Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Other Side of the Cold War

In the fall semester of my sophomore year at UMKC, I completed an assignment for my American History 102 class that required us to interview someone we knew about an event in American history. I chose to talk to my dad about his experiences in the Air Force from 1960-64. I heard all these stories growing up, but for whatever reason, never really identified my dad as a war-time veteran — and I never once even thought to wish him a happy Veteran's Day or thank him... until one day in November 2009 when, after a stroke rehabilitation session, he returned with tears in his eyes and told me his PT had wished him a happy Veteran's Day.

So here's a quick history lesson — a blast from my own past, written by my 19-year-old self 16 years ago — and a Thank You to the veterans of the Cold War.

by Kristi Gulick
American History 102
December 4, 1998

“A lot of people today don’t believe the ‘Cold War’ was a real war. Some of them might even think it was a big publicity stunt that was dreamed up by politicians and Big Business. They are wrong,” said Gary Gulick, a former member of an Air Force intelligence operation during the early 1960s (Gulick interview).

In his remembrances of the Cold War era, Gulick described a side of this period in American history which is not usually recorded in textbooks. The average encyclopedia article, such as Compton’s Encyclopedia, describes the Cold War in vague terms. It links the era to more concrete events, such as the 1946 speech given by Winston Churchill, which first described an “iron curtain” of Communism. The article points to treaties and conferences, like the Yalta Conference or the Warsaw Pact. It describes “hot spots” of the Cold War, such as the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and the Berlin Wall.

Articles like the one in Compton’s make little or no mention of what was happening at and behind the Iron Curtain. They do not address Francis Gary Powers and the “U-2 Incident.” And they certainly do not include references to the 252 American airmen who were shot down along Soviet and Chinese borders between 1950 and 1970 (Stanglin, et al). One reason for the general silence over the 138 airmen still unaccounted for (ibid) is that the information surrounding these incidents has been—and much still is—classified information. The United States government vehemently denied most military spy activity in Soviet airspace during the Cold War. This denial included a speech by Dwight D. Eisenhower during a news conference in May 1960 (Internet, 1998).

Despite these denials, though, the information has gradually fallen into public hands since the official close of the Cold War in the early 1990s. This information, some of which was brought to public light by a joint-investigation effort of US News and World Report and ABC News’ Primetime Live, has confirmed what Gulick has known for decades: “Shots were fired. Things were blown up. Soldiers were killed. Oh, it was a war all right.” (Gulick interview)

In August of 1960, Gulick joined the United States Air Force, expecting to be taught a vocational skill, such as how to be a mechanic or “something useful like that.” Instead, he was given aptitude tests and it was determined he would be ideal for learning a foreign language.

“I studied Russian ten hours a day for nine months and came away fairly comfortable with the language,” said Gulick. “I still didn’t know what the Air Force wanted me to do—because it was highly classified information—but I was sure it had something to do with the Cold War.” Gulick was given the job of “voice-information processing specialist,” which he described as being “an electronic spy, eavesdropping on the radio transmissions of Russian air-force pilots and ground controllers.”

Gulick was sent to the front line of the Iron Curtain from February 1961 to August 1964, where he found himself in the midst of the Cold War. Gulick was stationed in Germany when President John F. Kennedy came to Berlin and gave his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner!” speech. He was there when the Berlin Wall was built. While stationed at a remote site in Turkey, Gulick listened to the radio transmissions and watched the image of the on-board camera of a spacecraft as Soviet Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. It was also during his stint in Europe that Gulick experienced a part of the Cold War that few civilians even knew existed.

“I listened and recorded Russian radar operators at early-warning sites in East Germany and Poland as they tracked US military aircraft that were meandering along their borders,” said Gulick. “And from time to time, one of those aircraft would take a sharp turn and penetrate their airspace, flying in a straight line toward some city or military objective. And the Russian radar operators would issue the full alert and the Russian air-defense commonly would scramble several flights of fighter planes and the Russian pilots would begin their search-party conversations.”

Gulick related one of these typical dialogues, which he eavesdropped over Soviet radio signals, as Russian pilots sought out the intruding American plane: “I don’t have him in sight, yet. Where is he now? Give me the vectors. Wait a minute, I think I’ve got him on my on-board radar. Yes! Lock on! I have him! I have the target! Permit me to arm my weapons! Permit me...Okay! I’m arming my weapons! I’m attacking, I’m attacking! There! I got him! I got him! He’s going down, down, down...”

Gulick said the morning following one of these American aircraft downings, the typical explanation in the Stars and Stripes newspaper would be: “A US Air Force twin-engine reconnaissance airplane with three people on board was shot down yesterday afternoon after a navigational error led the pilot to accidentally overfly the East German border.”

“We knew different, of course,” said Gulick. “We in the 6910th Radio Group Mobile knew that the ‘reconnaissance plane’ had been flying an assigned mission that was intended to test the Russian early-warning radar and air-defense readiness.”

While Gulick was living the reality of the Cold War, the United States government concealed this reality from the public. Between 1950 and 1970, 252 American airmen were shot down, 24 died, 90 were recovered alive, and 138 are, to this day, unaccounted for (Stanglin). Before this information was uncovered in the early 1990s, most Americans were aware of only one American aircraft shootdown during the Cold War. This was the downing of Francis Gary Powers and his U-2 aircraft 1,200 miles inside the Soviet Union borders on May 1, 1960 (Norton, et al, 864).

The “U-2 Incident” was made public by the Soviet Union, with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev demanding an apology from the United States for violation of Soviet airspace (ibid). The United States issued a note to the USSR on May 6, stating “a United States National Aeronautical Space Agency unarmed weather research plane based at Adana, Turkey, and piloted by a civilian American has been missing since May 1.” (Internet, 1998) In later correspondence over the matter, the United States tentatively admitted the plane may have been in Soviet airspace for intelligence-gathering purposes, but refused an apology at a Paris summit meeting two weeks after Powers’ plane went down (Norton).

