The last time I saw Kieron

The last time I saw Kieron, he was dressed in his familiar red puffy down jacket. He was standing by his Toyota pickup truck, and threatening to actually go home, after we had closed down the Water Street Grill yet again in the wee hours of an early autumn morning.

I was getting on my bicycle to head unsteadily down the four miles of country road to my house, and I remember him standing there. Continuing to talk.

I met Kieron no more than 20 years ago. Perhaps just a few less.

It was sort of difficult to tell exactly how long this man had accurately pointed out my mistakes on the soccer field, and told me how to correct them.

Or how long he had been encouraging me to be better, both on and off the field. Or just how long he’d been listening to my problems, whenever there was trouble at home, or with my job.

It had always been a long time though. Long enough to have consumed a fair few pints. A signature of our times together.

I can’t say we were friends in a friendly way. In a do-things-for-each-other sort of a way.

These past three years since I moved away, I’ve barely seen him, or spent any time in Williamstown at all.

In my mind, though, I suppose I’ve continued to imagined him on a Thursday evening, winter.

Huffing and puffing as he came shuffling out of goal, in the gym, to give some young hard-charging whippersnapper, a lesson in the hard tackle.

In my mind, he had continued to shuffle and tackle hard, long after he stopped playing soccer — a victim of a torn Achilles, and increasingly bad sarcoidosis.

In my mind, I see him, and the rest of us lot of die-hards, joking with each other. I watch us go over to the Water Street Grill.

I watch, as we drink beer. Chatter about soccer, and life.

In my mind, I see Kieron at the end of the table, holding court, with his wit, alive and sparkling never more than here, with us, and never failing to teach those who are learning.

I see us two remaining, and moving to the bar for “one last pint.”

I don’t remember how many pints we would actually have.

And then we would teeter down the steps into the bathroom together, still talking.

In my mind, I can still see Kieron, dressed in his familiar red puffy down jacket. He is standing by his Toyota pickup truck, and threatening to actually go home.

Thoughts of an autumn day

I almost succumbed to Facebook just now. But this early morning has been a time of contemplation.

On the drive to school, I saw some spectacular autumnal trees. A wavy line along each one. Above the line, a deep burgundy red. Below the line, a washed-out but still pretty green.

These trees simply conform themselves to their nature, and the nature that surrounds them. They are part of the same system. They don’t need to “know” that, in some sense separate from their actual involvement in it. There is no abstraction. The cold, and the lack of sunlight tells them that it is time to stop sending their sap up there. The physical mechanisms themselves are enough for the trees to “know”.

That the effect of this, is beautiful (to us), is secondary. Not necessarily irrelevant though. I imagine what might happen if we humans were told “the deciduous trees are dying, and there will no longer be a regular autumnal changing of color due to climate change”. Wouldn’t we do something about that? Attempt to “save the trees”? And so, the beauty of the deciduous trees’ yearly fall would become a possible survival mechanism.

This reminds me of how we all (all creatures, animate or not) are all part of this same system. We act and react. The better we conform to nature, the more beautiful we can be. Why do humans not conform to nature? Why do we “judge” things, one thing “better” than another? What is the purpose of this abstraction from nature?

We have invented so many new things, so quickly, that it is hard to see the deep intuition behind it, or our role in nature, as part of nature. Our judgements are founded in this deep intuition and connection to this system. Sometimes they still reflect this. And sometimes they run counter to it. Once you leave these intuitions, and try to “think” your choices, you may do things that do not conform you to the system in an optimal way. We do this individually, and as groups. Amazing.

I can see how this makes some believe in an overarching “creator” somehow manipulating these changes to stay so perfectly in tune with each other.

But personally, it feels ever more obvious that each of us is simply part of this overall fabric, adapts and conforms to it, changes it in whatever small way we do. Nothing is needed outside of that system. That fabric is one whole thing to begin with. We are at once both individuals within a system, but simply parts of a bigger whole that “runs itself”.

All of this, running through my head, as I walk briskly along Undermountain road, taking in the colors of the trees, and the dewy spiders’ webs glistening all silvery-white like ghosts under the rising mist.

