Soul Searching and Gratitude through 50 Kilometers

After weeks of consistent and uninterrupted training I departed my training grounds of Tucson, AZ and traveled to Grant, NM to make my debut in Ultra-marathons at the Mt. Taylor 50K. Before I go into further depth at my crack at the Ultra-marathon distance there were a few pre-race occurrences  that  I want to highlight to paint a clear picture of how this fascinating and humbling  journey to the “ultra” distance unraveled.

On my trip to Mt. Taylor, I had the grounding opportunity to make a pit stop in Northern Arizona in the town of Saint Michaels, AZ which is home to about 1,500 people. I was overjoyed and extremely moved to be speaking to high school students at the high school I attended. I recall when I was younger and I had guest speakers encouraging me to chase my goals and focus on the process of whatever hopes and dreams I had. At this point in my life and running career I find pleasure in being able to impact a new generation with the lessons that I’ve learned throughout this amazing journey of my running career.

I remember quite vividly the nerves I had and the drive from Tucson to Grant being all I needed to get my head straight. Being in touch with nature and music on the drive I felt ready for sweeping trails, heavy breathing and pushing my body to limits I have never imagined.  In the calm of the beautiful, scenic drive I began thinking of the things I packed. I made sure to have all the essentials for this race. I packed the extremely necessary anti-chafe, multiple compression socks for the long drive which was almost as long as the race. I have been running in my Mizuno Wave Kazan trail shoes and knew my feet would be taken care of in rain or sun shine. I am taken aback by the sunset and the way the oranges, reds, yellows against the greens of the land that I call home in Northern part of the state’s landscape interconnect to calm my mind further.  In this moment I unwind in the idea of living in the now as I drive passed Hogan’s (Navajo Traditional House) and the local swap meet I used to frequent as a kid. Being able to travel through your hometown before a big race can be calming and humbling at the same time. Returning to this place never gets old — the feeling is purely blissful and joyous, two feelings that aren’t bad to have before debuting in what could be an intimidating first race length.

I checked into the Red Lion host hotel to the aroma of bread, pasta and sauce, something my body somehow begins to subconsciously crave the night before a big race having raced marathons more recently. After I check in, I am greeted by the warm and familiar smile of Margaret Gordon at participant check in. I had the pleasure of meeting her and her husband, Ken Gordon at the Boston Marathon earlier this year. With goodie bag, bib number and heaping pile of pasta in hand I am joined by Ken.  My first impression being greeted by Ken is how happy he was that I was there to race and in the humbling theme of my journey to Mt. Taylor I am moved by Ken’s gratitude and generosity.  Ken and his wife help fund an organization I am a part of called Nideiltihi Native Elite Runners and representing this group in my debut to “ultras” in an landscape near and dear to my heart, this couldn’t be any less perfect.

At the dinner ceremony Ken went over race day specifics and courteously invited me to share a few words and speak to the runners a little about my journey to get to he and his wife’s race today. I first was invited to race the Mt. Taylor 50K in 2012 then again in 2013. As honored as I was, I had to decline both invitations — I felt that I wasn’t quite ready for the ultra distance having recently signed with Mizuno and this being a paramount opportunity to prove myself as an emerging national caliber runner. In 2013, again not ready for this distance, I was traveling to Minneapolis for the USA Marathon Championships where I placed 8th with a time of 2:15:16 in my third ever marathon.

2014 has been a year of struggle as I poured my efforts into qualifying for a fall marathon. I was coming off of the worst racing season in my running career and as a competitive yet soft spoken individual; this was eating away at my soul. To think of the possibility of not being able to race a marathon this fall was like salt on open wounds. I felt like I had emptied my well from these “trying times” and needed replenishment fast – hold the salt, please.  I had to try something new. This epiphany and realization accelerated my decision to do the Mt. Taylor 50K in 2014. I looked at this a homecoming—to race in my mountains, to make sense of the world as I test my body in its limitations all in all while I search for peace to replenish my mind and soul. In any man or woman’s personal journey to understanding life you meet and experience people and places that quench our souls, bodies and minds when least expected. I never realized how vulnerable and personal my journey to being at Mt. Taylor was for me until my departure from Tucson through my homeland to Grant, NM to speaking there that night.

