and commented-upon pieces from the first 100 postings of this blog. Several of the blogs went viral, owing to the beauty of social media, and several others ended up in unexpected places (such as Christian Science Monitor’s Culture Cafe), with unexpected readers — back stories that I share in the run-ups to the pieces.

• • •

I’m also working on a very special and unique project, The Legacy Series: Innovations and Technology, with my associate, Lisa Maine, and my friends and colleagues at Innovative Properties Worldwide in Denver. This special publication, which will be available over the holidays as a print magazine, e-book, mobile App and iPad publication, focuses on what we need greatly in this country economically: more innovation, vision and complete commitment to the business models revealing themselves for today and tomorrow. We launched this publication as a tribute to the memory and contributions of late Apple CEO Steve Jobs. We depart from Jobs’ enormous impact as an inventor, visionary and businessman to look at the seven industries that Apple products either created or infused, as well as developments in a wide variety of areas.

One of my favorite jobs when developing and editing a specialty publication like The Legacy Series is the interviewing process. During this time, I love hearing the visions, ideas and strategies of forward-thinking CEOs, who have one eye on their bottom lines and the other on tomorrow’s marketplace. You’ll hear from plenty of CEOs throughout the publication.

• • •

The end of summer brings with it one of my favorite writing conferences at which to present: The Southern California Writers Conference. This conference has been partially or wholly responsible for more than $3 million in publishing deals for first-time authors. In the past two years, it also has established the reputation as one of the best conference resources for up-to-the-minute developments in the ever-accelerating digital book world, and what it requires of authors. I will be presenting two workshops, with topics to be drawn from: editing your own manuscripts; writing your book’s business plan; repurposing content for print and online use; and/or a creative writing intensive.

The SCWC features top editors, publishers and agents, all of whom are looking for great books and authors. The workshops are first-class, and we have read-and-critique group sessions that are second to none … including the infamous Rogue Read & Critiques, which start at 9 p.m. and end at … well, the record is 6:45 a.m.

Be sure to click onto the SCWC’s website and register now if you plan to attend. It’s well worth every penny.

• • •

Like I said, summer is a great time to breathe deeply, expand the mind into the warm, open air, and see what comes back creatively.  Enjoy your writing and reading … and most of all, the sun and warmth.

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Summer—Summer—Summer!

The prospects of having fun on the first weekend of summer didn’t look too good. With a number of social media projects, a major business writing project underway, four deals to discuss and two books to edit, it looked like surfacing for air would be a big challenge. Going outside? Maybe for a few minutes. I’m not complaining: an active business in this economy is a VERY good development.

Given the long odds of experiencing the weekend first-hand, I decided to revert to what I keep telling writing students: look for the faces and voices of magic, innocence and wonder in everything we see or do — and find the simple pleasures one minute at a time. When an opportunity presents itself, experience it. Later, write about it.

Presto! This weekend transformed from a work-a-thon into a classic Southern California entrée into summer. First, the weather cooperated: after three weeks of June gloom, the clouds parted to sunny, warm skies. Next, the seas delivered a glorious present — a South Swell, large waves from Mexico that brought warmer water, slightly more humid air and the feeling of summer … where body cells dance to the music of a season that celebrates what it means to be fully human. At least for this sun-and-sand worshipper.

It all began with an epic Facebook message, which I re-posted:

“My curfew was the street lights. My mom called my name, not my mobile. I played outside with friends, not online. If I didn’t eat what was cooked, then I didn’t eat. Sanitizer didn’t exist, but you COULD get your mouth washed out with soap. I rode a bike without a helmet, getting dirty was OK, and neighbors CARED as much as your parents did. Re-post if you drank water from a garden hose & survived!!”

That’s capturing a baby boomer’s childhood in less than 100 words! Many school friends and I pounced on the post and recalled some riveting childhood memories, all built around the carefree energy of summer. That alone was magical.

Time for action. On Friday afternoon, I hit “send” and peeled my tired eyes away from the computer to end a day that began at 4 a.m.  We headed to opening night of Jazz in the Park, the City of Carlsbad’s weekly series of free shows. Several thousand people reveled in blues music, dancing, hanging out with friends old and new, and soaking up the golden glow of evening sunshine in the La Costa Hills.

Then came Saturday morning. Take it away, journal:

“The first weekend of summer, and how awesome: sunny, 90 degrees, brown skin, smell of castor beans and gummy sycamores during 5 a.m. energization, dawn peeling away the night over the mountains, reading another T.C. Boyle gem set in California, the ocean calling with a South Swell, 67-degree water and clear skies – Summer! Summer! Summer! This is why people pay the huge bucks to live out here. Work interspersed with plopping in pool, watching U.S. Track & Field Championships on TV, coyote in broad daylight scouring the riverbed overgrowth for rabbits. Self-made dinner of seared ahi, artichoke, corn on the cob, shredded beet-carrot-lettuce slaw, walk to the corner grocery for ice cream, watermelons in a bin outside, baseball game crackling on a car radio…”

Sunday dawned like no other in this cloudy, misty June — sunny. Back to work I went for six or seven hours, broken up by a 6-mile run through orange and grapefruit groves, knowing full well what lay on the other side of this session: a drive to the beach. At 6 a.m., I turned on my favorite nostalgic Internet radio station, Technicolor Web of Sound, and in the magic that seemed to surround this weekend, here were the first six songs I heard: “Hot Summer Days” – The Moody Blues; “Om” – The Royal Guardsmen; “Summer of ‘67” – Family; “Strawberry Fields Forever” – The Beatles; “Fire” – Jimi Hendrix; “Lawdy Mama Version 2” – Cream.

Oh yeah. Gonna be a bright, bright sun-shiny day. We arrived at the beach at 3:30 p.m. to a constant inflow of waves. For the next two hours, we dismissed spreadsheets, articles, research, conference calls, files and social media platforms, playing in a warm ocean (to me, 67-degree water in June in California is warm), catching waves, getting pummeled a few times, emerging from the sea with swimsuits askew and water dripping from our bodies and nostrils.

Afterwards, we indulged in a wonderful Mexican food dinner with ceviche appetizer (heaven is eating ceviche and Mexican food after bodysurfing for two hours). Then it was back to work — shopping at Barnes & Noble for business titles for our major summer writing project. I found a nice surprise on the shelves — The Pilot: Learning Leadership, by Colleen and Bill Hennessy, on which I’d done some ghostwriting a couple of years ago.

Yes, summer came to visit, and She made sure this would be a memorable weekend. It was so magical that I almost forgot working right through it … the whole point of this season.

Now, onto a very full day of writing and serving clients, with the vibration of sun, surf and deep communion with spirit buzzing through body and mind. Summer—Summer—Summer!

 

 

 

 

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