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Out and Back

Every mountain has its own character. Some are stoic, plainly presenting themselves in dramatic stone glory. Some are playful, offering surprises around their circumference–streams, small waterfalls, meadows and groves. Some are just kind. My hometown hill is called Pleasant Mountain, and the name says it all. The 2,000 foot hump on the outskirts of downtown overlooks a large pond. It’s a walk to the mailbox compared to some of the mountains on the west coast or even in the White Mountains. During winter it morphs into a low-key ski resort. It’s the Tom Hanks of mountains–giving a smile a wink, and a wave to tourists who drive over the causeway at its base.

And then there’s Hallasan (한라산) here on Jeju (제주). This is a mountain that dwarfs Pleasant. It dramatically bears its chest–a stunning peak that, on a clear day, you can see from anywhere on the island. In my eight years on Jeju, I’ve run over and hiked it countless times through seasons, ages, different levels of shape. I became versed in the landmarks of its trails.

During my two year stay in Shanghai, I started to get nostalgic about the peak. The city crowds and dubious air quality of the city ground me down until the Jeju life I’d left behind began to feel idyllic. There was free entry to an 80km race I had done before so I naturally decided to venture over for the weekend. I had been training on the flat boulevards of Shanghai, and was surprised at how quickly my legs had forgotten elevation. The race started out well enough. We began at sea level at 6am, plodding up the road to the island’s center where Halla awaited. On the first real ascent I knew something was up. Muscles collapsed into painful knots as my legs kept churning. I cursed the flat streets of Shanghai that had allowed my uphill and downhill muscles to atrophy. And then another surprise: snow on the summit in late march. I had foregone crampons and had some near misses gliding down Gwaneumsa (관음사) trail to the snow-free terrain.

Before beginning the race’s last big ascent around the 50km mark a storm hit. This was no problem, a little sprinkle of rain never hurt anyone. I trotted up the trail and began the grinding climb. But, as I neared the summit of Yeongsil Oreum, I noticed something. The rain had turned to snow…and it was picking up. By the time the Eorimok trail spit me out into a clearing near the summit, it was white-out conditions. My thin jacket which was soaked with rain and sweat began to feel icy against the skin underneath. I didn’t quite know what to do. I could turn around and book it down the mountain, or push on the few kilometers to the descent on the other side. I knew there was some sort of shelter coming soon, but it was hard to say how soon in the white out conditions. I didn’t even know if it would be open. Turning around, on the other hand, would end the race that I had traveled and trained for. I kept going.

My hands continued to get colder. Gloves might have been a good idea. I did the old hand tuck in the jacket but it didn’t help. I blew into my icy paws. I pinwheeled my arms wildly to keep blood flowing. A mad man in a red jacket on the top of a mountain in a blizzard. The image of Jack Nicholson at the end of The Shining popped into my head. They were going to chisel me out of a snow bank tomorrow. Why hadn’t I packed gloves or a warm layer? Was the extra weight that much of a liability. I knew there was a waypoint coming up and I pushed through, the aching in my hands growing increasingly worrisome.

And then, like an Elysian hallucination, a hut appeared. A few friendly race volunteers ushered me inside where there were other racers in similar shape. We huddled around a gas stove with cups of instant coffee in our hands in silence. I regained feeling, procured some cheap gloves and a plastic poncho from the volunteers, took a deep breath and a long look at the side-winding wall of white snow moving past the door, and then set out into the storm again. I booked it down the mountain and managed the final stretch of road to the finish line as nighttime descended. Turns out my hands would have stabbing and painful chilblains, the initial signs of frostbite, for about a week. I had a few things to consider when I arrived back in Shanghai. A few lessons to learn.

It was with this humbling experience in mind that I planned my trip to Jirisan (지리산). I was in the mood for a challenge and had my eyes on the Jirisan Traverse (화대종주), a 40km route through the heart of Jirisan National Park. Most of what I knew about the trail I took from a helpful running expat blog that I stumbled across in my research. There were a few logistics to work out, but it seemed doable. I would go and stay in a small hotel near the trailhead, get up early, and arrive at the other side in mid-afternoon with enough daylight to meander back to the hotel in time for dinner.

I picked up my friend, another Tim, at 6am and we made our way to Jeju airport. It was in full frenzy for Chuseok holiday (추석), the parking lot full to the point that makeshift spots were being invented. Tim also realized at the end of our car ride that he had somehow ended up with his wife’s phone. While he negotiated with a cab driver to deliver the phone to his house, I circled the lot a few times. 15 minutes passed and nothing was appearing. I tried the art of inventing my own spot only to end up in a minor yelling match with a bus driver. Panic was setting in. We were going to miss our flight. And then, like the hut atop Halla, a van pulled out and a dream spot appeared.

We flew into Gwangju and grabbed a cab to the bus station. Time for breakfast. But nothing was open aside from the chains. There was one curry place that gave us some hope. One lady motioned us in, and then as we entered another lady decided differently and told us “no” holding up her arms in the unmistakable Korean “X.” We sulked off in confusion and disappointment. This is how on the first day of vacation and ready to tuck into local cuisine we found ourselves walking into a Subway. They hadn’t even made the bread for the day. Flatbread it was. A poster for the new “Sub Dog” mocked us from the wall. One of Tim’s best qualities is his unadorned honesty. “This tastes like ass,” he said.

