Sunday, July 28, 2013

Lessons from a longears

Last weekend's adventure in central Colorado at the Idaho Springs pack burro race was - hands down - the most fun I've had yet in a quarter century of distance running that was already pretty chock full of great runs. Although I had done a little reading about donkeys and seen some video of pack burro racing, I really had no idea what to expect out there - from myself, from my equine running partner, or from the race itself. Never could I have imagined just how much fun, or what a life-changing experience it was going to be. Since first learning of this sport last year, I've read about the dedicated passion of those quirky folks who self-identify as "donkey people," (in contrast to "horse people"), and the efforts of the pack burro racing community to promote this local heritage sport, all of which now makes complete and total sense to me.
Rock Ridge Ranch (Loveland, Colorado)

We arrived in Colorado on Thursday, and then spent most of Friday and Saturday at the beautiful Rock Ridge Ranch so that my partner Tonto and I could get comfortable with each other, and work out the important race-day logistics such as a 15' lead, and a properly stocked pack saddle. (The races are an homage to 19th century Colorado miners, and the burros are required to carry 33 lbs of equipment, including a mining pan, pick, and shovel.) We practiced running on rocky, mountainous terrain together, and Tonto and I turned out to be a great pair. We quickly learned to trust one another, and even as one who is fearful of large animals, I found his charms irresistible. I can't say enough about the training provided to me by Patty and Margi at the ranch, who put us both at ease, and had him following my newly-learned commands in a matter of hours. Neither of them had ever trained a pack burro for racing, but you would never have known it. Their knowledge about and love for these amazing critters more than made up for any inexperience in the sport, and they handled this ignorant city-girl runner with equal skill and patience.

The start of the 2013 Idaho Springs Tommyknocker
Mining Days & Pack Burro Race
Sunday morning, family, friends, husband, and donkeys packed up and headed for the hills of Idaho Springs, and after a morning that is now a blur of nervous last-minute preparations, suddenly it was noon and there I was. Standing in the middle of an old mining town 1,200 miles from home, in a packed crowd of sixty strange burros (and their runners), holding nervously onto Tonto's lead and waiting for the starting gun. Wait what? But before panic could set in, there was the gunshot, and off we went. Me, Tonto, and a big crowd of donkeys, heading out of town and up a steep mountain grade. We ran (and walked) up and down dirt road, some single-track rocky trail, and then back down through the streets of town for the finish. It was pretty slow going up the hills (I am not accustomed to high elevations, and I think Tonto could tell ...), but we were absolute magic on the flatter, faster parts of the course. I'd spent a few weeks trying to strengthen my ankles, which aren't accustomed to dirt and rocks, and other than one stumble that had me getting pulled briefly through a bit of soft dirt, I was able to keep up pretty well with my amazing donkey. He navigated the trails with ease, jumped over fallen trees when I asked him to, and even tolerated the occasional passing car with a grace and calm that I would never have expected from a donkey.

Our Saturday training hike, wherein Tonto taught me some
good lessons in "donkey persuasion." Here he is, refusing
to step on a pile of rocks. We worked it out.
This was the five-mile version of what are usually much longer, more grueling races, and it was a perfect introduction to a sport that I suspect is now hopelessly under my skin. I am an urbanite Southern Californian to my core, but as it turns out, I may also be "donkey people." These animals have profound senses of their own selves, and what we call their "stubbornness" feels very familiar to me. I don't have a problem with authority, and I don't mind being told what to do - as long as I trust (and like) the person doing the telling, understand what's expected of me, and have been given a compelling reason to do it. My impression during the race was that those burros who knew their human runners well and understood what was being asked of them out there were, on the whole, pretty cooperative. (There are exceptions, of course, and many stories of experienced burro racers whose animal on a given day simply decided that they were not participating. And there's not a whole lot the human can do about that.) Tonto and I had to pause for a couple of heart-to-heart discussions out there on that trail, and it was so beautiful when I felt it "click," and knew that he understood what I was asking for - and decided that he was going to oblige. And it was a humbling experience when I could tell that I knew he understood what I was asking for, but decided he was going to do his own thing anyway.

The demands of burro racing are fascinating. It's physically exhausting to be sure (running while attempting to keep a several hundred pound animal under one's control is a whole new ball game), but it's also emotionally exasperating. There never seemed to be more than a few minutes where I was thinking "Okay, I've got this under control." We would hit a great running stride (trotting, for him) on some manageable terrain, and I'd think we were set to cruise for a while, and then we'd turn a corner and be heading straight uphill on a bunch of rocks. Oof. Or Tonto would, for some unknown (to me) reason, simply decide to start walking. "Tonto, up! Up, Tonto! Yah! Tonto, let's go! Okay, Tonto ..."