Old dog

And each day, I look at your tumor. Burned-looking hair around it. Fluid leaking out. It smells, and I wash you, and I change the smelly diaper that keeps you from leaking on the floor.

He tells me that you are really going downhill now. He sees it, because he doesn’t see you every day. And I know he’s right, but I fight the implication.

Why would I kill her now?

After all, you still get up and greet us – still know who we are, and love us.

You eat your food and always ask for more. You can’t run like a puppy anymore, but you still walk. All day. Every day.

I know, I know. You whine because you are in pain. I have to get up in the middle of the night to let you out. Sometimes you whine and letting you out, or massaging you, or just sitting with you, doesn’t help.

I’ll be glad when you let go, but I’m not ready to let you go, myself.

You sleep. A lot. And so deeply that you don’t move when we walk into the house, and touch you, and call your name.

Like we called your name when you ran around in huge, speed-demon figure-eights, and jumped five feet in the air just because.

Only half crazy

I didn’t make it all the way to Sheffield on the AT.

In the end, I saw myself slowing down, and realized I wasn’t going to hit my pace goals. There are lots of excuses I could make. I lost my glasses somewhere in the woods; I don’t need them to run on the trail, but I do need them to read the map, or use the phone. The pack, with 2 litres of water, full clothing in case something happened, and enough food for 5+ hours of running between “aid stations” was heavy, and my pack is old, so rubbed me pretty badly on the right side of my neck. The weather was… not perfect, consisting of high humidity, mixed in with torrential downpours and thunderstorms.

But the truth is that although all of these things niggled me in little ways, I just stopped because I wanted to. I felt totally at peace with that decision.

Many things went right. Although my Salomon Sense Ultras are a great shoe – I really like these shoes on tough terrain – they are very rigid for me, and after 25 miles in them, my neuroma was killing my left foot. So I was happy to get to my first aid station and change shoes for the softer Montrails, which I also love, for different reasons. Both those things were good choices :)

My hydration and food intake was perfect. Although I had a brief low point when I lost my glasses, I think this was entirely natural, as losing my glasses made me concentrate on the fact that I’m a middle-aged guy, certainly quite fit, but on the download slope of health, about which I can do nothing. The perfect eyesight of my youth is a distant memory – I cannot read, or even judge distance close-up thanks to my crappy eyesight. And I got bummed about that. Until I met up with my lovely, wonderful family – kids dancing around me with home-made signs (the #urAwsome hashtag was particularly fun) and my wife asking me if I could still see the trail markers OK, and asking other helpful questions that helped me decide to go on when I could easily have stopped already because yes, I was worried about whether I could go on at all without the ability to read the map or my cue sheet for the road crossings.

So, after the glorious moment of eating pickles with my family, sitting on the back of our car, I set off again from that low point. And it was still awesome.

But by my next stop, I realized that I was now hitting the “late” times on my sheet of estimated paces. What that meant was arriving at my friends’ house at 6:30 or later instead of 3pm and having to move on out quickly instead of celebrating with friends. And 2 more hours of running in the dark, after the 2 I already did at 3am just that morning. No swim to celebrate the last 10 miles from Benedict Pond. And getting home at 11pm or later after having been up at 2:45am. So I decided to stop, and celebrate my whole life, instead of just this particular brave or foolhardy, and ambitious idea of running 75 miles of the AT in a day. I failed in completing that idea, yes, and I know it. I didn’t even fail because I was unable to run. I failed because I preferred to enjoy my whole life, instead of commit to this one task or goal. But I don’t mind at all.

I’ve run most of the MA section of the AT now, all the way from Vermont to Connecticut, in my 20 years living in the Berkshires. I’m missing this one 25-mile section that I chose not to run yesterday, and that 25 mile section is just one more easy day trip. During this last week alone, I have run almost 60 miles of the MA AT. I have studied maps of the trail, and read books about it. I know the terrain very well, and the animals.

I met a thru-hiker going north yesterday. We chatted, in the middle of a torrential downpour. Thunder and lightning going crazy. At some point, I told him that I had lost my glasses and that my phone was acting up because of the rain. He said “Ah, the joy of the journey. You get a little bit of that every day on the trail.”