Although Powers was safely returned to American custody, the government had to provide the public with an explanation for the downing of this American plane over Soviet territory. In a news conference statement on May 11, 1960, President Eisenhower explained the need for intelligence-gathering activities: “No one wants another Pearl Harbor.” Eisenhower used this World War II incident, which struck anger and fear into any American’s heart, as rhetoric for justifying spy activity, which he called “a distasteful but vital necessity.” He also told the American people, “(Intelligence-gathering activities) are divorced from the regular, visible agencies of government... We do not use our Army, Navy, or Air Force for this purpose, first, to avoid any possibility of the use of force in connection with these activities and, second, because our military forces, for obvious reasons, cannot be given latitude under broad directives but must be kept under strict control in every detail.” (Internet, 1998)

Three months later, Gulick would join the Air Force—one of the agencies which was, according to Eisenhower, not associated with any intelligence-gathering activity—and be trained to listen to Soviets chasing down American aircraft over USSR territory.

US News and World Report wrote in March 1993, “Although Washington admitted to only a single violation of Soviet airspace with the Gary Powers spy flight, intelligence documents and interviews with former government officials show that the penetrations were numerous—and deliberate.

These flights were typically called “ferret” flights, intended to identify the locations, capabilities, and response times of Soviet electronic and radar defenses along borders. As many as 20,000 spy missions were launched, mostly, by the United States Air Force, Navy, and the Central Intelligence Agency, from 1950 through the late 1960s (Stanglin).

A list of published Cold War shootdown incidents, complied by Robert L. Goldrich, a specialist in national defense with the Foreign Affairs and National Defense Division, gives details of a handful of these ferret flights that did not go as planned. One of the earlier incidents occurred in 1951, when a US Navy aircraft was lost near Vladivostok. The report states: “This aircraft was apparently shot down by Soviet fighters either over international waters about 20 miles from Vladivostok, USSR (according to the United States) or over Vladivostok (according to the Soviets).” In this shootdown, no survivors and no remains were recovered of a crew of ten (Goldrich).

The list continues, relating incidents of American survivors being turned over to the US government by Soviet authorities. Sometimes the Soviets admitted to firing upon the American plane and the United States apologized and said the plane’s purpose was weather research, or gave some other benign explanation. Other times, no survivors or bodies were recovered, and the Soviet Union denied ever attacking the plane (Goldrich).

This deadly dance of secrecy and suspicion continued between the US and the USSR for nearly 50 years. A fear of nuclear attack—of “another Pearl Harbor”—kept the Iron Curtain drawn, armed, and patrolled in the duration of the Cold War. Today, encyclopedias may not recognize the lives which were lost during this, technically, “peace-time” period. But as the information about airmen who died in this cold conflict is slowly declassified and uncovered, maybe more people will see the side of the Cold War that Gulick experienced.

“How many soldiers and sailors and airmen have to be killed before you can call it a war?” asked Gulick. “As many as 50,000? Or as few as 800? Or maybe only 150?

“One thing is certain: The men and women who served their country in the military during the Cold War deserve as much recognition as those who served during other conflicts. After all, they were there, nose to nose with the armed forces of the Soviet Union. It wouldn’t have taken too much to get things really hot. They would have been the first to die—and they knew it.”


“Cold War.” Compton’s Encyclopedia. Compton’s Learning Company, 1998. [Online]. Available Internet: http://www.encyclopedia.com

Goldrich, Robert L., ed. “Published Cold War Shootdown Incidents.” AII POW-MIA Web page, 1992. [Online] Available Internet: http://www.aiipowmia.com/cw1.html

Gulick, Gary. Interview by the author. November 27, 1998.

Internet. “Francis Gary Powers, the U-2, US & USSR.” AII POW-MIA Web page, 1998. [Online] Available Internet: http://www.aiipowmia.com/powers.html

Norton, Mary Beth, et al. A People and a Nation, 5th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998.

Stanglin, Douglas, et al. “Secrets of the Cold War,” US News & World Report. March, 1993. Source: Infotrac.

Friday, January 18, 2013

That "Documentation" Thing

During a recent exchange with Mary Nemecek, we stumbled onto the topic of written bird descriptions. The general question was just how long of a description can one manage when compiling a written documentation? Well, maybe that wasn't really Mary's question, but she did indicate that it might be useful to her to take a peek at what happens when Kristi Mayo sits down to document a rare bird.

So, in the interest of helping Mary and probably frightening many others, what follows is possibly the longest documentation known to man ... or, at least, the longest one I could find in a quick search of my records.

Back in September 2010, I crossed paths with a very rare and difficult-to-identify bird. Well, it was difficult for me to identify, at least. The process of identifying that bird is well documented in this previous blog entry. The situation was unique, because at the time, I had done very little reading on jaeger identification. I didn't know what details were important and what details were irrelevant to the identification of an immature jaeger. So, from the outset, I aimed to make notes before delving into the field guides. The result was probably one of the most un-biased set of field notes I have ever compiled.

After the dust had settled and I was confident that Long-tailed Jaeger was the correct identification, I had to sit down and submit my written documentation—along with a detailed set of photographs and video—to the Missouri Bird Records Committee (MBRC). When writing my description, I tried to include useful details such as:

- size, especially in comparison to nearby known species
- structure
- behavior
- general impression

...and, of course, a careful description of the bird. When writing a description, I try to walk the reader through the bird from head to tail and from bill to legs. In the case of a complex identification such as a jaeger, I was extremely thorough; in a less difficult identification—or, admittedly, one I wasn't so darn excited about—my description might not be so long. Since I had multiple observations of this bird, each at different distances, I was careful to report my impressions at each range. The impression at 1/2 mile can be just as important as the impression of a bird in the hand.

Did I really need to write the (possibly) longest written doc known to man? After all, there were lots of pictures taken of this bird, and it was seen by many observers. So no, I probably didn't need to write this much in order for it be accepted by the MBRC. But, it was good practice, because we're not that lucky in every observation. Sometimes you see a bird only for a few moments, and a photograph isn't possible. Or maybe the photograph is fuzzy. Maybe the photo doesn't show key details like the spread wing, the rump, or the lores. The more thorough your written documentation becomes, the more likely you are to include the key details that will confirm your identification, with or without photographic support. And, the more you scribble those field notes and strive to throughly scrutinize that avian rarity before diving into your field guides—Oh! it's so tempting to go to the books first!—the more you are going to learn.