From there, a two hour bus ride to the park. Despite the Subway flatbread-shaped bricks in our abdomens, we were feeling slightly better now that we had made it to the home stretch and were ready to chat a bit during the ride. We found our seats and began to ease into conversation, only to be silenced by a small gust of loud air. What the hell? It was a shush.

“No talking,” said the driver from his throne four seats ahead of us. His sunglasses peered at me in the mirror. This guy wasn’t fooling around. We looked at each other in confusion, soaking in the absurd scenario. We began texting each other about the ridiculousness of the situation. Every fiber of our being wanted to break the silence. It was like trying not to fart in church.

The Tims arrived in mid-afternoon and scoped the terrain of our mountain hamlet. It was on the outskirts of Gurye (구례), a small town to the southwest of Jirisan. We found an acceptable cafe and an exceptional lunch of mountain food. The banchan (반잔) were small courses unto themselves. Marinated black beans and mountain greens. The flower root deodeok (더덕) which tasted like an earthy ginseng.

That night we hiked up to Hwaeomsa Temple (화엄사) where silence descended along with dusk. We meandered up through three gates that travelers were meant to pass through as a series of cleanses. As we reached the top, the dull throb of a monk hitting a drum began. Another monk chanted from an unknown location. The noises pirouetted with the crickets and the breeze and built until a giant gong was rung. Small shockwaves to end the day.

We spent half the next day waiting out a torrential but expected thunderstorm. The small stream behind our hotel became an enraged river. The ionized air danced through the screen. When the storm cleared I strolled into the visitor center and used my shoddy Korean to inquire about the trail. The park ranger made the same “X” when I said I wanted to do it in one day.

“Impossible,” was her general message.

“Agree to disagree,” I thought to myself.

As I began to get my supplies ready, I glanced at a few final logistics. It was then that I found the one detail that I had invariably overlooked: the return trip. I had assumed that, at most, I was dealing with a 50,000 won return cab ride from the other side of the park. I also knew that there were some buses that I had assumed could lead me back this way. However, the buses were looking to be a seven hour odyssey that I wasn’t going to be able to navigate in sweaty running clothes. The cab ride was going to be 150,000 won that I wasn’t willing to spend. Anxiety rose in my chest. This needed to work. I had come all this way. I looked at different routes, different apps, different websites. There seemed to be no feasible options. Impossible was right, but not for the park ranger’s reasons.

I talked it over with Tim over a dinner of grilled deodeok in red sauce. It was simple but delicious. Perfectly browned on the bottom. Crunchy and chewy both at once. The quiet night outside our bright hospital lighting restaurant. By the end of the meal I had made peace with an out-and-back. I would run 21km into the heart of the park then turn around and retrace my steps. The anxiety of post-run transportation logistics dissolved but traces of disappointment remained.

I plodded out into the early morning, making my way up the initial ascent. The first climb traced the small stream that flowed behind my hotel straight up the mountain. It was a quiet warm-up to the day. The trail passed a few waterfalls here and there, making its way through flat riverbed rocks. I hit the first hut in the beginnings of morning. A few other hikers quietly moved in the morning fog. One snapped a photo for me before I moved on down the trail.

As the trail continued in the foggy morning, I started to focus on the gnarly roots and rocks. My legs moved at strange angles and my hiking poles extended like feelers to find a way forward. In the woozy fog, a hypnosis took over and the roots and rocks were the White Mountains of New Hampshire thirty minutes from Pleasant Mountain where I grew up. In short bursts it felt like home.

A few more peaks. A stop at a natural spring to fill up my water bottles. A chat with another hiker in my rough Korean. We were at least able to communicate where we were going before we reached the turn-off where we parted ways. Eventually I had stopped checking the GPS, confident of where I was headed. My legs started to adjust to the trail’s contours and I no longer had to concentrate so hard on every puzzle that the roots presented. A rhythm was forming. And then the sky’s stomach grumbled.

I ignored the first few rolls of thunder, passing them off as sonic anomalies in the valley, but then there was another, and another. Eventually it started to sound like I was standing in the parking lot of a bowling alley. The thunder was frequent. I began an inner monologue.

“Come on, I had planned this so well. The storm was yesterday, not today. Today was supposed to be cloudy but clear. I did the research, I brought the right gear, I had learned my lessons from Halla.”

Jirisan didn’t care about my mental complaining, it threw a few more strikes at me. I had moved from the bowling parking lot into the waiting area by the lanes.

“Maybe the storm is passing north? This is a big area, there’s no way this sucker is going to land right on top of me.”

And then the leaves started chattering with rain drops. The next words I spoke out loud.

“Fuck, this is going to land right on my head.”

I whipped out my raincoat, threw up the hood, and started booking it as the few initial droplets out of the spout turned into a steadier drip and then a full-on geyser. I could see the lightning now. It would burst and then 1…2…3…boom, the applause of thunder. This was getting dangerous. All that I knew from my wilderness experience was to form three points of contact with the ground. I pictured myself huddled on the trail hugging my knees and discarded this mental image. Something told me I needed to keep moving.

CREAACKK. A particularly loud thunder roll. I could practically feel that one grabbing me by the shoulders and shaking me. I decided to consult the GPS for answers. My hand reached into my vest, the glow of the screen, and a look at the map, “holly jolly Christmas, there’s a hut right around the corner!” I sprinted that last half a kilometer with every bit of concentration I had. Roots and rocks flew by before I was spit out into a clearing. The dark mouth of the empty hut was calling my name. I had found shelter.

