Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Palm Canyon: What A Training Run Is All About

Text by Matt Gray
Photos by Gary Gray

We move slowly away from the truck, waving good-bye to our dad and the crew vehicle just two weeks after the Joshua Tree 50k.  It's early January and the temperature hovers around 33, but the sky is crystal blue. "You're wearing too many layers," my brother points out, "you're going to be warm in about twenty minutes."

He has run this trail a few times and is probably most definitely right. I scoff anyway, and go back to eating my breakfast: a granola bar that I smother with a packet of caffeinated gu and then wash down with a few sips of electrolyte water. Really, quite a delicious morning treat.

We descend (an up and down, rocky descent) into Palm Canyon, a stunning desert landscape that will eventually lead us to our dad waiting for us on the other end. Our destination today is the Trading Post in the Indian Canyons (a particularly special place for our family), just sixteen miles away, near Palm Springs. These canyons are full of childhood memories . . . it's here that we did some of our first hiking and nature explorations with our parents, so I'm excited to be jogging into such nostalgia.

Thirty minutes later, I stuff food wrappers into my pockets and take off several layers of clothing. Daniel was absolutely right.  As soon as we dropped a bit in elevation, the temperature rose significantly, and I'm trying to find a comfortable balance. I clearly don't have this running thing all figured out. Which is congruent to my inability to answer a question that many people ask when I shyly mention that I'm going to run an ultra marathon. "How do you train for that?"

*  *  *  *  *

With just 60 hours until the race, I'm asking myself a similar question: "have I trained for it?" As my ipod charges and loads with music, NPR Jazz Profiles and TED Talks (I've found a real enjoyment in listening to podcasts during the long slow distances), I look over my running journal for answers.

In early March of last year, Lindsay and I made plans to travel to the Himalaya.  I began exercising regularly, going on more walks, taking yoga classes, drinking fresh squeezed juices, and treating my body better overall.  While Everest Base Camp became the goal, a healthy and fit body as I neared my thirtieth birthday was the ultimate destination.  When the summer rolled around, I decided that instead of shuddering at my thirties, I was going to sprint into them, (okay, maybe a fast shuffle).

The plans for high-altitude trekking and cross-the-world traveled slipped away into that strange void travel plans so often disappear. But with my obsession for running growing, and with my brother dangling a new adventure in front of me as soon as we finished the last one, I found myself in a training rhythm. Though we didn't make it to Nepal, I stuck with the healthier lifestyle.

There are definitely many philosophies about how to train for an ultra: various mileage plans, different considerations for how many hours you spend on your feet, varying perspectives on how to fuel and nourish your body, and a rather large and lengthy debate about footwear (ask anyone close to me and they'll tell you I've never cared too much about shoes . . . I have six pairs packed for the race).

I won't know if I've trained properly for the run on Saturday until a couple weeks from now.  I do know that I've put in well over twelve hundred miles of hiking and running in the last year.  I've spent a few hundred hours practicing yoga. And I managed to drink 100 cups of Kambucha and 89 sixteen-ounce glasses of carrot and beet juice to cleanse my liver without my skin turning orange.

I also found a way to train in the middle of a Colorado winter.  Sometimes this meant running 14th of a mile laps on indoor tracks for an hour or more (eventually you do get dizzy). But fortunately, most of the time was spent out on the trails, running through wilderness much more similar to the Indian Canyons than the muggy confines of an enclosed running path.

* * * * *

Up ahead, I see the first palm trees of the canyon, a lovely oasis.  I'm still messing around with my clothing, counting the calories I've taken in, and scanning my body for signs of fatigue. But before this all becomes too stressful, I focus on my breath and remember to enjoy the moment.  I'm in an incredible place, doing something I love, and hanging out with one of my best friends.  In all the miles I've put into training, none of them matter unless I'm enjoying as many as possible.

The answer to people's question then, "how do you train for that?" continues to evade me.  I have no clue. If I had to take a guess, experience matters.  The more you do it, the longer you run, the more you figure out things like food, clothing, good posture, and the correct form for the mid-foot strike. Most importantly, you figure out how to smile. And as we climb the last hill up to the Trading Post, I'm doing plenty of that.

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