Description of the Bird

This bird was first observed on 16 September 2010 at about 17:00. It was in flight at a long distance (1/2 mile) for the vast majority of that observation. On 17 September, I returned and watched the bird almost continuously through my scope for two hours, this time having my best views when the bird sat down on the water and preened at a distance of about 400 yards. On 19 September, I rented a boat and captured photographs within 30 yards. On 20 September, on a scheduled boat tour of the lake with Burroughs Audubon Society members, we were able to get the bird within 10 or 20 feet of the boats, and at one point it was within an arm’s length from me.
Gull-like bird. In direct comparison to Ring-billed Gulls at close range (10 feet), the bird was lighter in structure and slightly smaller. With indirect comparison, it seemed similar in size to a Franklin’s Gull (which came near the boat just before and after the jaeger). Also seen at a distance (1/2 mile) in direct comparison to Sabine’s Gull (Sabine’s Gull appeared to be smaller than the jaeger) and Osprey (Osprey’s wingspan appeared less than twice as long as the jaeger).
Flight varied from slow flaps and glides, soaring and circling on thermals for long periods of time, and then folding wings to drop quickly to lower altitude, then accelerating in a more direct, powerful flight when pursuing other birds. At a distance, flight struck me as being falcon-like, not particularly buoyant, but overall very similar to a gull’s familiar movement. Wings backswept. An aerodynamic appearance, fairly deep-chested, tapering to a long tail, with the body and tail’s projection behind the wings being about twice the length of the head’s projection in front of the wings.
Even at 400 yards, the head appeared small, with a dove-headed appearance, and large dark eye. Bill small, bluish gray base with black tip. At close range (10 feet), the black at the tip bleeds down the cutting edge of the mandibles. Black tip about 1/2 the length of the bill. The actual nail was shorter than the total of the black tip, about 1/3 the length of the bill. Nostril, positioned behind the nail and gonys, was approximately at the center of the bill, with the back end of the nostril being closer to the base of the bill than the tip of the bill. Fairly shallow gonydeal angle. At 400 yards, face appeared very pale buff with pale buff above eye and around base of bill. Darker, grayish buff on forehead and top of head, forming a slightly “capped” appearance. Nape pale buff. At close range, faint streaking on face, nape, and neck.
Lower neck and upper breast clean grayish buff with some reddish-brown tones detected when in flight (less noticeable in direct, intense sunlight). Darker breast band very obvious in flight and at a distance, cleanly separating the pale buff head from the pale buff sides and belly. Snow-white base to feathers (exposed when preening). Sides barred with grayish-buff barring, relatively indistinct and difficult to see at a distance and at certain angles. Clean, black-and-white barring on flanks, undertail, and rump. 
Back contrasts with head and underparts. Dark brown or blackish (at a distance). At close range, each feather on the back and wings neatly tipped with pale, grayish-buff edges that are similar in tone to the face and breast. At a distance (400 yards), this gives a paler appearance to the coverts and scapulars, which contrast with the darker primaries and secondaries. Pale edging to the greater coverts creates, at a distance, the appearance of a pale line or very narrow bar that runs the length of the wing. Front edge of the wing has a crisp, pale, line, usually only apparent when the bird is viewed head-on in flight. Primaries 10, 9, and 8 with a pale shaft. My notes from 17 September show that at a distance of 400 yards, the pale shaft was only apparent on P10 and 9 (observed in flight and while preening). Underwing neatly barred and marbled black and white, similar in tone to the barring on the flanks and tail coverts. Pale base to the primaries created a variable white patch on the underside of the wing, which seemed more pronounced at a distance and changed in intensity depending on the bend and action of the wing. 
Tail dark brown or black, rounded. Two central rectrices project noticeably beyond the rest of the tail. At a distance, the shape of the feathers were seen very well when the bird preened its tail. Central rectrices rounded at the ends. At close range, the tips of the rectrices were edged in white. 
Legs and feet (observed at very close range) pink with black webbing, giving the appearance of having been dipped in ink. 
Behavior: Incredibly fast flyer, capable of covering the entire distance of the lake in just a minute or two. Almost always flying very high, about 1.5 binocular views above the trees. Observed pursuing several Osprey, Ring-billed Gulls, and a juvenile Sabine’s Gull. The bird would dive on its target, sometimes pursuing it for a short distance. Harassment of other species did not last very long—perhaps 30 seconds at a time—and chases were never successful. Once, the bird dropped from a high altitude and sat on the water, picking at a fish that had apparently been spotted floating on the top of the water. At 9:45 a.m. on 17 September—presumably at the time of day when thermals begin to rise higher—the jaeger circled to a very high altitude and soared around making short, acrobatic movements and flicking its head—possibly catching insects—much like a Franklin’s Gull. On 20 September, the bird came within feet of a pontoon boat full of birders, eating popcorn that had been thrown out on the water.

Similar Species Discussion

First, this bird was aged as a juvenile by the presence of extremely clean, crisp, pale edging to all feathers (including primaries and tail).Juvenile Pomarine Jaeger was eliminated by size (this bird was the same size or smaller than a Ring-billed Gull, while Pomarine would be the same size or larger); the pale, grayish-buff edges to feathers and overall cold, grayish appearance (while Pomarine would tend to be darker and have warm, golden-buff edges to feathers); a “sweet”, small-billed look to the head (while Pomarine would be heavier billed with stronger gonydeal angle); the notably longer central rectrices (while Pomarine has a less-pronounced projection in the central rectrices); and the lack of any distinct white ?flash? on the underwing, where Pomarine has extensive white bases to the primaries that would be much more noticeable even at a distance. Juvenile Parasitic Jaeger was eliminated most definitively by excellent looks and images of the bill. The black in the bill extends to nearly 1/2 the total length of the bill, while Parasitic would show a black tip about 1/3 the length of the bill. The nostril is positioned at about the center-line of the bill, with the distance from the tip of the bill to the nostril being greater than the distance from the nostril to the base of the bill. In Parasitic, the nostril is positioned closer to the tip of the bill than the base of the bill. Additionally, in flight, this bird was broadest at the breast, tapering quickly to the tail, while Parasitic would appear more “pot-bellied” in flight. Parasitic tends to be darker with golden-buff edges to feathers. Parasitic shows a stronger white “flash” on the underwing and sometimes the upperwing, while this bird showed only a faint pale area on the underwing at certain angles. The two central rectrices were rounded, while Parasitic would have pointed central rectrices. Barring on the flanks of the Parasitic is less distinct and more uneven, compared to the very neat vertical, black-and-white barring of this bird. Parastic has 3-8 pale primary shafts, while this bird had 3 (only 2 visible at >400 yards).