And really, that just said it all.

I got to run 40 incredible miles yesterday, on some of the most beautiful land there is anywhere. I got to meet up with my family twice, and I was so happy to see them both times. I saw a misty non-sunrise on top of Mt Greylock after 4000ft of climbing before 5:30am. And I got to hug my wife and kids, and dog, take a lovely hot shower after being drenched and covered in mud, and then hang out with friends afterwards. Yes, there is other stuff that happens. And you might not meet your goals. But I truly felt the “joy of the journey” yesterday, and the journey was, and is, more than just the 40 miles of running.

Whiteface Peak Sky Marathon Race Report

Whiteface Peak under sullen skies.

Whiteface Peak under sullen skies.

I wake up at 3am, and it is raining very hard. I already slept 6 hours, so I’m not really tired, and I just lie there for a bit thinking more sleep would be OK, but it isn’t required. So at 3:45, I get up.

I decide I’m going to do a warmup run right now instead of waiting until I go to the race, and I head out into the wet darkness. First mile slow and rough. But my stride gets smoother, and after 2 miles, I feel like I want to go further. I am instead sensible, and stop.

Coffee. Breakfast.

I meet another runner, Tom, from New Jersey, at the motel. He looks more nervous than I am, and gabbles about the right shoe choice. At that moment, I am suddenly sure I should wear the grippiest shoes I brought, the Salomon Ultra SGs, and I tell him so. If there were the right day for these, I think it would be today. Tom is going to wear low hiking boots. I can’t say whether this good or bad, so I just smile.

I simply have no idea what this race will be like. I am excited mostly – just excited. I have wanted to run a real “sky race” for a while now.

In the tunnel at the start, which protects us from the rain, I see the Salomon runners, Kasie Enman, Stevie Kremer, Tofol Castanyer and Tom Owens. Elite athletes. Smiling, but focussed. Tom from New Jersey is there, and we chat again.

At the start, we jog out along a grass bank and then make a sharp turn to the right. And then it is straight up the first pitch of steep, steep hill. Tom shoots off at speed, and is soon well ahead of me.

I tuck in behind a couple of people who are going at a pace that seems compatible with mine… for now, and we head up. And I am crouching low and using my arms to push my legs.

I notice the leaves of various wild berries among the grass as we go up. Leaves, but no berries yet. I’m glad I have my mind on something other than the big climb. No need to look up, as the rain and mist obscure everything both above and below me.

There are a few crossings of the “service roads”, but mostly the climb just goes straight up what is probably a ski slope.

Until it gets steeper yet, and I actual crawl a bit since my arms are already so low to the ground, and the ground beneath the moss is rocky now.

The wind is colder up here as we climb through the moss-rock field – cold like winter, just a week on from the summer solstice. I’m wet from the rain, but thanks to the wool shirt, nice and warm.

And then, amazingly, we see the elite runners already coming down from the top, at speed. Graceful, quick and tiny they are. I know that I can probably never get down this slope like that.

I congratulate each of them as they go past. Only Stevie Kremer acknowledges my greeting, and I can see that they are concentrating hard.

At this point I am climbing faster than the man and woman I had been with, and I march on into the mist, until, there is a hut, and perhaps I have reached the summit. Only, who can tell, what with the mist swirling around and no sight above or below?

Oh, and then I have to take off my glasses as they are too rain-spattered for me to be able to see even as well as I can without them.

I check in at the hut, and ask for the broth I can smell.

“It’s not warm yet,” she says.

“Well, it’s maybe a little warm.”

I ask for it again, and say I’ll even drink it cold. But it is not actually cold. Perfect temperature actually, for me to drink it quickly but still feel some warmth too.

There is a big step out of the hut onto a large rock. The rock is slippery and I wonder whether that is actually ice.

Down the rocky slope, and I’m deliberately taking it easy. I know that even though the slope is quite gentle here that if I let it go too much, I may not be able to stop when it drops off into the mud and rocks.

And then I’m in it. Where the elite runners looked so graceful, but I am clumsy and scared. Without my glasses on, I can’t judge distance. So I concentrate and take things steady mostly.