A fellow hiker appeared from the trail, an older lady who seemed much more nonplussed than I. Five minutes later, her friend emerged from the woods. They argued in quick Korean between the thunder strikes in our small space as I played out scenarios for the spat.

As the storm sputtered its final droplets, I tentatively jogged from the hut and down the path. The fog of the morning had been completely brushed away by the violent storm. I hit a more technical section of the trail–gnarly roots and high boulders–but paid them no mind. My attention was focused on the approaching turnaround that I had chosen based upon the label “Viewpoint.” It didn’t disappoint. I found myself on a bald rock with a full view from the heart of the park. The peaks licked the last bit of fog off their lips. The trees turned from opaque to vibrant as they greeted the sun. I whooped across the valley.

Returning felt quick. Maybe it was knowing that instead of a five hour bus ride at the end I had a hot shower. Maybe it was the transformation of the storm. My feet felt sure and focused, finding quick footing. By the time I reached that first hut, it was buzzing with tourists. I charged through in a hurry to find my way back to quiet trail, and descended down my rocky ravine.

The next morning, Tim and I took another hike to the temple and then jumped into the stream behind our hotel. On our return trip, we knew to sit in the back of the bus out of bus driver earshot. We talked about aspirations, writing and business ideas. We shared some of our stories with each other. The couple of other passengers didn’t seem to mind the chatter. Jeju airport was asleep when we arrived. Lots of parking spots. Mount Halla looked down from its dark perch as I drove in the fresh evening to drop him off.

Mountains aren’t your friend or even your teacher. They’re a collection of enchanted mirrors. You can spend time in the mountains and come out with a pleasant experience, emerging unscathed. Or you can come out with some tiny transformation. It’s those discoveries that keep you making the trip, tracing an initial path that will inevitably require a return journey back to wherever you came from.

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Shut the @*!% up and run

Each year in late August or early September, some of the world’s most unhinged minds descend upon the tiny mountain town of Chamonix in France to hijack its tranquil mountain vibes. I’ve never been to Chamonix (or France for that matter), but I can picture the scene: a quaint alpine village on a quiet sunny day. A couple sits at their sturdy wooden table about to tuck into some fromage. Out of nowhere, their wine glasses starts to show ripples of seismic movement. Small at first but then growing in intensity. The ground begins to rumble. The husband glances at his wife with concern.

“Qu’est-ce que c’est?” he states blankly.

“Je ne sais pas,” is all that she can muster in the short-lived silence.

And then, over the hill, the first few runners appear. But that’s just the drip before the faucet turns on full blast. Soon thousands are descending upon the valley. Decked out in bright goji red Salomon packs, the runners wield poles like walking spears. Their heads are wrapped in bright buffs bearing their banners of choice. An array of flashy sunglasses banded across their faces. Spandex shorts, rippling calf muscles, pumping arms. They are not here for blood though, they’re here for personal glory. The Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) is ready to begin.

The UTMB is one of the biggest running events in the world. It is a soul-sapping 171 kilometers around the behemoth Mont Blanc with an overall elevation gain of 10,000 meters. For my New England folks, that is over five Mount Washingtons. This is one of the most elite ultra events in the world and pulls together some of its most talented (and deranged) runners. The event is quite a spectacle from what I’ve seen on the live stream. A sea of runners pulsing in anticipation before the starting gun. Dramatic music plays. A guy inexplicably walks on a high wire above the crowd, perhaps a metaphor for the balancing act of training, nutrition, sleep and luck that the race entails.

This year, one of the best runners on the planet, Courtney Dauwalter, convincingly took top female in the race while simultaneously breaking the course record by seven minutes. For reference, there has never been a top male finisher from the USA at the UTMB. Dauwalter is one of those runners who emits inspiration. When I go down ultra running YouTube rabbit holes, she inevitably appears in the videos of others, giving runners encouragement or advice. Her running stamina seems to extend to a large store of human compassion. Don’t be fooled though, she’s as rugged as they come. In 2017 she won the Moab 240 mile race outright.

In a post-UTMB interview, Dauwalter reflected on the race while casually holding a beer. A little weary, she still had her signature smile and described her own energy as a “tie dye jelly bean factory.” I couldn’t help but notice that she kept saying “we” and “our” as she broke down her race strategy. The interviewer also picked up on this and asked if the other part of “we” and “our” is her partner Kevin who crews for her during the race. Dauwalter confirmed this, and then pointed out the maybe not-so-obvious: ultra running is a team sport.

Ultra racing, especially at the higher distances, is contingent on people who help runners. There are the volunteers who assist at aid stations and checkpoints. There are pacers–running buddies who meet up with runners at pivotal times in the race to help their progress. There are crew–friends or family who dutifully await their insane loved one ready to give them whatever they need. This can be a candy bar or a make-shift blister surgery. It’s whatever the situation and conditions dictate.

This year, I’ve set my sights on my hardest challenge yet. The High Trail 9 Peaks will take place on October 30 in the Yeongnam Alps of Korea, north of Busan. This race is going to take every scrap of grit that my body has to offer. It begins at midnight and will take me 104 kilometers over nine peaks for an overall elevation gain of over 8000 meters (four Mt Washingtons if you’re counting). With the impending challenge, training has needed to reach a new level. I just arrived back from a trip to Jirisan National Park on the mainland for a big 42km training run in the rugged mountains, and have been doing weekly jaunts up Mount Halla to get even more elevation gain and descent under my legs.