Resources Used / Did they affect they way you wrote?

Sibley Guide to Birds (Sibley); Advanced Birding (Kaufman); Skuas and Jaegers (Olsen and Larsson); No—Documentation above is based largely on field notes take during a lengthy but distant observation on 17 Sept, prior to doing any in-depth reading or study. Documentation modified 25 September to include details observed at much closer range on 20 September.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

First 50 Mile: Heartland 50 2012

“I hope it rains its ass off on you all night, and I hope you have to poop twice.” My husband had quite the way of sending his wife off into her first 50-mile race.
His well wishes were based on the two concerns that I voiced on the 2.5-hour drive to Cassoday, Kansas for the start of the Heartland 50. First, I worried about rain. Every few minutes I checked the radar on my phone. The 100-mile runners—who started 12 hours before the 50 milers at 6 a.m.—had been hammered by several waves of heavy downpours and lightning throughout the day. Now, one final wave formed south of Wichita and pushed its way up the Kansas Turnpike, taking precise aim on Cassoday.
My other concern was the night-race element of the Heartland 50. Because the 50- and 100-mile races are run on the same out-and-back course, the race organization made the decision in 2011 to start the 50-mile race in the evening. That way, the 100-mile runners would have more people on the course to keep them company, and both races would be hitting the finish line within the same window.
Starting a race at 6 p.m. brought with it a host of questions: How do I eat during the day? What will my body do when it’s time to go to bed but instead I’m four hours into a ten- or 12-hour run? And what if I got into the kind of situation that Rick had encountered in one of his night races, involving multiple trips off road to … well … poop?
Thus, Rick’s wishes were bestowed upon me as we approached Cassoday, Kansas, “Prairie Chicken Capital of the World”. So it has been said, so it shall be done.
Somewhere Under the Rainbow
At 5:20—forty minutes from go-time—race director Kyle Amos attempted to call the pre-race briefing to order in front of an ominous curtain of billowing clouds and blackened sky. But as the strong gust-front hit the huddled mass of runners and gumball-sized raindrops smacked each of us in the face, he waved his hand in the direction of the muddy parking lot. “Go. Run back to your cars.” We all scattered.
For the next 30 minutes I sat in the Jeep, covered in goose bumps, trying to remind myself that at six o’clock I would start running 50 miles. It didn’t feel like it was going to happen. As the torrential downpour gave way to a steady rain, runners reemerged from their vehicles and moved back toward the start/finish area. It was time.
Rain moves away from the start of the 50-mile race.
(Photo Joell Chockley)
After the short briefing, the rain tapered to sprinkles, golden sunlight broke through the clouds in the west, and a full rainbow arched over the course. Kyle stood in his quiet way beside the timing clock, waiting for it to turn over to 12:00. We waited in awkward silence for some kind of indication that we should start running, and finally Kyle simply shooed us off: “Okay, you’re done. Go. Go run.”
We ran a quarter-mile on pavement, then turned onto the mushy gravel roads that would become so familiar over the next 50.5 miles. It occurred to me that I hadn’t used the port-a-potty to empty my nervous bladder before the start of the race because of the rain, so when I spied a stand of cedar trees—an oasis in the middle of the open prairie—I jumped at the chance for concealment. “You have to pee already?” laughed someone. “Yup!” I replied. By the time I came out of the trees, the entire field had passed me and I was in last place.
Over the next couple miles, I focused on trying to catch back up to the mid-packers, where I could see the orange shirt of Justin Chockley. We both had the same finishing goals (10 hours for a really good race, 11 hours for an okay race, 12 hours at the very least) and Justin planned on running as close to me as possible. This was fine with me, though I know what a rare thing it is for two people to be able to run together for the whole distance of an ultra. Regardless, I cruised through the field, trying to keep myself from going too fast, until I finally caught up with the orange shirt.
Sprinkles of rain gave way to overcast skies with sunshine filtering through. I swiveled my head left and right, taking in the many tones of orange and brown in the short-grass prairie, set off by the oranges and yellows of the setting sun. A pack of coyotes sang in the distance. Sparrows flitted across the road ahead of us. The wind—so often brutal out here—was relatively light and at our backs.
I looked at my Garmin and discovered the first five miles were already gone. For a moment I thought the watch must be malfunctioning, but eventually accepted the blessing of having fallen into a happy trance for the first 10% of the race.
As the sepia tones around us faded to gray dusk, Justin and I chatted comfortably and did our best to rein in our pace to 9:30 min/mile, in spite of the downhill trend to the course. It was on one of the longest downhill sections that the constant jarring elicited my first need to head off-road for a bathroom break. I told Justin that I would catch up. Poop Number 1: half way to fulfilling Rick’s wish.
I reached the Battle Creek aid station (mile 8.2) under the cover of complete darkness. Justin was still there. Phil Sheridan filled my water bottles with plain water, Stacy Sheridan gave me one of her patented hugs, and Justin and I headed back out into the night. Soon after leaving the aid station, the road lurched uphill and went from mushy mud to shoe-sucking mud. We pushed the hills at a power walk and ran the downhill sections. Unfortunately, those downhills got my gut rumbling again. I let Justin go for what would be the last time and headed into the ditch. Number two Number 2.
The Darkest Road
Alone. Fenced in by darkness. The wind picked up from the south and fluttered the top of my hat like Chinese water torture.
The course picked its way downhill from mile 10 to mile 16.8. I ran easily and tried to work through what was going wrong with my body while forever scanning the fences on either side of the road for an opening or a gate—anywhere I could get away from the road. Other runners were noticing my frequent trips off the road and I really didn’t want anyone keeping score. I was eating a Tri-Berry GU every 30 minutes. Taking an S-Cap about every 1.5 hours. Drinking plenty of water from my two handheld water bottles. So why was my stomach blowing up? I blamed the late hour. I blamed Rick for jinxing me. I blamed every single bit of food I had ingested in the last 48 hours.
The negativity built up until I wondered if I should even keep going when I reached the next aid station. I held that thought for a few seconds, turning it over in my mind to see how it felt.
Then I was powerwalking on a stretch of highway in Death Valley, my feet matching time with the determined steps of Tony Clark. One hundred and thirty-five miles through Death Valley with considerable intestinal distress, and he never complained.
And then I was standing in front of Rick Mayo at one of his many ultras, trying to be good crew and asking him questions and searching for the right food options and worrying about how he would keep going in spite of the discomfort he was experiencing. But Rick never stopped.