My great family hauled their asses - literally and figuratively -
all over Colorado to support me in this crazy race!
In many ways, I relished my lack of control over the outcome, as a runner usually focused on paces and finish times. And the thrill of turning that final corner and seeing my family leap into the air when they spotted me is something I'll never forget. None of us had any sense of how I would do - I could have come in last place, and no one would have been surprised. I could have finished bruised and bloodied, not finished at all, or shocked everyone and come in first place (okay, that last one was unlikely ... but it technically could have happened ...). They couldn't spectate along the route, and so just had to hang out in town wondering what on earth was going on up there. When I came into view, their excitement over my strong finish (and my lack of bodily injuries) was overwhelming. Inside they were probably breathing huge sighs of relief, but all I could see on the outside was their energy and excitement. After Tonto and I crossed the finish, my sweet sister came up to me and said: "That was amazing. You can do absolutely anything you set out to do!" Who would have ever guessed that this important life lesson would come in the form of a donkey?


For more information about this Colorado heritage sport, check out the Western Pack Burro Ass-Ociation's website at And if you're game for giving it a try yourself, let me know! I can hardly wait to get back out there again.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Haulin' ass

No bucket could contain me.
I've never been big on the "bucket list" concept. I throw the phrase around from time to time, but I don't actually maintain any such thing. There are places I want to visit and things I want to experience before I die. But if you'd asked me to rattle off a few of them five years ago, and then asked me to do so again right now, you'd probably get two totally different sets of responses. I guess what I have is something more like an "old burlap sack list." Things can move around in there, sometimes they fall out, and there's all kinds of holes in the bottom. I'm easily overwhelmed by the number of incredible places that I may never see, amazing people I may never meet, delicious food I may never try, great books I may never read, and profound experiences I may never have. There could be no bucket large enough to contain all of the things that I would love to do. So I always need to maintain a little space to shove something else in there, to let an old fantasy or goal slip away to make room for a new one.

But boy do I love reaching in there and finding something I can grab! I have a minor issue with impulse control, but nothing that has ever gotten me into too much trouble. I'm just one of those people that gets excited - really excited - easily. I'll raise my hand and agree to almost anything I've never tried before, especially when meets any of my most important criteria: a) it will require me to travel to a place I've never been, b) it will connect me to friends or family that I love, and c) it's not likely to result in bodily harm and/or death. And if there's some weird food involved, so much the better.

My husband has learned by now how to identify the tone.
"Blur is playing a reunion concert in Hyde Park this summer!!" = "She is going to find a way to get to London this summer."
"Did you know that that weird old restaurant down the street does silly mystery dinner theatre?!" = "We have a reservation for Saturday night."
"I just read the craziest article about this weird group of runners in central Colorado who trail race with pack burros every summer!!" =  "Oh, here we go."
Tonto! My racing partner for Sunday's pack burro race
in Idaho Springs, CO. I am already madly in love.
Courtesy of the Rock Ridge Ranch (Loveland, CO)
And so, tonight we head out to central Colorado. Friday and Saturday, I'll spend some time getting to know my burro Tonto and figuring out how to run with him. And then Sunday morning: it's on. A parade of runners and their donkeys in Idaho Springs, followed by a 4-6 mile pack burro race that starts at high noon. (Click here to find out more about this unique Colorado heritage sport!) I'll have Tonto on a 15-foot lead (runners run; no riding allowed!), and he'll be loaded up with 33 pounds of mining equipment. I have absolutely no idea what to expect from this, but my dad, sisters, brother, husband, and some friends are making the trip to come out and take in all of this nonsense, and that's good enough for me. Until I read that article a year ago about pack burro racing, would you have found something like this in my old burlap sack list? Absolutely not. But ask me again in a couple more years, and let's see what else I've managed to fit into that ratty old thing.

Do you have a bucket list? Or an old burlap sack list? What are you planning to tick off next?

Monday, July 8, 2013

Take a picture, it'll last longer

I'm not a collector of "stuff." I'm messy, sure. My desk is piled high with paper, and my car is littered with the evidence of recent runs and half-completed to-do lists. But despite these tendencies, I don't actually surround myself with clutter. My husband, dog, and I live in a small one-bedroom condo with limited storage space, and in no way do I yearn for more. It's certainly not a spartan existence - I have kitchen cupboards full of cookware, shelves of books, and pieces of art that I love. But I don't have enough space to accumulate too much more than I need, and I like it that way.