As I’ve plodded away through my weekly training plan, I’ve been trying to envision race day. I’ll arrive in a tiny town with my gear and a goal but no crew. I won’t have pacers or friends at the aid stations to ply me with jokes and calories. Of course, there will be a slew of volunteers to offer aid and encouragement, but I want a way to bring my community with me–a way to turn the “I” into “we.”

There inevitably comes a time in the race when your jaw is on the ground. Legs are cement that firms with each step. Every small bump in the trail looks like Mount Everest. This is the time when runners need to “dig deep.” They need to, as they say, “dig in the pain cave.” They need to throw the gorilla off their back, look down and will their feet forward into a rhythm. Pain, along with sweat, drips from every pore. The splits reach diminishing returns and progress seems to flatline. The idea of quitting continually enters your brain and you swear to yourself that this will be your last ultra. “This is the sport of fools and masochists,” you say to yourself. “Maybe it’s time to change hobbies and take up fishing full time?” It’s at this exact moment that it’s important to have an ember inside of you. A faint glow that you can ignite into the tiniest of flames to burn that self doubt and deliver your body a different message. At some point you just need to tell your legs to shut the @*!% up and run.

Talking to Dauwalter, the interviewer asked what she had been listening to during her race. She grinned and said that she had an old iPod Shuffle full of “bangers.” I love this concept–a playlist of songs that will keep the serotonin pumping. In the darkest of moments, this might be an important tool to have in the goji red Salomon running pack.

This brought an idea to mind. What if my friends helped to put together a bangers playlist? This would give me a way to connect with community out on the trail in those dark moments when the way forward is bleak and the leg cement is at risk of fully drying. So, if you would, please leave a comment with some song suggestions. I’m looking for good tunes that will give me a kick and keep me plodding along. Hopefully we can meet up in person down along the trail sometime soon. In the meantime, let’s keep running.

Mount Halla, September 24, 2021

I’ll add songs as they roll in to the playlist here that we can all use.

Want to give kudos and encouragement? You can follow my training on Strava.

Thanks for reading!

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Kneeling at the Altar of Kick

Spend enough time running and you’ll eventually come across the concept of “kick.” Traditionally I perceive kick to be like NOS in Fast and Furious. A switch that turns on. You’ve probably witnessed it in the Olympics. A runner will be a little set back from the leader, desperation creeping into their features as the finish line nears. And then a new look of determination washes over them. Legs move faster. The windmill speeds up. And before they know it the leader is watching someone zoom by on the right to overtake them and steal the race.

I first heard about kick in one of the Prefontaine movies–maybe the Jared Leto one (both were pretty subpar if we’re being honest). Prefontaine had notorious kick. His strategy was a bit different though. He’d turn on the NOS from the beginning, burning through seemingly limitless rocket fuel the whole damn race.

As I began to transition to longer distances, kick began to mean something different to me. It wasn’t just zip on the track or a local 5k. It began to signify a general furnace for running in general.

Ultra running has a way of spacing things out and sometimes reorganizing the sequence of normal events. In an ultra, runners can hit a wall, fall into a pit of despair, puke up whatever is left in their stomach, keel over, be unable to move their hamstrings, hopes dashed. And then some magic washes over them. Suddenly things seems fresh. They bounce back up and, instead of just cranking out the homestretch of a length of track, they run up and down an entire mountain with fresh legs. This process can repeat a few times in the course of a race. In ultra running, kick doesn’t just last the stretch of a track in a 10k. It lasts the entire 10k.

Beyond races, I think that there are longer cycles that we go through. Cycles even beyond seasons. That there are some thing that require more than a little patience. Urges and inspiration come and go through the turnstiles.

I’m not sure where my kick comes from. In a word, it’s elusive. There are weekends where I can barely pry myself out of bed. A tight ball of anxiety, ideas, regrets, plans. The wheels spin in uncontrolled frustration. This is a state of mind that has had a habit of washing over me since my teenage years. A paralyzing tincture that my brain seems to have in limitless supply. Other times, I’m ready to get out there. Nature practically pulls me out of the door and I bound off down my running route.

There are sluggish days and springy days. Legs one day will be generous and the next make you want to crumple up into a roadside ball. Part of running is exploring how this works for your body. Trying out diet, sleep, and mileage (often with the help of a coach) until you get the cocktail that works for you. Unfortunately, often once you figure out what suits your taste, things will shift. What works one week leaves you a wreck the next. You’re left again completely depleted kneeling at the altar of kick, hoping for more energy the next day.

Last year was a hard one for training. No races. A gridlocked world. What’s there to work toward with no concrete goal? I dutifully ticked away 80km a week, but it felt like a chore. Run was a routine not a privilege. I found it increasingly hard to get out there. The days became oppressive. They boogeyman was at the door. So I opted for a change of scenery, fleeing Jeju for a summer in the USA.

After a few weeks running the backroads of Maine, I took my legs to the west coast where my brother and I attempted the Timberline trail around Mount Hood in Oregon. This 41.4 mile loop was ambitious for two guys who had just spent a week drinking beer in a little motorboat with fishing poles. We had done some haphazard hiking, but nothing on the scale of what we were about to attempt.

In the frigid 5am alpine air we started plugging away. The first few rays of the day projected onto Hood’s snowy peak. We ticked off sections of Timberline like hours on a clock. Our circular journey going up and down through the mountain’s ravines. Two brothers in lock-step with the day making our way around the mountain.