My conclusion, as I climbed over a pipe gate to contribute to the collection of cow pies: shit happens. This might slow me down, but as long as I kept eating and drinking, it wouldn’t stop me. Keep your baby wipes close and just keep going, I told myself. (Yes. Pun intended.)
Crew Logic
When I hit the Lapland aid station (mile 16.8), Rick and Justin’s wife, Joell, met me with quiet concern. Justin had relayed my situation when he came through a few minutes before. After my water bottles were filled at the aid station, we dug through my bag for ideas. Mostly the bag was filled with GU, with the exception of a couple Clif Shot Bloks and some Sport Beans.
“It’s the caffeine,” Rick decided. “It’s speeding everything up.” I was in a contrary mood, fairly determined that nothing was going to correct my situation and resigned to spending the rest of the race making regular trips off the road. But I accepted his diagnosis. Joell rushed back to the aid station to try to find some non-caffeinated gels.
“This is taking too long,” I said impatiently. Rick dropped a GU Brew tab into one of my bottles—the first time I’d had an electrolyte in my water during this race—and I left, apologizing for leaving before Joell could return.
Between Lapland and the 25-mile turnaround at the Teterville Road aid station, I made two more pit stops, but it began to feel like things were slowing down. I stopped eating the caffeinated GUs. The electrolytes in the GU Brew seemed to be helping, as well. Even though this 8-mile section runs mostly uphill, I was moving well and my mood was greatly improving. Now, front-pack 50-milers, along with 100-milers, were coming back toward me from the turnaround. Receiving and reciprocating encouragement created a welcome distraction.
Overhead, the clouds cleared away to reveal a vivid blanket of stars. The thunderstorm complex that had plagued the 100 milers all day continued to march north and east, pulsing with lightning on the horizon. For a short window, the wind dropped off and it went almost completely calm. Puffs of condensed breath billowed and hung in front of my face, harshly illuminated by my headlamp. The turnaround aid station pulled me in, and now I was actually smiling.
Fill-up at Teterville aid station
(Photo Rick Mayo)
At the Teterville aid station, Rick and Joell procured a handful of non-caffeinated GUs for me. Justin was just ten minutes ahead of me, so they were working together to crew us. “The hard part’s over,” Rick told me as I trotted away from the aid station.
Leaving Teterville, I was carried forward by adrenaline and a downhill section. Headlamps appeared on the road ahead, and through a combination of powerwalking and running, I would catch up and pass. Most of the people I caught up to were probably 100-milers well into the last quarter of their race, but it was still a great motivator.
A few miles outside of the Lapland aid station, I caught up to a familiar face. This runner—whose name I unfortunately didn’t catch—chatted with me for a short distance when I left Lapland the first time, but I had to let him go when I took another one of my side trips into the prairie. Now I caught up to him and we fell into strong powerwalk / run intervals. It was good to hear a voice other than those in my head. While we were walking, I realized I hadn’t had an S-Cap for a while and the ones in my race vest had disintegrated. I asked if he could spare one, and instead he handed me a small Ziploc bag full of S-Caps, saying he had more at the aid station. At the bottom of the hill into Lapland he hit a rough patch and told me to go on. I didn’t see him for the rest of the race, but hope he had a good finish.
"The hard part's over."
(Photo by Rick Mayo)
I was in and out of Lapland with more non-caffeinated GU and some “real” food that Rick stuffed into my arm sleeves, as well. After leaving Lapland aid station, you follow a well-maintained gravel road before turning west onto a chunkier, two-track gravel road. As I approached the turn, two runners stood there. They appeared to be waving glow sticks at me. A dog was barking. I wondered if the dog was threatening them, or if a skunk or other nefarious creature was blocking their path. Before I could catch up to find out, they took the turn and continued up the hill away from me.
As I stared ahead at the two runners, I realized fatigue was setting in. At this point, it was 1 a.m.—long past my usual bedtime. The runners must have been a 100-miler and his pacer; one ran upright, the other seemed to have a slight lean or limp. The reflective strips on the back of his jacket flashed at me, and soon my wary consciousness turned the scene into some freakish, jerky, stop-motion animation, sped up, with frames missing. The runners in front of me became living crash-test dummies. My five-year-old daughter Adrian has had nightmares about such things, and for a moment it became my living nightmare.
At last, the zombies disappeared over a ridge, and I was left alone with my single spot of light in the center of the dark prairie.
The mileage clicked over to 34 miles, and I was now in the twilight zone of my training, running farther than I had ever run before. I played with timed intervals, but my running intervals didn’t last very long and I grew discouraged. I had to make one more trip to fertilize the ditch (though this proved to be the sixth and final of that kind of detour). Then I hit a stretch of road where I had to urinate every 10 minutes. The wind turned to the west—straight into my face—and picked up to more than 20 miles per hour. It was still a warm night, though (about 52°F), so as long as I kept moving, I never felt chilled.
Around mile 38, I’d had enough. I was in the middle of the first of two major climbs. The wind, the darkness, and the climbing all combined to make me reach a simple conclusion: “It’s time to finish this thing.” My legs ached, but they were not destroyed. My mind was tired, but not extinguished. I pulled the brim of my hat down low over my eyes, focused just a few feet in front of me, and shifted into a determined, shuffling jog.
Every now and then, I’d glance up and see a runner a long way in front of me. After what seemed like just a few moments, I’d look up and see the same runner just a few feet in front of me. “That was neat,” I thought the first time. So, I did it again. Soon I was working my way uphill through the shoe-sucking mud outside of the Battle Creek aid station. And then, I was at the aid station. After getting a bottle refill from Dennis Haig, he sent me off saying, “Have a good finish—because there’s no rides from here on out!”
Finish. Just finish. Just get there. I can run at an 11 or 12 minute pace. I can power walk at a 13 to 14 minute pace. I can sing a song. I can see the lights of Cassoday—but I cannot let them draw me in because I know they are still miles away. I can tell other runners “good job”. I can sing another song. Citizen Cope. Son’s Gonna Rise. Singing out loud, the wind carrying my words away.
“A son’s gonna rise in a mile. In a mile you’ll be feeling fine. In a mile you will see, after me, you’ll be out of the dark. Yeah, you’ll get your shot…”
The cedars where I peed. Getting close. Now pavement. Now. Finish.
I found a “sprint” on the pavement—an 8- or 9-minute mile. I veered off the pavement into grass, through the chute, across the timing mats. Ten hours. Thirty-eight minutes. Rick gathered me into his arms and I didn’t want to let him go. Justin was standing there, hands on his knees. After losing him at mile 10, we finished within a minute of each other. I leaned over to shake his hand and my own hands fell to my knees and we stood there, unwittingly mirroring each other: two spent runners, two first-time 50-mile finishers.
(Photo Joell Chockley)