We share one small closet, and while I'll admit that I do encroach a bit onto his side, I'm no clothes horse. I love interesting, colorful clothes and am intrigued by fashion, but unfortunately (or fortunately, maybe) I really hate shopping, so there's not actually much of interest in there. With one exception: the disproportionate number of t-shirts. A runner for over a quarter of a century now, it's hard to even guess how many race t-shirts I've acquired in my lifetime. My normal routine is to wear them a few times on a run or to the gym, and then if I don't really love how they feel (and I usually don't), I donate them to my local thrift shop before they become too ragged or sweat-stained for someone else to be able to use them. Of course, there have been many special runs through the years, the t-shirts from which I've hung onto for sentimental reasons, and so a collection has inadvertently developed over time.

The running shirts that I was able to grab quickly from my closet, for demonstrative
purposes. There are probably actually twice as many packed away in there.

I've never given much thought to any of this. Like most runners, I dig eagerly into the bag to see what the t-shirt looks like when I pick up my race packet. But no matter how much I like it, I rarely feel compelled to hang onto it. I donate it to charity and assume that it moves on to serve some other purpose, not realizing that I'm actually contributing to a serious global problem.

I recently read an interesting article: The Afterlife of Cheap Clothes (2012). I recommend that you give it a read, but in case you don't, here's the bottom line: Our consumption of inexpensive clothing has created a glut of textile waste that overburdens our domestic charities, who cannot process and sell the volume of donated clothing they receive. Some of it gets recycled, and the rest is shipped and sold overseas to markets that no longer have a strong demand for our cheaply-made throwaways. Even the poorest of the poor don't want or need this stuff. So what if we just stopped making it?

There have been a few races I've entered where I've been given a choice to decline the t-shirt, and pay a lower entry fee (which I always do). I'd love to see more race directors providing us with this option, and more runners thinking twice about acquiring more things that they don't need. We have our finish times, our race memories and stories, and probably some photos. That seems like plenty. I'm not looking to start a revolution here, but I will start voicing this preference to the organizers of the events in which I participate. I will start trying to get the most out of the t-shirts that I do get stuck with, and buying fewer new running shirts. And most difficult of all, I will try my hardest to resist that $7 tank top that I don't really need (even though it's really cute) the next time I'm distracted by the women's clothing section at Target. Because I really only went in there for toothpaste anyway.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Runner unchained

Over coffee this morning, I sat down for my annual reading of the declaration of our independence, signed 237 years ago today. This is a favorite July 4th tradition, and every year some particular phrase jumps out at me, usually from the intriguing list of the king's "injuries and userpations." This morning I realized that the history books have missed an obvious fact: King George III was actually a tyrannic distance runner.

"He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures."

As with all good writing, I take something different away from it every time I read it, and this year I think the take-away is all about my own unshackling from the tyranny of GPS. It is my personal practice to declare a month of freedom after every marathon: four weeks without worrying about pace or mileage, no planning for the next marathon, no poring over training schedules. I refuse to let myself even look at race calendars during those four weeks, which I will admit gets pretty tough toward the end. (Although, you know, if you want to talk to me about any good races you happen to know about in December, who am I to stop you?) I think that this self-enforced break from the cycle of training is what has kept me madly in love with running marathons for fifteen years. While my body has certainly gone through periods of burn-out and fatigue, my head never has.

At the end of a very tough work day yesterday, I found myself driving along the coast, and pulled over to run a few head-clearing evening miles on the sand. A half hour of unplanned, unstructured, slow, comfortable bliss. This week, a fellow runner put out the call to our Facebook group, inviting anyone to join her for a 4-mile run in Balboa Park this morning. When I read it, my impulse was to think about how those four miles would fit into my schedule for the week: Will we be running too fast or slow? Will I need to tack on some additional mileage, or throw in some hills at the end? With great relief, it occurred to me: it doesn't matter. Four miles at any pace would be great. I'm in. It was a lovely warm morning, and I showed up with absolutely no concern for how or where we ran, and made a new friend. As I was putting on my running clothes this morning, I strapped on my Garmin out of habit, but then checked myself. No need! I took it off, laced up my shoes, and was out the door.

Check out that naked wrist! In the last two weeks,
I've even lost my ever-present watch tan.
For these next couple of weeks (and maybe more, if this particular course of human events dictates that it should be necessary), I am enjoying this opportunity to reconnect to the real reasons that I love to run, which have nothing to do with numbers or qualifying times. Ah, freedom.