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Old-Man Strength

by Carl Stones

Benny and Me

Reunited with Andrew Benford at Scotty’s wedding.  Photo props go to Josh Baker at AzulOx

Today is our first full day in Eugene.  After picking up Carlos from the Portland airport we made the 2 hour drive south on I-5, which provided views of many tall haystacks for Carlos to “Ooooo” and “Ahhhh” over while taking photos with his phone.  Every couple minutes I’d hear him say something along the lines of “Look how high that one is!” and then snap a few more photos.  The drive was significantly less exciting for me, having gotten over my hay-bale craze nearly 20 years prior.  As we drew closer to Eugene and the haystacks lost their luster, Carlos began pointing at mountains and saying “Hey, why don’t you go run up that mountain over there, runner boy?”  I laughed, thinking about how far I was from being fit enough to run up a mountain.  But foreshadowing is a son-of-a-gun sometimes.   

As we sat around the Magee residence for the rehearsal dinner yesterday evening, sipping drinks and catching up with old and new friends, Scotty taps me on the shoulder and says “Hey, we’re running up a mountain tomorrow.  Want to join?”  I turn to look where he’s pointing to see a large, tree-covered mound rising prominently above the south-Eugene horizon.  Crap.  “Uh, yeah, sure,” I muster with as little confidence as is humanly possible.  It’s a painful reminder of my inability to say no to challenges of machismo, but it’s also Scott’s last run as a bachelor, and I don’t want to miss that.

It’s looking to be another warm August day in Eugene, but a warm day in Eugene is a cool day by Texas standards, so I’m not sweating it – pun intended.  After a short warm up and some strides – the first time I’ve done strides for an “easy” run, ever – I’m hanging out by an empty playground trying to look as un-creepy as is possible when you’re hanging out alone by a playground.  I hope I’m at the right trailhead.  My stomach is in knots and my heart is thumping in anticipation of the pain.  Scotty, [THE] Andrew Benford, and Eric Fernandez will be here soon, and then it will begin.    

After a month off for a sprained ankle, and another month off for a bad foot infection, today is my 8th run back.  Andrew unknowingly took me through the gauntlet on a 45 minute – my longest run yet – tour of Pre’s Trail yesterday, so I fear to even imagine what today will bring.  Scotty has been logging upwards of 120 miles a week in his marathon build, and Andrew and Eric now has several months of altitude training under their belts after moving to the rarified air of Flagstaff, Arizona.   But they all cower in the shadow of my cumulative 35 miles over the past 8 weeks.  At least that’s what I’m telling myself in a last-ditch effort to justify what I’m doing.  I’m trying to push these things out of my mind, but I can’t help but remember the last time I threw up on a run: Gunnison, Colorado, running up a mountain only two weeks back from a long injury.  Eerily similar settings, minus the altitude.

Scott, Eric, and Andrew are running from the Magee household to get a few extra miles in, so it shouldn’t be much longer before they arrive.  The Spencer Butte trailhead sits at the far southern end of Eugene at the corner of West Amazon Drive and Martin Street.  Once off the street and on the trail, the only way to go is up.  My nerves aren’t settling, but I have what I think is a good plan for the run: 28 minutes.  All I have to do is run up for 28 minutes.  It won’t be easy, but I’m fairly sure that I can make it at least that far.  No matter how spent I am at 28 minutes, the second half is all downhill and at the very least I can just roll back down.

A month after my foot infection and two months after my ankle sprain, I decided it was probably time to start jogging again.  Not because I missed it and was itching to get back – I still wanted nothing to do with running – but rather because in three weeks time I was set to be a counselor at a high school cross-country camp on the Oregon coast.  I knew I should show up being able to at least run a little bit because it would help the camp run smoother, but also because my ego wasn’t ready to be mercilessly pounded into the ground by a bunch of teenage kids.  More specifically, on the second to last day of the camp there is a 2,000 meter time trial on a trail up a hill, and I really had no intention of doing anything other than being the first to the top.  As far as a serious advancement in fitness, three weeks just isn’t going to cut it, and I knew that, but I also knew that the end goal had nothing to really do with fitness; at least not in the traditional sense.  Three weeks, though, might just be enough to spark a different kind of fitness: Old-Man Strength.

Cape Lookout Climb

The author pictured here dusting the field [of kids] at the inaugural Ultimook Running Camp

I realize here that it may sound as if I’m referring to myself as an old man, but I’m really not.  I’m getting younger by the day.  You see, Old-Man Strength has much less to do with age than its name would imply; it has to do with experience, and the knowledge that you posses a certain level of “umph” that you’ll never get rid of.  It’s why my dad, when I was 10 years old and practicing basketball all day every day, could still beat me in HORSE without touching a basketball for years.  It’s also probably why Doug Consiglio had such a good disk-golf record for so long, but that’s a story for another time.

Running, aside from sarcasm, is arguably the field that I’ve garnered the most experience in during my short time here on Earth.  I’ve been running competitively, for better or for worse, for the last 11 years, and having only just turned 25, that’s 44% of my life.  It really doesn’t matter how little I did during my two-month layoff, because two months can’t even begin to undo 11 years.  I just needed some time to find it, and what better place to do that than the mountains?  I gave myself three weeks, but in the end I really only needed 8 days.