Then I am sliding. On my back. Headfirst down the mountain. I control myself and manage to turn around. I realize that actually my “butt-slide” is an effective way to get down. Faster than I could run this. So I slide some more on the greasy mud and grass.

And suddenly the volunteer is shouting at us to go right, and we turn into another steep ascent. Although this goes on up for at least another fifteen minutes, it feels very short compared to the first 2000ft straight up to the summit. And then I come out at another hut, check in again and eat some peanut M&Ms and more soup.

More sliding, and then I am finally out on some more runnable downhill, so I start to trot down – still slower than I might go someplace I knew already, but fast enough to pass a few people now. And then I’m back in the start tunnel, which we pass through before doing a loop of less-steep trail through the woods on the lower slopes.

The race director is screaming at me.

“Woo-hoo – nice butt sliding!”

And I realize I am covered — I mean COVERED — in mud. All down my back, including my head. He means it too. He doesn’t know that my “skill” at sliding was a pure accident, followed by me learning quickly that this is an effective way down a steep slope.

At this point, I am really really enjoying the chance to properly run though, and I feel like I am flying. The opportunity to open up my hips and stretch the whole leg out is wonderful, after the cramped short steps up and down super-steep slopes.

At the entrance to the trail loop, I see the elite group again, and I am surprised that I am not so far behind as I’d have expected. I actually don’t really have any idea how long I’ve been out there, as I cannot read my watch without my glasses on.

In the woods, the trail is like my home trails. Welcoming, and rolling hills. Only 1500 feet of climbing in this section, and although my quads and gluten are feeling the up and down, I am able to really push it here, while still feeling like this is a steady pace. I remind myself that this is not a race for me – steady pace is what I want. Just staying in control of the pace so I never explode.

I pass a couple more people, and then I meet Tom again. We run a little together, and then he tells me that his quads are shot and he can’t run the uphills and wants to save himself for the second go at the summit. I still feel just fine at this easy trail pace and keep on. I am really enjoying this trail which winds and winds around the lower slopes of Whiteface – it is the part of the race that I actually enjoy the most, and I feel like I can keep running at this pace, through these woods, forever.

But then after another steep grassy bank, I am back in the tunnel, before heading out up the summit climb once again.

We seem to be on a slightly different way up than before. Rockier. But maybe I just forgot what the route was like on the first loop?

I spend most of the summit climb with Eric, also from New Jersey. We have a pretty enjoyable talk and then he says that he is fine if I want to climb faster, and I get ahead of him by maybe a 100 meters and although I am keeping a very steady and sustainable pace, I am actually catching people now. I pass two or three others.

I have been telling myself that I don’t care how long the rest of the race is, or how long the climb is. I am simply climbing. I consider that I will climb until it is not needed any more. Whenever that is. I am reminded more of the days when I hiked the Pennine Way (three weeks of hiking through peat moss bogs, and heavy rain) as a teenager. I realize that I don’t care about the steepness and the rain or cold. My toes are actually cold at this point, but I know that my body heat is kept up by the movement, and I feel like I can really just do this all day, despite my aching quads.

So I am shocked by the appearance of the summit hut!

The rock at the entrance really feels slippery now, and I treat it as if it is icy.

I drink more soup, and now the hut is steaming warm inside. I don’t stay long though, and head down.

Oh, and now they take us through the mossy rock section. And it’s worse this time because we runners have turned it into a steep mud pit.

I don’t care though – I just slide down it on my butt, or I boot-ski it, digging one heel in while I use the other foot to slide through the mud.

The mist clears.

And suddenly I can see to the bottom. The road. And the river. Wow. Beautiful. But I am terrified all of a sudden. If I fall here, I’m going down a long way. I tell myself that the only objective is to get down. Safely. I’m not here to race.

Eric comes tearing past me, having caught up on the downhill. He is fearless in this patch of muck. Maybe he hasn’t seen the view I got?

I realize at that point that I will likely never again be good at this kind of technical descent. It is too much.

Too much for my crappy vision and my middle-aged fear of death, my lack of skills and my high center of gravity.

I remind myself I’m just going down steadily and I will keep it up.