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Waking from a Dream: FlatRock 50k

A nightmare. About three miles from the halfway turnaround point on the 50-km course, a runnable section of trail gave itself over to a relentless series of boulders, rocky descents, and scrambles across drainages. At any other moment, this would have been a welcome challenge for a trail runner, but for the last hour, my metabolism had been steadily plunging downhill. Now I flailed to maintain third place in the women's race, even as doubt crept in that I would finish at all.
Two miles before, at the 9.6-mile aid station, I hastily filled my single water bottle and headed off into the woods. I had been focusing on staying close to the lead women, but at this point, gradually, my thoughts turned inward and I acknowledged something that had been going on for a while. Things were not right. I had been eating a gel every 20 minutes, for a total of 300 calories per hour. That’s close to the 350-calorie limit they say an average athlete can burn per hour during exercise. Normally I stick to a gel (100 calories) every 30 minutes, but have had some issues with maintaining energy levels on training runs, so I ramped it up an extra 100 calories for this race. By the time I went through that 9.6-mile aid station, though, my body was slowing down. I felt dizzy. Nauseous. Sleepy. Weak.
I reassessed and waited 30 or 40 minutes for my next gel, deciding I needed to space them out a bit. Meanwhile, I just kept trying to move forward, and drank as much as I could.
That stretch between the 9.6-mile aid station and the turnaround at mile 15.2 is long—too long for a single water bottle. I rationed, and eventually ran out of water about half a mile from the aid station. By the time I made it there, my stomach had made no improvements. I was now in fourth place, and there was nothing I could do about it. Angel Clark greeted me with her son Anthony and my kiddo. Tony Clark handed me a coke. I swallowed it down, but it sat like a rock on my stomach, just like everything else I tried to eat. I got my drop bag and unwrapped a Honey Stinger Waffle, filled a second handheld water bottle for the return trip, said Thank You, and left.
A few steps out of the aid station, I took a small bite of the waffle and recoiled. It turned to powder in my mouth. I folded it in half and tucked it into my race vest pocket. For the next hour and a half, I alternated between walking and forcing myself to run the flat, smooth stretches. It was nice to see the rest of the field on the out-and-back, greeting and being greeted by friends. Several called out my position (“Fourth place!” or “Eight minutes back from first!”) and I thanked them politely, though I knew at that point I wasn’t running a race against other people. I nibbled tiny bites of the waffle and drank and drank and drank.
If too many calories wasn’t the problem, then it was dehydration. The technical nature of the course kept my head down and concentration on not falling, so I probably wasn’t sipping water as often as I usually would. I hadn’t peed at all during the race. If things didn’t turn around for me before I hit the next aid station, I told myself I should probably sit down and drink until I did urinate. I thought, You’re going to DNF, aren’t you? I started to believe it.
Then: I remembered wishing that—just once—I could run a race with no IT-band pain and no ankle pain. And here it was. My legs felt fine. After a full year of ITB pain, it had finally decided to let me go. I couldn’t throw away this opportunity. I started to run.
A little while later, I peed.
Eventually, I reached into my pocket and the waffle was gone. I am not sure if I ate it all or if it fell out of my pocket. I went quite a while before I started back on the gels again, but even when I wasn’t eating, my energy gradually returned. I found a good rhythm. Half a mile from the 20.8-mile aid station, my body was gradually letting me back into the race as I woke from the nightmare.
I drank down another cup of Coke at the 20.8-mile aid station. Life continued to soak back into my limbs. Three miles later, I came up on the next aid station where I was offered more Coke, but I felt good and just wanted to keep moving.
Somewhere along the way I ran into Justin Chockley and Luke Hoskam. We walked and chatted for a short distance—then I took off, feeling like I was being chased. About ten minutes later I heard something moving in the woods behind me, and was relieved to see it was Justin. We would push and pull each other for the remainder of the race, and it was great to have the company.
Pushing to the finish with Justin
Those last three miles that seemed “not so bad” on the way out turned to misery on the way back. Lots of stepping up and stepping down; uncertain footing; scrambling up through a crevasse, sliding down on gravel—all on tender, tired legs. Looking back at my splits, those miles were just as slow as the “nightmare” miles, even though I did everything I could to keep trotting forward. Justin and I both eyed our watches, knowing the seven-hour mark was approaching. We pressed forward.
At last, we hit pavement for the last 0.75-mile stretch to the finish. Justin took off at an 8-minute pace; all I could manage was a 9 for most of that stretch. Adrian ran out a short distance from the finish line to meet me, turned abruptly to run, and skidded on the gravel, skinning her hand and knee. I stopped, brushed her off, got her centered again, and then completed my run to the finish line with her on my heels.
FlatRock 50k: 6 hours and 56 minutes.
I have struggled to quantify the difficulty of this course. Yes, it’s tough. The trail follows a rocky bluff and consists primarily of a flat, limestone base. There is not a whole lot of dirt. In some places the rock is crumbling, in other places it is broken into foot-sized pieces. If the trail is going up or down, that usually means negotiating uneven “stair-steps” made of rock. Like a needy child, the trail constantly demands your attention—but it was attention that I didn’t mind giving. The terrain is rugged and beautiful, and (when I had juice in my legs) it was a joy to run. But for the ill-prepared, bonking, or injured runner…it’s a bad dream.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

A Letter from Home

Dear Kristi,

I know that you have been regarding your upcoming 50-mile race with some healthy trepidation. In your preparation for the Heartland 50, you have had the opportunity to see a lot of beautiful things and experience the best and the worst of training. I just wanted to send you this note to ask you:

In the middle of your race, will you remember the time you found yourself at the planned turnaround point of a training run, but there was a steep, 0.25-mile-long hill in front of you … so instead of turning around, you kept going up?

