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Saturday, February 23, 2013

Stuart Smalley Had It Right

"I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and, doggonit, people like me!" 
- Stuart Smalley

A few evenings ago I found myself midway up the steepest hill of my favorite snow-covered trail, gasping for air, while my training buddy sped away from me. Between breaths a series of downwardly spiraling thoughts infiltrated my thinking. They took me from contentment, to frustration, and ultimately to thoughts of total surrender, nearly as rapidly as my heart pounded from one beat to the next. In the parking lot I had felt joyous anticipation for a beautiful evening run. Laughter and boisterous chitchat filled the crisp February air as we bounced up the initial section of trail. Then the first steep hill slapped me in the face and my friend pulled away from me like I was walking. The problem was not that he was dusting me; the problem was that I was comparing myself to someone else. For me, comparing is a dangerous game, one that is certain to end in one of two ways: a sense of grandiosity or self-deprecation. Max Ehrman said it most eloquently in his 1927 poem, The Desiderata,

"If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for there will always be greater and lesser persons than yourself." 

The dangers of comparing that Ehrmann warned of became all too evident as I grudgingly trudged up the snowy hill, fixated on the fact that my friend was faster than me. Before I knew it, I was telling myself that my fitness was so poor, that running the Zion Traverse in a couple of months was out of the question. That thought was immediately followed by the thought that I may as well quit running altogether. The whole mental digression took upwards of five seconds; all because I compared myself to someone else. I can say with certainty, that, had I been running alone my reaction as I tackled that hill would have been drastically different. Had I been running solo I surely would have been thinking what a total badass I was to be powering up such a stout hill with so much vigor, and that nary a soul could match my fortitude. However, just like my feelings of utter defeat, that thinking would have been misguided. Had been honest with myself I would have realized that my training partner was a great runner who was very fit, and that's why I was unable to keep pace. For me, comparing, with real or imagined competitors, is the unfortunate name of the game. This habit has some serious liabilities, both in running, and in life.

Take the first 30 miles of last year's Western States Endurance Run. Had I not spent the days and weeks leading up to the race, along with the first several hours of the race, comparing myself to others, I may not have been stumbling with blurry vision as I approached the Robinson Flat aid station at mile 30. Wanting so badly to crack the top ten, I had envisioned and re-envisioned the caste of characters I would need to hang with in the early going of the race, if I were to achieve this goal. Caring only about who I was running near, completely disregarding my own sensory data, I suddenly found myself in third place. Enter vanity! Although I was over my head, and running too fast, I was in third place in the country's most prestigious hundred. Clearly I was awesome and destined for glory. So I continued on foolishly, running an unsustainable pace.

As fortune had it, my rough patch came early enough in the race, that I was able to readjust my expectations. I ceased comparing my status to the other runners in the race and focused instead just on finishing. Miles later, feeling infinitely stronger, I found myself back in the top ten, running strong. By "running my race" I was able to salvage my effort and have a successful run. I nearly made the same mistake eight weeks later at Leadville, but again I backed off the lead pack early in the race, leaving enough fuel in the tank to have strong finish. When I don't get caught up in comparing myself I race much better.

As with many of the principles that guide my running, so the principle of avoiding comparisons transfers into real life. I make comparisons in my profession vacillating from thinking that I'm the world's greatest teacher to the belief that I'm the world's worst. Likewise, at times I compare myself to other parents, thinking of myself either as super-dad, or chump father, depending on how I compare myself. Yet the truth is, if I let go of the comparisons and shoot for humility, I am a more successful parent, teacher, runner and person. And, most importantly, I am happier. Good old Stuart Smily, the classic Saturday Night Live persona, had it right when he uttered his daily affirmation, "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggonit, people like me!"


Friday, February 8, 2013


Many prominent runners tout the practice of racing 100's sans pacers. Matt Carpenter even attributed part of his record setting performance at the 2005 Leadville 100 on the fact that he ran without pacers. Some races, such as the Run Rabbit Run 100, even require that runners complete the course alone. I am curious about the metal state that solo racing might entail, but I cannot imagine running as such, because I love having pacers so much. The synergetic effect of having a pacer has propelled me to success in all of my 100 mile races, but more importantly it has brought me much joy while running these races. This post is an ode to the folks who selflessly sacrificed to aid me in my selfish quest to run far, fast.

The calming effect that my college teammate Jay Pozner had when he guided me through the fifty-first mile of my first Leadville cannot be overstated. I anxiously stated to Jay, who has previously finished second in the race, as we strode away from the Winfield aid station, that each step I was taking was a personal best in distance, and I still had fifty miles to go! He assured me that I was OK and guided me over Hope pass, chuckling each time I claimed I would never run another 100. He rightly replied, "Zeke, we have short memories."