One more person that I passed on the uphill comes past me, and I laugh at myself. I know already that it is more efficient on the downhill. And usually I am. But today I am clumsy and slow. He has poles, and he makes nice s-turns through the mud pit, leaning on the poles to keep his balance, kind of like a skier.

The view now is really lovely, but I only glance down the hill, as I am concentrating.

I turn right and go up the last steep climb. Although I had lost sight of Eric, now I see him again, and I start to catch him on the uphill again. I go past the chap with the poles.

Check in at the hut, and head over the edge of another steep pitch down the mountain. Again the lovely view to the bottom. I slide on my butt for most this section, and find a shorter tangent down through the brush for other parts. I am slower than I’d like, but keep heading down. I do not stop. Short steps. S-turns. Knees high, when I’m not on my back.

I can see that I am not going to catch the pole dude, but suddenly I see Eric ahead, and he is walking backwards down the slope. I ask him if he’s OK, and he tells me he just has nothing left in his legs. I offer him some food, but he declines, and says he just needs to walk.

I, though, am still able to trot down, and now we’re on the steep but runnable sections, I can go quite fast. Again, it feels so good to stretch out my hips completely. I am going quite fast when I pass through the finish line and they take my number. I stop my watch. 5 hours and 33 minutes. I am satisfied. I bend over and put my hands on my quads. It feels good to eat and drink.

Skora Tempo – first impressions

I am a child of the barefoot running era. Middle-aged, and searching for ways to fix my breaking body, I found the answer in ‘Born to Run’
– run barefoot, and later, in the most-minimal shoes possible.

After 3 months running and walking only barefoot, I tried several of the “early” minimal shoes. VFFs, New Balance Minimus, Altra Instincts and Luna sandals.

After a summer of running only in Luna sandals, I decided that it would soon get too cold for sandals, and bought a pair of Skora Cores because they were on sale.

Not only did I run all winter, but I’ve since put more than 1,500 running miles on those Cores, not to mention quite a few walking miles too. They are possibly my favourite pair of shoes ever. The wide toe-box, the supple leather flexibility and the asymmetric lacing on the Cores, represent some of the best features that have appeared in the barefoot/minimal “revolution”.

The Cores are like an old-fashioned pair of racing flats. They are fun to run in because there is almost nothing to them and they disappear on my feet when I run. They are the closest thing I have to running barefoot, and I love them.

But I’m running further these days, and, oh, you know, getting older. After 3 years of barefoot/minimal running, my ankles and my Achilles/calves ache after long runs in minimal shoes.

So I’ve been looking forward to the Skora Tempo. In my mind, I’ve been imagining a shoe like my beloved Core, but that I can use for long runs, even ultras, especially on the road, where my feet take the biggest pounding. That shoe should be cushioned but flexible, but still with the wide toebox and the asymmetric lacing I love.

But I’m not as hardcore minimal as I used to be. I don’t mind a shoe with drop, as long as the drop allows there to be enough forefoot flexibility and still enough cushion on the heel.

So these days, the Skora Tempo competes, for me, with “normal” shoes that are basically more traditional racing flats. My current road marathon racing shoes are Adidas Boston Boost 5s, Pearl Izumi N0s, and Luna Leadville Pacers.

Into this little mix, yesterday, a pair of Skora Tempos landed on my doorstep. I had actually been holding off on a run, just in case I would be able to take them out right away.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that I put them right on, and went out for a 10 mile run!

The Tempos are nice and light – my size 12s came up at 8.7oz on the right shoe and 8.5 on the left (yeah, OK – why is there any difference at all in the weight between left and right?!) I ordered a 12 in these even though I wear 11.5 in the Cores, which is my “normal” shoe size. That’s because my feet swell when road running, and 11.5 isn’t enough to contain my feet after running a road marathon. All of my other running shoes these days are size 12s.

The asymmetric lacing is wonderful. I have a neuroma on my left foot, and the combination of the lacing, the wide toebox, and the unstructured and light upper felt really nice, just like I’d expect from Skoras.