Will you remember the time you walked in the front door from a four-hour run feeling guilty about missing out on a lazy Saturday morning with your five-year-old daughter … only to find her sitting on the dining room table, a big smile on her face, crafting your own personalized drop bag (“…for all your gels, Mom…”) out of a paper grocery sack, colored Sharpie markers, and Elmer’s glue?

Will you remember the day your legs were tired and you stayed up too late drinking margaritas with friends … but you still went out the door into a penetrating mist just to put another 13 miles on your legs?

When your legs feel like lead and your feet are blistered and it’s the middle of the night and the wind won’t stop blowing and all you want to do is find a warm place to curl yourself up into a stinky, defeated ball … will you remember the time the thunder rolled through the treetops and the trail turned to slop under your feet and you felt like you could fly?

I hope you can remember — and if you don’t, I hope someone who reads this blog will, and they might remind you when the time is right. Because the hours of training are not just about tearing down muscle or building cardiovascular strength. The training is also about stashing away these memories, the moments in time when you chose to make yourself stronger, to work toward this goal, and it’s about the spiritual experiences that make every bruised toenail, sour stomach, aching knee, and stinky load of laundry well worth your time.



Thursday, July 19, 2012

Psycho Psummer 50k

Somewhere on the second loop of the Psycho Psummer 50k trail run, I admitted a deep-seeded fear of that course. Well, fear may be too strong. Perhaps wariness is more appropriate.
This wariness dates back to February 2005, when Rick ran the inaugural version of what has become the Trail Nerds’ signature race, Psycho Wyco Run Toto Run. That first event dawned dreary, with off-and-on rain, and—of course—soul-sucking mud. Watching Rick scramble up rutted-out hillsides and push himself to exhaustion on his way to his first ultra-distance finish, it occurred to me that something was just…not right…about this course.
Since then, I have met the summer and winter Psycho twins on my own a few times, but only for a single loop. Not two loops. And never three. Oh no. Never three.
It was by design that my first ultra took place on a different course. Maybe if I had more time to train out there—maybe then I would have taken it on the first time. But without proper preparation, I didn’t trust myself to head out for multiple loops of self-flagellation.
The week after the War Eagle 50k, I felt that I could take on the world—and so I set my sights on Psycho Psummer. Six weeks between races felt optimal. Recovery went well. Training peaked with a 45-mile week (including an 18-mile long run). After that week, I had some assorted foot and ankle issues that prompted a slightly more exaggerated taper than I would have liked, as well as some last-minute shoe experiments. The Wednesday before the race, I got a new pair of trail shoes, took them on a four-mile test run, and decided to go for it…but still wasn’t fully committed until I registered the morning of the race.
When we set off for our first loop at 8 a.m., the sun was shining, humidity felt moderate, and the temperature was in the 80s. The first few miles seemed slow, and my legs felt good, but I had purposely tucked myself a good distance behind Mindy Coolman (who essentially owns this course) during the opening 100 yards and insisted that I must maintain patience. After about three miles of hilly bridle trail, the course shifts onto cambered, shaded singletrack dubbed the “Boy Scout section”. Three weeks before on a training run with Rick, this section had put my feet and ankles into a very bad place and tempted the ITB out of remission. So when we were cruising this section at a 9-minute pace and my feet felt happy, I relaxed and really started to enjoy the run.
I was running happy as we came to a clearing. A large group of runners were walking this section and, without any thought at all—just going with how I felt—I passed them and continued onto the singletrack. Moments later, I heard Mindy call out from behind me, “How’s your IT band doing, Kristi?”
Crap! I passed Mindy. She was undoubtedly going to win the women’s race, and I knew I’d be lucky to crack the top ten, and I did not by any means belong in front of Mindy.
Mentally flogging myself, I continued on at a comfortable but brisk pace. I was in and out of the Shelter 11 aid station in about 20 seconds and prepared to head down Fall Down Hill. At that point, Rick Troeh’s footsteps and voice appeared behind me and we chatted as we took the steep switchbacks and hops over logs at what seemed breakneck speed to me.
The hill spat us out onto the bottom of the Wyandotte County Lake dam, undoubtedly my least favorite section of the course for a number of reasonably valid reasons: 1) it’s grassy, and I hate running on grass; 2) it’s a steep hill and the course runs diagonally across its length—going up; and 3) it’s completely exposed, and that translates to windy and cold in the winter, sunny and hot in the summer.
I survived my first pass of the dam at a good power-hike speed, though, and continued onto the singletrack to Shelter 14… and the Three Hills section. Many of the runners around me were chatty, happily anticipating the end of their first loop. I mentioned to one out-of-town runner that there might be a few hills ahead. Shortly thereafter, the chattiness had died down as a clump of runners focused on grinding up the bridle trails.
When I rolled into the start/finish area to refill my race vest with GU and E-caps, my mom informed me that I was hurting. She could tell, she said, by the way I ran in. “No, I’m fine,” I insisted. Temperatures were well into the 90s by now, so I took the bandanna off my head, filled it with ice, and tied it around my neck. With fresh ice in my bottle, as well, I took off for the second loop.
As soon as I got away from the crowd at the start/finish area and back onto the bridle trail, I knew she was right: I was hurting. There was a hot spot on the back of my left heel, so I pulled over and readjusted my sock and lacing on that foot. Once moving again, I acknowledged significant discomfort where my shoe was pressing into the bottom of my outside anklebone on the right foot. And about a mile later, the left ITB seized up on a downhill—officially out of remission.