Gordon A

The gratification of hearing Gordon Ainsleigh, a talented runner and hero of mine speak next was the icing on the cake the night before my race. Listening to his and other people’s stories at expo’s, races, conventions etc. is what ensures that my well doesn’t dry out completely. Having traveled around the world these past couple of years in my race career you meet people who share stories, relatable in ways that are unexpected that solidify a purpose of why they do what they do — their true testament to their own personal “Trials of Miles”.

Race morning came with a bang, however; there is a stillness that carries over from the evening before.  I’m wide awake at 3:45a.m. My routine begins with the norm, taking a first half hot shower and rinsing off in cold water the second. My body needs nourishment so I attack the 4:00 a.m. breakfast that the hotel has ready for the event. I help myself to oatmeal that I mixed with a banana, honey, nuts and yogurt as a first course and second course topped off with eggs, hash browns and coffee. 5:00a.m. comes in no time and people are carpooling to the race start and I hop into a ride. On the drive over I couldn’t see the landscape and I was curious because I wanted to really know what I was getting myself into. All I knew was that I was starting the race at ~9,500ft elevation and the race course wouldn’t dip below 9,000ft.

My expectation is to finish for the race with no injuries, go for a win and make sure I don’t expend too much energy early on to avoid suffering a slow, festering finish. I’m fortunate that Mizuno is allowing me to race an ultra-race and I can’t quite help but feel gratitude that in this moment, I am where I am. I take in the feeling of my body and the journey that I have had throughout my career representing Mizuno. In return I don’t want injure myself in an ultra-race and ruin the privilege for future Mizuno athletes to be part of events that aren’t road racing. When I have a race number pinned to my chest I’m competing for win and along with a replenishment of my soul, winning this race was my intention. A final expectation of mine for this race is the hardest challenge of all. I had to manage my effort throughout the race knowing that in a week’s time I would have to race a half marathon within 65minutes to secure a spot in a marathon.

It’s 6:30a.m. and I’m running behind the returning champion Chris Peverada. I was talking to Chris at the pasta dinner last night and we got along well. We talked about the Chicago Marathon, today’s race course and about future race plans, but now we’re competitors. My strategy was to let him lead early because he has more experience on this terrain than I do. I respected his trail skills.

Mt. Taylor 50k

Mt. Taylor 50k

Road running and trail running have their own respective running styles. There shouldn’t be an answer to which running style is more challenging because they both require different levels of skill. The focus skill set in road running is training at “goal paces” for a specific race distance. In trail running “goal paces” is kind of thrown out the window. Finesse in being able to tackle long climbs and descents that not everyone can do is what is needed.  Balance and being aware of your body’s center of gravity is a must. The preparation for this ultra-race lies in my entire running career being split between my hometown, abundant in similar trails and living and training in Southern Arizona, where rocky trails are everywhere. Running at my top speed on all types of extreme terrains has become an arsenal of mine.

The sun was shining and I wasn’t expecting I would be eating while running. I ate fruit, cookies and even sipped on Sprite in the race! Initially, I was relying on an electrolyte drink I mix with water and energy gels to fuel me throughout the race. I wasn’t practicing food intake before the ultra and didn’t want to risk the mistake of trying something new on race day. However the craving of looking at the bananas, oranges, pretzels and pickles look delicious and I had to help myself to the table of nicely placed food. The sweetest fruits were revitalizing.

I could have sworn I didn’t run 50K in how fast it seemed to fly by. I felt a weight lifted and I received my finisher medal from Ken at the finish line. My path this morning was steep and long, but I enjoy every moment of it. Having done this I could now go on and continue chasing my life goals. Being in touch with nature and my body in such a tasking race and being able to hear and share stories with people who have great stories themselves was exactly what I needed to fill my well.  I look up to the people who have been doing this for a long time and I believe that through trial and error, when you understand yourself there are less fears – the nerves may never subside but I strive to be fearless like my mentors and role models. The “old timers “learn things about themselves throughout their life and in consequence have learned to fear less.

Mt Taylor 50k - September 27, 2014

I would like to give a special thanks to Mt. Taylor 50K, Ken Gordon, Margaret Gordon and Kurt for caring and your willingness to put forth goodness in this world. How does one express their gratitude to another person for their effort in causing change and improvement in their life? Your effort has exactly done that for me and for each NNER runner. You’ve proven to me that there’s always something to work on in becoming a better man, woman and runner. I’m deeply thankful for a race event that brings people together and for you being hands-on in taking on the duties and responsibilities that comes with a race like Mt. Taylor 50K.