I see them come around the bend in the road and know I have less than a minute before the run starts.  And here we go.  30 seconds gone.  I’m sucking wind, but I learned about this in physiology.  This is oxygen deficit, not oxygen debt.  That’s the increased heart rate and respiration associated with any significant increase in effort, and it shouldn’t last more than two minutes.  Just settle down and it’ll be better soon.  And it is.  We make a turn to a connector trail which provides a brief downhill respite before turning onto another trail that continues up.  And up.  And up.  The incline is starting to catch up with me and I start wondering how much time has gone by.  5 minutes?  7 minutes?  I check the watch.  11 minutes.  Nice!  I look around at the flora and fauna that engulfs us in an attempt to zone out a bit.  Alder, Douglas Fir, and the occasional Redwood trees tower high above the soft dirt floor, with all the space between owned by the fern.  It’s pretty, but it’s also short lived.  12 minutes.  Damn.  13 minutes.  Damn.  13:30. Stop looking at the damn watch!  14 minutes.  Damn.  

The next few minutes drag on, but soon enough we hit another trail intersection and pause a moment to make sure we take the right turn.  It’s just enough rest to get me a few more minutes.  We hang a right on the Ridgeline Trail and keep on heading up.  Now it’s past 20 minutes.  I’m pretty sure I can make it to 28 now.  Everything is burning, but just keep moving forward, no slowing down, one foot in front of the other.  Momentum is key here so don– oh no. Switchbacks.  This is unfortunate timing at best.  The trail steepens – trails only get steeper with switchbacks – as it begins its upward zigzag to God-knows-where.  I’ve long since passed the point of oxygen deficit and I’m well into oxygen debt.  There’s no denying that.  No physiology lectures can help me now.  25 minutes and we’re clear of the switchbacks, but the toll has been taken.  The grade hasn’t relented and the end is nowhere in sight.  The tall trees, once beautiful and majestic, now seem to be closing in on me as I suck in shorter and more desperate gasps of air.  Andrew, Eric, and Scotty continue on with their conversation as if the run hadn’t even started yet.  27 minutes.  This is it; the last minute.  Anybody can make it one minute.  27:20. C’mon, 40 seconds to go.  That’s like Devin’s 200 meter PR. 7:37. Oh no, not now.  Here it comes.  I gag and retch and cleanse myself of some bile as my body searches for the breakfast that I didn’t eat. The guys continue to glide further and further along up the trail.  All I can manage between dry heaves is to quickly yell “I’m finished!” gasp, “See you back at the house!” before dropping my head again and giving in to more coughing and heaving.  Not quite 28 minutes, but close enough.  Now I just have to go down and that’s not so bad. 

“Hey, Carl,” yells Scotty.  I lift my head to see Scotty standing a little ways up the trail, having run back a little ways. 

“Yeah?” I reply, wondering what he could possibly want right now.

“I don’t know if you care or not, but it’s really not that much further to the top.  It’s a nice view too!”

Damn you, Scott MacPherson.  I look up, not sure that I’m fully comprehending the situation correctly.  I’m spent, but can I really let myself quit this close?  Wait a minute.  This is Scotty.  What constitutes “not that much further?” That could be anywhere from 10 meters to another 4 miles.  Doesn’t matter, just finish the run. 

Up I go again, but I’ve lost contact as I slog toward the top.  29 minutes.  I’m dead, but still moving as the trees break, giving me a clear view of the top.  I do really hate life right now, but not as much as I hate Scotty.  Now it’s a part jog, part walk, part scramble up the rocks leading to the summit.  I can still hear the guys joking around with each other as they summit.  That jackass.  This is so much further than he let on.  Not too much farther for me now.  32 minutes.  Just a few more steps and, finally, I’m there.  I collapse to my hands and knees and then flip over to lie down for a moment.  Everything is burning and I just want to throw up more of the food that I never ate.

I realize that the guys, still standing and laughing, weren’t all that phased by the climb, but I don’t care.  And then I notice the view.  I hate to admit it, Scotty was right, so I probably won’t push him off the top.  With all of Eugene to the North, and a panoramic view of the surrounding peaks, I’m in awe and my hatred of Scotty quickly vanishes.  This is fantastic.  Take that, Carlos!


Running up and over the clouds later in the summer

It took me 32 minutes to find what I was looking for.  The term Old-Man Strength had become a bit of a running (no pun intended this time) joke that I had with my friend Drew – the camp director that I would be working with – in the weeks leading up to the camp.  Immediately after arriving back to my car I texted him to let him know that the Old-Man Strength was there and we were good to go.  Just over a week later I was the first to crest the hill at camp – as I should be – but more surprising was that I bested my time from last year when I came in with several solid months of training under my belt, and significantly more fitness.  It definitely hurt more this year, though.

As things lie now, I’m just over 7 weeks into my recovery from reconstructive ankle surgery.  The boot is gone, I’m running on the unloaded treadmill, and I’m ready for the next step.  I’ve been on the bike, in the gym, and in the pool more than I care to think about, and I’m very fit as a result.  The running will come slowly, but with my new secret weapon by my side I’m confident about what’s to come.  If nothing else, my search for Old-Man Strength helped me enjoy running again and realize how important it is to me.  So here’s to whatever comes next.


Long legs and short shorts: the only way to live life