The run had highs and lows. A section of downed trees that presented a labyrinth to progress. Encouraging strangers. A section where an army of bugs descended and didn’t let up for 10km. Expansive vistas and lush meadows. Many hours past our desired finish time as the sun descended, my brother’s truck came into view. We had arrived back at the beginning of the Mt. Hood clock at the other bookend of daylight. We tailgated with some Pringles and a few sips of Rainier before the frigid alpine twilight drove us into the truck.

At a certain point I noticed it was back. The desire to run for the fun of it. Mileage and routine lost much of their importance. It’s like you look over to your right and the copilot is suddenly there again. I returned to Jeju with a newfound direction for my running. Fitting that I found it again in Prefontaine’s Pacific Northwest.

There have been a few setbacks. A race that I was planning for turned out to be on Parent’s Day so I had to scratch that plan. A shooting pain down my right arm that turned out to be a pinched nerve caused by a crooked neck laid me up for a week. With each setback I kicked back. Last weekend I found myself at the base of one of the Mount Halla trails. The familiar trailhead was fairly quiet in the 6am light. The morning felt fresh and my legs felt fresher. I grinned and started my watch before flying up into the forest, arms and hands playfully swaying as if they were painting the very trees into existence.

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Four on the Fourth Pt. II

A few months back, I was asked to write a follow-up to my initial post on the Four on the Fourth. On the eve of the race I thought I would post it. A ton has changed since I wrote this, and it feels like the world is hurtling toward a clearing. As it turns out, I’ll be lacing up my shoes and running the race in person tomorrow in my hometown. Nonetheless, I still thought these reflections to be worthwhile.

The days have stacked on top of each other like thin sheets of paper. In waiting for the return to what we had a book of experience has formed. It can be hard to read the pages, time feeling both brief and elongated.

The news is the same on the English language Korea news site. Everyday the editors find inventive ways to talk about virus numbers. The numbers go up and down and up again. One day in the 300’s, one day in the 400’s. Back to the 300’s. Hope has been anesthetized by boredom and repetition. Waiting has become a habit that I take for granted. It’s a privileged routine, but still a tedious one.

I wake up and run 10km every day before work, training for nothing in particular, snapping photos of the sunrise from the same spot at the same time each morning. And so it’s another March with the same spring weather, the same blossoms, the same return to green. Jeju starts to wake up. The picture I take imperceptibly grows brighter.

I receive the news of a widespread vaccine distribution with the weight of a year of waiting. It’s warming but so distant. Hope shouted from halfway around the world. Who knows when it will reach Korea. It could be another year. But, in the midst of it I receive an email that brings it more into focus.

It’s the race director, Bill Graham, from my hometown race, the Four on the 4th. He’s read my previous piece on the run, and is hopeful about this year’s return to a more normal event. There will be a virtual option, but also potential runners side-by-side in the streets of small town Bridgton.

It conjures up a memory of red, white and blue–tank tops, hats, bumper stickers, flags–flooding the street like vivid paint on a sunny day. The race’s waiting corral packed with anticipation. Thousands of tight springs waiting to be released. The national anthem, a gunshot, and then the joy of running. Falling in with a pack and sprinting away from the noise of main street into the quiet backroads of a small town. Enjoying the freedom of movement.

The race has always been a benefit to raise money for the local library since it began in 1977. The course has shifted from time to time–the starting place moving from a couple’s doorstep, to the golf course and eventually to downtown. It traces four miles through the heart of the small town. There were no more drastic changes, however, as in 2020 when I found myself running my hometown race “virtually” along the Han River in Seoul. I was a lone maniac sucking breath, trying for a fast time as I dodged the leisurely joggers. My time fell well short of my goal, but I called it good enough.

It was a fleeting connection to the streets of my town as I snapped a blurry selfie and sent it to my family, joking that I was the first one to the finish line. There’s nothing like that last mile in Bridgton, coming down main street while you’re pumping air. The smell of hot dogs, the flashes of yellow from the Lion’s Clubs Great Bridgton Duck Race, the library on the right. Seeing familiar faces in the crowd blur by. The final turn onto depot street where you spring toward the loudspeaker that blares the same classic rock tunes that have been a soundtrack to small town life for 40 years. The drama of a real finish line.

There’s a meaning to this race that transcends others that I have run. Even though it’s a race full of “out-of-towners”, the race still manages to bring everyone into its fold. Rich folks emerge from the solitude of their summer lake houses, summer campers drive their kids in droves to the starting line, locals take a short walk down to the starting line, and returners like myself show up for the mixing pot of the race.

Other races lack this community. Big events with corporate sponsors and plastic goodie bags full of swag. There’s a personal touch to the Four on the 4th that elevates it. Even the elite pack at the front stick around at the finish line, chewing on watermelon and catching up with old acquaintances. It’s a race that brings you back.

What is it that makes the Four on the 4th a little different? Perhaps it’s the seed that was planted at the race’s inception. The idea that we are running to raise money for the library. The library itself is a brick building in the center of downtown surrounded by tall sentinel oak trees. It’s a town mainstay that’s easily taken for granted. It’s a physical and intellectual guidepost.