One problem I’ve had with zero-drop shoes, in particular, an early Altra Instinct, is that when a zero-drop shoe has cushion on the heel, it has the same cushion on the forefoot. This makes the shoe feel less flexible than I like, and it also seems to me to create more friction, and thus heat, in the shoe. In my Lunas, I really noticed the difference in flexibility between the 9mm Pacers and the 10mm Monos. This also makes me feel like my feet are slapping the ground more than I would like.

I didn’t feel this “hot slap” quite as much in the Tempos as I have in other zero-drop cushioned shoes, but it was certainly there more than it is in the Cores, or shoes without the 22mm of cushion you get in the Tempos. But I did get these up to speed just to see whether that would be fun, and it was. Running uphill, in particular, was very nice in these shoes.

There were some problems. Blisters in two places on the right foot, and hotspots in the same places on the left foot. These issues tell me that the blisters are more likely caused by the shoe than my form in the shoes. They may be related to the shoes being entirely new, but I so often just take a pair of new shoes out, and most of the time, I do not get blisters in them these days, so I do think this is notable.

One blister was on the heel. I compared the heel on the Tempo to the heel on my Core. The Core has a bit more structure to it, thanks to more stuffing in the heel collar, and the heel on the Core doesn’t come as high on my Achilles as the Tempo does.

The second blister was on my instep. When I look inside the shoe, I see that there is an additional piece of material below the lacing area of the shoe, with a clear “ridge” line of this material where I got the blister. On the other shoe, this material doesn’t stick out so prominently. On my Core, this material is not needed since the leather already gives enough shape to the shoe in the lace area. So it seems that the very light mesh used has required this extra material to be present to give a little more shape in the lace area of the shoe.

Photo of instep material

Where the green meets the grey (is where I get a blister)

If the instep issue remains, I will likely put duct tape or something else over the ridge, to smooth the material transition. But hopefully my blister issues will resolve by running in these shoes, and tightening down the laces a bit more until I find the right way to fit them to my feet – I’m not completely ready to blame the blisters on the shoe itself, although I have heard that others have blisters in the same places that I do.

As yet, I can’t tell whether these shoes will become my marathon+ road racing shoes, but they show promise. They are not as much fun to wear as my Cores, but the feel in my legs after running 10 miles suggests that they may help my legs not feel as broken on long road runs. They are light enough feeling that I’m pretty sure they will work for me at marathon pace (around 7:20 min/mile right now, and hopefully getting quicker!) More on these shoes after I’ve put up some long runs in them!


A nice-looking pair of shoes!


On the run!

Tomorrow is always an adventure

Originally, I wanted to run the Lake Waramaug 50 mile race again this year, in the hope I could get around that course quicker than last year. But life had other plans for me, and I can’t run that race this year.

So I looked around for an alternative 50 mile race, preferably on trail. There’s not much in the northeast at this time of year though. I was left with the possibility of a 3+ hour drive to New Jersey to run something in February, which wasn’t ideal.

And then, up popped the NYARA Shepaug Run Raiser – a 50 mile race in Bridgewater, Connecticut; just a little over an hour south from me. A nice amount of climbing, all set on the trails in a lovely part of the state.

Winter has dragged on up here. This morning, the day before the race: more snow falling on the sloppy mess which sits atop the still-hard ground. I face the prospect of a very long day tomorrow on ankle-breaking snow, ice and mud. And even after a week of almost complete rest, my legs “know” that feeling still – the soreness is faint, but still there – a reminder of post-holes and ankle-sucking deep snow.

My original idea to run a “fast” 50 backed by my hard training over the hard winter has been lost, behind just how tough this winter still is. And I wonder where I go from here, or why I am even running this race?

I try to look at the big picture. This run will raise money for the Shepaug softball/baseball program. Not something I personally care too much about since I don’t live in the town, but it is cool that my run will support more than just my own obsessions.

And it’s a good chance to test myself on some tough terrain for an entire day – it will benefit my training to run a very long and tough day on the Appalachian Trail this summer — if summer ever returns to Western Mass.

Finally, though, it’s a reminder of what an event this long and hard is actually about. Yes, some people run these things very fast. I am slower than some and faster than others. I do like to run fast, and I like to race. But what all of us who participate in ultra-distance sports are united in, is in testing our endurance. Our ability to deal with the lows of life, and to keep on going. Better still, to react with positivity in those low moments. With the knowledge that the lows must exist in order for there to be highs. And with the knowledge that lows and highs come to all of us, breeding sympathy and empathy.