In spite of these red flags, I moved well until I hit the Boy Scout section. That’s when things started to fall apart. The cambered nature of the trails had my right foot (the uphill foot) angling straight into that sore spot on my anklebone. The IT band hurt. I fell into walk-run intervals that increasingly favored the walking. I was eating a gel every 30 minutes, and that seemed to be working: the stomach felt good, and I didn’t feel terribly low on calories. I was salting with the E-caps without any particular schedule—just making sure I had one or two every hour or whenever I started to feel crampy.  But on the Boy Scout section, my back and sides began cramping hard. I responded by upping the dose to one or two with each GU.
Meanwhile, I could feel myself falling apart. Negative thoughts didn’t creep in. Instead, they busted down the door and assaulted me. The first loop felt relatively effortless. I told myself I hadn’t gone out too fast—it was just these points of pain that were slowing me down now, and those weren’t really a result of poor conditioning. They were pre-existing conditions that I had been aware of weeks before the race. This was exactly why I wouldn’t commit to the race until the last minute. I was running in brand-new, untested shoes. I shouldn’t have signed up for the race. I shouldn’t be here. What’s the point?
At Shelter 11, I grabbed a few S-Caps since I had given away some of my E-caps to another runner a mile earlier. Then I took Fall Down Hill as fast as my ITB would allow: not very fast. Next, a trip across the surface of the sun (a.k.a. the dam hill), with my head down, glaring at the brittle, brown grass and wondering how long it would take before someone flicked a cigarette and set fire to this slope. My ice bandanna was almost melted.
On the singletrack between the dam and Shelter 14, I looked up to see Rick on the side of the trail taking pictures. It was the first time I had seen him since the beginning of the race. I ran past him without a word, hoping he would follow me but also hoping he wouldn’t. When his footsteps fell in pace with mine, the emotion broke loose and I shot back at him, tearfully, “I need someone to tell me whether this is important or not.” For the next few minutes, I walked, bitched, and gave my IT band a good hard whack with a clenched fist. Runners passed me. The tirade concluded as we approached the Shelter 14 aid station with Rick saying, “No! You can’t quit. Go.”
At the Three Hills section, people finally stopped passing me. That’s because there’s no one left behind you, I drolly told myself, though I knew this wasn’t true. There wasn’t anyone visible in front of me, either—the field was just spread out at this point. I started moving a little more steadily even though I was climbing hills, and it occurred to me as I swallowed another one of the borrowed S-Caps from Shelter 11 that those were working better than the E-caps.
Looking up at the last hill of the loop, I spotted three runners picking their way along. Something Tony Clark had texted me the night before—about catching a runner on a hill during the second loop—came back to me and I realized this was going to be my last chance to make good on that promise. I took the hill at what felt like a run, hit the top, and cruised down to the start/finish. The area was packed with smiling, cheering 10- and 20-mile finishers, and Adrian sprinted up to meet me, took my hand, and ran with me to my drop bag. As I refilled my pack with GU, she asked me, “Mom, do you have an IT band?”
I smiled. “Yes, I do.”
Adrian nodded, and then informed me: “I don’t.”
Ice in the bandanna, ice in the bottle, a handful of S-Caps, and I was off for loop three before I could even think about it. That second loop ended so positively that all the frustration of the Boy Scout section had been forgotten… at least momentarily.
On the third loop I was ready to roll but resigned to something slightly slower. The IT band hurt and the right ankle hurt where the shoe was pressing, but another issue was getting shuffled into the deck: blisters. I didn’t dare look at them, but two large blisters had lighted themselves on the sides of both big toes and were becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.
I took more time at the aid stations, enjoying the kindness of all the volunteers. At the Road Crossing aid station, I stuffed the most glorious bowlful of ice down my shirt. At Shelter 11, more ice and a cupful of warm Coke. At Shelter 14, the coldest ice bandanna on the course. At Shelter 10, Coke with ice was the delicacy.
On the approach to Shelter 11, I recognized something was amiss inside my right shoe. The blister pain had turned into an odd, rippling sensation. I sat down at the aid station and poked at it through my shoe. “I think it’s popped,” I said to anyone who was listening. Then I got up and hobbled down Fall Down Hill using only the side of my foot. Not being able to put my foot down evenly was distressing. I’ve never had blisters like this, and they’ve never popped on their own, and I had no idea how long this burning pain was going to last. I could not run a step of Fall Down Hill. When I got to the bottom, I sat down and took my shoe off to confirm that it was popped and, I suppose, to assure myself it wasn’t worse than I thought it was. Nope, no blood. Just a juicy, popped blister.
Luke Hoskam came across the drainage ditch and asked me, “Is it popped?”
I nodded.
“Well,” he said, “keep going.”
That’s all I needed.
Right, then. Keep going. I put the shoe back on and crunched my way across the damned dam for the last time. “How am I going to keep going when I can’t even roll my foot evenly?” I asked myself. The answer Self gave me was this: If it hurts when you put pressure on the blister when you walk, just force pressure on the blister and get over it. So, I pressed my big toe down into the bottom of my shoe and walked harder. Eventually, I was back on singletrack and jogging. And then, it didn’t really hurt any more. The un-popped blister on my left foot still rang out with each step, but I was finally moving at what could be called an efficient pace, and I was almost home.
When I hit that last hill, I took off and sailed to the finish line, adrenaline wiping away everything I had been dealing with for the last 20 miles. Coco gave me my medal, race-director Ben congratulated me, and I punched him in the shoulder.
“Damn you,” I growled.
His voice cracked when he replied with a smile and mock defensiveness, “What? It’s a good course! It’s just a little hot…”
So, I finished in 7 hours and 29 minutes. I had hoped for something a little closer to seven hours, and I most definitely had dreamed that I could run without silly strength- and muscle-imbalance problems like IT bands and ankle/foot pain. Some day I would like to run a race and only be at odds with the burn of genuine fatigue.
But this time around, I am happy. Because I know how low my resolve sank—and yet I managed to find the finish line.