Growing up, I didn’t run the race. I never fancied myself a runner, and in my teenage years I wanted to be anywhere besides Bridgton. An event that brought the town together was something to avoid. My friends and I invented a harmless counterculture of guitar playing, kicking around skateboards and late night drives. We weren’t into partying in high school, and so we had to find creative ways to spend our time. Bands with names like The Warbirds and The Sneakies formed. We were more interested in the quiet nighttime stage of the small town than seeing the whole town’s population in the light of day. Late night talks on lawns or by lakes about how we were going to get out.

And eventually I did get out. It’s my tenth year living in Asia, but I’ve had the chance most years to return to Bridgton in the summer. The race has become a yearly ritual that will continue this year (whether it be virtual or in person). There’s meaning in returning to grounding points. The revisiting of old sign posts spark insight. I’ve shifted from small town escapism to appreciation.

I used to be more intense about my training, designating specific workouts for speed or endurance. Now I take a more patient approach, taking what my body gives me on my runs. I usually get in a daily run, but don’t feel the need to force it. I enjoy the movement and the daily accomplishment of distance. I’m slowly settling into something more manageable.

The Four on the 4th is a testament to the power of intention and tradition. A race that started with the goal of bettering its community has continued to cultivate community. Its runners get a small taste of that intention and carry it with them–new seeds to be planted wherever they are in the world. The race will keep going, building upon itself each year, writing its story. The oak trees will continue to grow and stand guard. I’ll be running the race this year whether it’s in Bridgton or Korea. In the meantime the library’s bricks and the asphalt of main street will wait patiently for the race’s yearly return.

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A Year Without Treadmills

My 2020 round of running started in Portland, Oregon. While visiting my brother there, we set off into the city on a long run, moving from his residential locale to the iron and glass of downtown. In the intervening zone, we passed an oil change center, a destitute mall, tents on sidewalks, graffiti under a bridge. The grit of the dreary Pacific Northwest muted by clouds and the threat of rain. We hit the river and crossed Steel Bridge, feet pinging on the grated metal. I looked down and saw the river flickering through the tiny openings.

We meandered through the city. Up the gondola to the hospital where he works, then down the hill on winding roads to a farmer’s market. We greedily ate some food cart tamales that smoked in the chilly air, then hit a donut shop.

“You should sell a running food tour of Portland!” I joked as we made our way back to the river. His beard framed a grin. Then over the Hawthorne bridge–the bridges curvature making the ascent seem protracted as we dodged bikers and runners. The suspension bridge stretched time. Eventually we were descending. And then back to his house. 21 kilometers in the books.

At some point, I decided to give up treadmills (or the “dreadmill” as runners jokingly call it). Maybe it was my two years in Shanghai that burned me out on them–countless hours spent pounding away on the spinning mat while an air filter whirred next to me. Hiding out from toxic air. Watching episodes of old HBO shows that I had missed while I sprinted. I watched all of The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Wire. Eventually the treadmill mat formed a hole big enough for me to slip my running shoe through.

On that fraternal morning run through Portland, I decided to avoid the treadmill for the year. It would be a challenge. Each kilometer would be earned by a step on soil or concrete or gravel or tree root. From Oregon I went to Hawaii for a few days before journeying back to Jeju. Runs up to Diamond Head Crater and Ala Moana Park. Grinning through the rain showers that would come and go a few times in one run. The thrill of exploration, pushing it just one more kilometer, one more kilometer, before I decided to turn around and make my way back.

There is a different feeling when mapping out a new route in a strange land. The body is attuned to elevation, turns in the road, intersections, noises, and weather. The brain processes a million stimuli as the body cruises. This is rewarded with the awe of new sights. Topping Diamond Head Crater or coming around a bend to stunning views of a jagged coastline. There is something about the novelty that pushes the body. The mind converts new stimuli into running fuel. Discovery.

Upon arrival in Jeju after vacation, my running regimen resumed. Approximately 80km a week on the farm roads around my apartment. Early morning slogs through chilly morning air. Post work 5k’s to blow off steam. At this point, after seven years of running these roads, every turn could be anticipated. Every distance had been mapped. The trees and cracks in the pavement all familiar. I began each weekday morning with some light yoga and a 10km loop, snapping a photo of the sunrise each time from my favorite spot. The weekends were reserved for longer runs and surf sessions. Sundays were a chance to run my favorite Jeju trail to check in with horses that hang out on a nearby oreum.

During my runs, I’ll put on music or an audiobook. I’ve worked my way through a small library of books on my runs over the years. Recently I’ve noticed a strange effect. Vivid scenes from these books will come back to me mid-run. I’ll spot a stone wall or a familiar bend in the road and it will trigger a memory from one of these listening sessions. They are always incredibly random scenes that spring from the depths of memory: one of the jester scenes from Hartley and Hewson’s reworking of Hamlet or one of the heated debates about colonialism from Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun. Books that were listened to and buried five years ago are brought into vivid forefront from a stone wall, a tree, a farmer’s barn.

I wonder how much of our memory is tied to place. What is the biological function of this? This year has been a forced exploration of the stationary, but it has bolstered my memory. These repetitive runs reinforce the stories that I listen to, and ask me to revisit them. Connecting to an oral tradition with moving feet and headphones. As I run, I hang memories from the trees and hide them in rock crevices to be discovered later. This is done without realizing it. Memory becomes blended with the local landscape. A library hiding out in the orchards.

On my bucket list is the dream of running across the entirety of the USA, coast to coast. The romantic idea of plodding along day after day toward the other edge of the country. It looks poetic from a distance, tracing a mental line.