I don’t yet know what the lows and highs of this race will be, but I am sure there will be some of both. It will be an adventure, like life itself.

Better, then, just to keep an open mind, and embrace the day only as it comes, and not before.

The answer is No…

Much colder this morning. I knew it was coming, because of friends’ weather reports from the west and mid-west.

Now the cold is here too. Milder than expected, but here, still, yes really.

I was excited to run up Washington Mountain because I haven’t been there in maybe a week.

I worried a bit about wading through two stream crossings again in the sub-30F morning chill. That turned out to be the least of my problems.

The water was cold alright, but my feet did OK in the wool socks and they didn’t get particularly numb at any point.

Near the top of the hill, you crest a “sub-hill” and hit some flat. As I came over the top of this particular hump, I heard some rustling. Down to my right in the stream there was a black bear, either drinking or bathing! He clearly hadn’t heard me until just then, and I watched him move 200+ lbs gracefully, at speed, directly up a super-steep bank along the other side of the stream, fortunately in the opposite direction to me. So beautiful to see him move like that, but I was very glad it was away from me, because he was clearly a lot better uphill mountain runner than I am!

This is maybe the fourth or fifth time I’ve actually been close to a black bear on a trail. They’ve always gone in the opposite direction, and I know they are typically not interested in coming after humans. It is more usual for me to feel that there is a bear nearby but not to actually see it. In those cases, I try to avoid even looking for the bear directly, and just make more noise. This time, I had no idea the bear was there until I saw it. I guess I also surprised him. Of course, I had been at that moment practicing “butt-kick” drills – designed to get your feet quickly off the ground – which make my footsteps really quiet, especially on bare rock and sand.

Well, we scared each other because we got closer than either of us wanted, but it turned out OK.

Coming up to the top of the hill, I stepped on a small rock, right in the place where my neuroma is (between 2nd/3rd toes) and that really hurt! I had decided that I would make a call of whether to turn round after 6 or 7, or keep going for the full 9+ miles when I got to the top, and the pain from my toes was enough to make that decision early! Keeping the high butt-kick going, I ran down, starting fast.

About half-way down, I suddenly found myself on my back.

I remember the shuffle, toe-stub, drag, fall and “oh shit” moment. But lying on my back, I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to get up. I was kind of pointed down the hill, head first, lying on a stretch of icy rock. This week has sucked in many ways. Emotional calls with people at work doing a task I don’t want to do, and which raises negative feelings for many, including myself. Dog keeping me awake at all hours, for many hours, due to her old-age pain and need to pee at inconvenient hours. Two nights ago, a really bad nights sleep. And last night, OK, 6 hours, with only one interruption to let the dog out, but still, not likely to make up for the previous terrible night’s sleep.

So I just wanted to lay there a minute, and it felt like, oh, I’m ready to give up. Is this what it’s like when you’re ready to die?

Quickly realizing, without thinking, this was a bad path, I got up like quick-style.

Yeah, really painful right hip and big bleeding booboo on the right shin.

For some reason, pain always feels worse when you haven’t slept enough, and when you’re cold.

So, I walked downhill. I decided I’d walk until either I got to the bottom, or the hip pain calmed down.

Fortunately it didn’t take long before my hip felt OK to get running again. I jogged very gently down the rest of the way. Smiling to myself that I had been practicing the very drill that should help me when I’m tired to not stub my toe into something and fall! Smiling to myself because I’m such an idiot to forget that even though I slept OK last night, I’m tired from the previous night’s bad sleep, and the many emotionally-draining meetings I’ve had this week, and the life stress dealing with a slowly-dying dog combined with my own light-sleeping metabolism.

Sometimes it just all adds up. The running is such a positive force in my life that I don’t for a minute think “oh you know, you should really not do that today even though you feel like it”! But sometimes it just. all. adds. up.

And here I am at the end of the morning’s story, and I haven’t written the question to which the answer sits in the workout title.