Coach Jay Johnson 
The first time I met Jay Johnson, he told me how much he enjoyed backpacking around the Maroon Bells and I smugly remarked, "yeah, that's my backyard." Lucky for me, Jay overlooked my youthful arrogance, and my ridiculous lamb chop sideburns, and we became dear friends. The running knowledge Coach Jay Johnson imparted upon me while he paced me from Twin Lakes to Half Moon during that first Leadville, was instrumental.

Zach Hancock is a natural born story teller; likely a reason he in an ordained minister.  I barely even noticed the pavement miles between Treeline and the Fish Hatchery as Zach retold the vivid tale of how legendary mountain man John Colter was chased by the Blackfoot Indians, ingeniously managing to outmaneuver them and survive. The miles flew by and I was sad to loose my entertainment when we hit the pacer exchange. 

Team Vickers
Carrie Vickers took time off the international steeplechase circuit, where she even ran on the U.S. team at the World Track and Field Championships, to pace me around Turquoise Lake. Her orange wig and knee-high socks looked utterly surreal through the blurry lenses off my 85 mile eyes, but the look and her motivational dialog bolstered my spirits and kept my feet moving until she passed me off to her husband, my friend of 30 years, Matt Vickers. His innovative words of encouragement, "good job Zeker, look'in good," combined with his presence and love, powered my soul and psyche, and led me to a third place finish in my first 100!

Noah Hoffman is a phenomenal athlete and an outstanding human being. When I met Noah, he was 15 and could already run four or five hour adventure runs with me. Noah and I are notorious for underestimating time and distance, and getting lost on most of our runs. He epitomizes the gentleman athlete and is an amazingly comfortable pacer to run with. The day Noah retires from the Nordic World Cup circuit there will be a new star in the ultra world!

After race directing the Aspen Mountain Uphill in the morning, Chis Keleher met me at Twin Lakes to take me to the Half Moon aid station, only the relief pacer had made a wrong turn, so he was kind enough to escort me all the way to the Fish Hatchery.  Exhausted, dehydrated, and calorie deficient, Chris began to fade just prior to the aid station, stating that he was, "going through a rough patch." However, after some liquids and gels he rallied, bringing me to the aid station with a significant gap over the runner who had entered the last aid station with me. Chris is a great friend, outstanding coach, gutsy runner and a stellar person.

My friend Zach Woodward has been to all my 100s, working his way from casual fan, to assistant crew chief, and then pacer. In my first 100, he reminded me that it was, "just for today," words to live by in an ultra, and in life. Zach was my first pacer at Western, elevating my mood with banter from the classic movie, Caddysack. His company during my last running of the Leadville 100 made the miles role by with ease, not to mention speed. Zach is a confidant and true friend. 

"Don't worry Zeker, you still have a long way to go!" Those were the words of encouragement my friend Jeremy Duncan offered up at the midway point of last year's Leadville 100. While initially disheartening, that ironic advice ended up being all too true, as I improved my position dramatically during the second half of the race. As my primary training partner over the last five years, few people know me better as a runner than Jer, and that makes him invaluable as a pacer. However, its Jeremy's natural tallent at delivering good bad jokes that makes him irreplaceable.

Matt Fields is not really a runner at all, and yet, he has helped pace me to two second place finishes at Leadville.  Matt knows me on an emotional, mental, and spiritual level like no one else, save my family. It also doesn't hurt that he loves to compete, as was evident when we found ourselves suddenly thrust into second place at Leadville, with 20 miles to go. He was so excited by the possibility of winning the race, that when I looked up only moments later, he was 50 meters ahead of me wondering why I wasn't right beside him. I am lucky to have called Matty my best friend for over three decades and thankful for his efforts as a pacer.

The Closer
"Methodical Baby! Methodical!" That was the mantra my brother repeated to me over and over as we rolled the last twenty-three miles of the Leadville 100. My brother is the best pacer in the world. Heck,  not only does he shave racing stipes into his head on race day, he even has a yellow shirt with a picture of an AMC Pacer on it that simply says, "Pacer!" There is no one in the world I would rather run with, and certainly no one I would rather have by my side in the final miles of a long race than my brother. He is funny and knows exactly what to say, and when to say it. He waited until we hit Robie Point to tell me that we could break 16 hours at Western, knowing that by then it was close enough that I would believe him and go for it. "Uncle Al", as he is known by my daughter, always inspires me and brings out the best version of Zeke.

"The Closer" sporting racing stripes before Leadville

Long distance running is said to be a lonely endever, but an amazing cadre of pacers have made my 100's easier, faster and way more fun! The synergy that occurs when the right person selflessly aids me in my crazy quest to race the hundred mile distance, enables me to reach a deeper level of courage, but most importantly, they bring me great joy. I am lucky to have such great friends and family.