The running app that I use spits out my year end totals in December. This year I ran 3,858 kilometers with 65,161 meters in elevation gain. That’s nine Everests. That’s enough distance to get me from Cali to North Carolina, ocean to ocean.

But this year most of my miles were spent on loops, exploring the familiar. No outward discovery, only an inward one. And that type of discovery is more arduous and slow to come by. Repeated scenes and turns in the road might be growth or stagnancy. It takes time to decipher which.

I’ve stumbled upon a certain genre of YouTube video in my watching algorithm lately. It’s thru-hikers who condense their journey into an hour of footage. It seems like these videos have certain conventions: the thrill of the journey’s beginning, a few moments of desperation, the finding of quiet on the trail, friends met along the way, the thrill of finishing. Classic hero’s journey stuff. Each video always ends with some maudlin reflection about humankind’s relationship to nature and tries to eke out an epiphany. The journey definitely had value, but it’s clear that it’s near-impossible to put into words. These videos try though. It’s fascinating to me.

It makes me wonder what purpose a thru-hike or a run across the USA would serve. One of the most insightful comments made in one of the YouTube videos was in a candid moment in which a delirious hiker addressed the camera on the verge of tears. It was late in his journey on the Appalachian Trail and he starts talking about the trail speaking to him. “I’ve realized that I don’t confront things in the moment as much as I should. You know what? I’m going to be better about that.” It was a simple but sincere observation. The journey hadn’t given him special overarching insight, but had provided perspective on what he needed to work on in the real world. He had arrived at a starting place.

3,858 kilometers in 2020. I wonder if this distance would have served a different inner-purpose if spread across the entirety of my home country. I think there is something to be said for making the time for such a sole pursuit. Maybe there will be a day for that. In the mean time, I keep plodding along through the orange orchards, tilling connections to my home soil.

One of my last runs of 2020 was in mid-blizzard. Jeju snows differently than most places. It comes in waves of wind and white-out, punctuated occasionally by gaps of blue sky framed by tangerine clouds. I ventured out into the sideways snow, intending to do a 10km run at most. But as I got to a fork in the road I went left, extending the run. I knew that this was committing to at least 14km. And then at another turn-off I went left again, extending to a half marathon. I felt wild taking slugs from my water bottle, stomping my feet into snow-drifts. When the wind and snow kicked in hard I whooped and hollered, letting the Jeju wind rip the sound from my lips and disperse it across the orchards. Despite the familiar trail I thought for a moment that, “This was discovery. It might even beat Hawaii. It sure as hell beats a treadmill.”

each footstep’s handshake

greeting new and old terrain

body over land

Recommended reading (both are read by the author on Audible)

Barbarian Days by William Finnegan

Sigh, Gone: A Misfit’s Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In by Phuc Tran

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What I’m Carrying

Since August I’ve been counting down the daylight. Each morning during my run, I stop at the same spot to snap a quick photo and track the changes of the sunrise. The sun shifts a bit more each day to the southeast–rising a few seconds later. Finally we’ve reached the turnaround. The days will start to grow again. We cautiously embark on a new year. More daylight starts to sink in.

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Heart Beat

I remember hearing a podcast about how cities have different tempos. Some are slow and methodical (Kyoto comes to mind) while others are on the more frantic end of the spectrum. It has something to do with the molecules within a city agitating each other into a more frenetic rhythm the more busy and crowded a city becomes. I imagine that Shanghai–a city known for its population, nightlife, and neon–possesses the tempo of an ear-throbbing techno song.

A year into living there, I had settled into a modicum of comfort with the city’s pace. The push and shove of the subway’s snaking masses had become second nature. I could weave through a crowd in rhythm to the music on my headphones. Loud yells and bells and blurs of light had settled into a picture that I could make more sense of. It had taken time, but I was finally starting to wrap my mind around the city.

Jing’an Temple, Shanghai

At the beginning of that second year, I bit of more than I could chew at work. There was an ambitious initiative that needed a lot of groundwork to be laid. Free moments were spent thinking, planning, scheduling, writing. As my picture of the city started to settled down, my internal tempo began to quicken. Work, like it had done before, began to seep into the free moments of my life. But still I’d plan outings into the city that felt more like missions–trips with a deliberate purpose in mind.

A lot of time in China seemed to be spent in large malls. There were endless floors of shops with restaurants always on the upper levels. Massive ornate displays of Jeff Koons-like contemporary art seemed always on display. The malls were always sparkling clean and milling with people. Whirring cogs of commerce.

It was during one of these forays into a downtown mall that I picked up a new Garmin GPS watch. My old one had developed problems after a year, and for some reason I found myself buying another one of their unreliable watches. This time I stood at the kiosk staring down at a model of watch that shot green lasers onto the upper part of the wrist to somehow detect your heart rate. This was a feature that I had no use for. At frequent times I resented the watch that I did have, and questioned the wisdom of even tracking my miles in the first place. At the same time, I felt the anticipation of regret if I didn’t shell out the extra money for this slick feature. Besides, I was a modern man living in a modern city. I deserved something a bit more classy. In the end, I got the watch with the heart rate monitor.

That Monday at work, I caught the watch face on a doorframe leaving a room and left a little scratch that is still there. My heart sank, and I kicked myself for carelessness. This new shiny device was already tainted. But the laser feature seemed to work, and I continued to check it with interest. Work continued to surround me, and I plugged away through my routine. I’d run, work, gym, eat, work, sleep, repeat. My movements became almost machine-like and I began to assess my routine for inefficiency. Everything began to feel like clockwork. My running times got faster. I had a treadmill in my kitchen that I could hammer out a 10 mile run on in an hour and ten.

And then I began to notice something on my watch. The resting heart rate was low, under 40 beats per minute. On some days it was at 32. Just for reference, a healthy heart rate is between 60 and 100. A small pit began to spin together in the pit of my stomach. I had heard of athletes’ heart rates being lower, some even around 40, but this seemed abnormal. Of course I ignored it, and jumped back into the routine. Run, work, gym, eat, etc. etc.

But the heart rate stayed the same. And the pit in my stomach spun into something a little larger each day. I decided to see my doctor–a chilled out Californian who had pictures of himself doing yoga on the wall. His bedside manner was some of the worst I’d seen in the industry. He’d make a noise like, “hmm…” and then give a long pause, letting you really soak in the silence before he’d say “oh yes this is common.”

But he was kind and competent, and I can be fiercely loyal to even small hints of kindness, so I found myself going back to him for issues that arose. I found myself in his small office showing him my watch and asking him about my heart rate. He paused for many moments with a puzzled expression before suggesting, “well we could do an EKG?” The statement was poised in a way that could have either been whimsy or medical advice. Either way it was covered by insurance, so I found myself in another small room, electrodes being placed onto my chest. I put on my shirt, walked out into the lobby and waited. There is a vulnerability to waiting rooms. The quiet anticipation of judgment from the doctor while what feels like judicial deliberation is happening behind closed doors. As if there’s a panel of people in a huddle back there whispering, “Will we give this one good news or bad news?”

My name was called, and it was back into the small room, my racing mind bracing for the worst. This suddenly felt like a very real test that could throw some very real truth my way. The doctor looked inscrutably at the test and said the words “incomplete right bundle branch block” and then looked at me and really let them sink in. In addition to sounding like a bad grade school tongue twister, it also sounded terrible in conjunction with the heart. Something was blocked? Something was incomplete? What the hell was going on here? Maybe he detected my panic, or maybe not, but he decided with nonchalance to fill me in. “It’s common. It could be the result of an infection when you were little. A lot of people have this. It’s probably nothing to worry about.”

Probably: that word that lodges itself into your brain and then slowly starts to needle. It’s a seed of doubt that spreads slowly over time. There’s a strong chance that everything is fine, but the probably is always there, tugging at your pant’s leg. The doctor definitely sensed my inner panic this time and said with atypical assertiveness, “Maybe we should do a holter test to make sure.”

I came back the next day to get outfitted, the thirty minute ride in the DiDi (think Chinese Uber) was starting to feel common place. I went to work and then I went to the doctor’s office. The receptionists were starting to recognize me. I felt a sick comfort in my “regular” status.

Wearing a holter is like wearing the most obvious wire in the world. It’s a box with electrodes that stick to the chest. I walked around for a day like the world’s worst spy. Yet still nobody noticed the outline of wires under my shirt, or the chunky remote control in my pocket. The results came via e-mail a few days later and were concerning to my eyes. My heart rate was getting down to 29BPM. At no point did it exceed 120BPM. It stopped for 2 seconds or more over 105 times. The report included words like “sinus arrest” and “junctional escape.” And at the very end the words, “Suggest to see a cardiologist for the further assessment.”

I distinctly remember listening to Bill Callahan’s incredible tune Too Many Birds as I walked up to the specialized clinic high rise in the glowing metropolis downtown. I listened to that song on repeat a lot at that time. My headphones kept out the city’s ambiance and I could focus on the songs groove. The bass and drums low-key churn providing a backdrop to Callahan’s guttural deadpan that delivered gut-punch lyrics with a soothing unhurried tempo. The premise of the song is simple: a tree full of birds. Eventually there isn’t room for the last bird. I don’t know why he picked this image, but it’s a striking one. “One last bird and then another.” And then he builds the final line, saying it again and again, adding a new word each time: “If you could only stop your heartbeat for one heartbeat.” The line is a question and a statement and a yearning all in one. With that line ringing in my body, I walked into the clinic to see the cardiologist.

Yes, I’m aware that it’s messed up that it took a GPS watch to tell me that something was wrong. As an ultra runner, I spend lot of time checking in with my body for aches and pains, things to tune up. But these micro issues are sometimes pointing to something larger. It’s easy to get caught in the tempo of what surrounds you. The noise and rhythm can get so loud that you forget all about the drum that is causing them.

In the end, the cardiologist said that there was nothing structurally wrong with my heart. She said that I should exercise less, only 40 minutes a day (advice which I promptly ignored). My heart went from something that I was constantly monitoring, trying to sense signs of danger or abnormality, to something that I could once again leave to its own devices.

I still wear the watch–it cost a small fortune after all–but I find myself checking it less and less these days. My pulse returned to more normalcy after that chaotic year. I always had a hunch that it was stress related, the compaction of responsibility and schedule squeezing my heart beats into forced efficiency. It’s becoming easier to carve out time for the important things in life that allow space for the molecules to roam. Maybe its Jeju or maybe it’s more of an inner change. Either way, I find myself wandering in my free time a lot more, letting time unravel at its own pace. The scratch on the watch face doesn’t even bother me anymore.

Nighttime dancers at Fuxing Park

Recommended listening: Bill Callahan Too Many Birds

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