I was just wondering when I left home this morning whether the bears were hibernating yet. I got my answer.

Teaching myself Elliptic-curve cryptography

Public-key cryptography is useful because it allows the production of two related cryptographic keys; one which may remain private, while only the corresponding public key must be made known to another party. This increases the security of the private key since the private key may be used without sharing that key with any other party.

There are two main popular algorithms used in asymmetric (public key) cryptography:

* “RSA” (initials of its inventors Rivest, Shamir and Adelman )
* “EC”, or elliptic curve

The security of these algorithms depend upon two different specific mathematical things being “hard” to compute:

* RSA depends on it being computationally difficult to generate “prime

* EC depends on the hardness of solving the “discrete logarithm” problem over an “elliptic curve” (where a curve is the result of computing a function over a set of numbers called a “field”)

In practice, mathematical advances (number field sieve functions) have led to it becoming ever easier to factor prime numbers, lowering the computational cost. This has led to the need to continually increase the size of RSA keys in order to continue to make RSA cryptography hard to break. Increasing the size of keys, generally-speaking, will
decrease performance of a crypto-system.

Since EC cryptography does not depend on the difficulty of factorization, and also because it is much computationally harder to solve the elliptic curve discrete logarithm problem (ECDLP) with much smaller key sizes than are needed to provide equivalent security with
RSA, EC has recently become popular.

Some potential problems exist with EC-based systems:

* The security of EC-based systems does not depend solely on ECDLP. As EC has been little used or analyzed (relative to RSA), it is likely that there exist significant flaws in EC implementations (e.g. OpenSSL). It is not clear though whether these are of any more
consequence than previous non-EC-related flaws, such as the OpenSSL Heartbleed bug — so far, they have not been.

* In order to enable interoperability between implementations, standards exist for which curves should be used for EC cryptography. These standards have, so far, been published by NIST, a US government agency, currently in disrepute due the Snowden revelations. It is alleged that NSA representatives chose particular facets of the NIST standards in order to weaken crypto-systems using these curves. There is no actual evidence of this, although there is evidence, in the standards themselves, that the particular curves
chosen were chosen more for “efficiency” than “security”. Some reputable cryptographers (Lange, Bernstein) have provided plausible explanations for why _implementations_ of the NIST curves may be insecure. As of the writing of this document though, no known
practical attacks have been revealed.

* There have been few implementations of cryptography based on EC, and there appears little interoperability between implementations (except where they rely on the same library  — ie. OpenSSL). Further, encryption using EC is poorly standardized (ECIES is the only “standard” I can find)

* The NIST-standardized DUAL_EC_DRBG random number generator, which is also based on hardness of ECDLP, has a significant documented weakness, which has led to the widespread belief that this RNG has been backdoored by NSA. It should be noted that just because this RNG uses the same mathematical properties as EC cryptography, this does not imply that there is necessarily any property which transfers to non-RNG uses of ECDLP.


* Do not use the DUAL_EC_DRBG random number generator in your own code, since it is proven insecure (ie. do not use OpenSSL FIPS module, BSAFE or the MSFT S-Connect libraries). It is also possible to use EC cryptography WITHOUT using the DUAL_EC_DRBG RNG., since DUAL_EC_DRBG is only one of the NIST-approved RNGs.

* TLS clients: do not negotiate TLS EC ciphersuites with SSL/TLS servers since you cannot be sure that the server is not using the DUAL_EC_DRBG? @@TODO: investigate this some more! Is DUAL_EC_DRBG an option for non-EC ciphersuites?

* If you wish to have interoperability with external partners, use the NIST-specified EC curves (FIPS 186-4), as implemented in OpenSSL and BouncyCastle; specifically the P-244 curve appears to be a reasonable choice for efficiency.

* If you control all parties in the crypto-system, you may use Bernstein’s p25519 curve, but will be on your own when it comes to implementing encryption, since there is no current standard for encryption that uses curves other than the NIST curves.

* Unless your threat model includes attack by state actors, it is probably safe to assume that you are currently safe from other attacks that rely on any fundamental weakness in EC cryptography, or particular curves. You are less safe from implementation flaws in
any library or code you are using, but this is a common problem in all use of cryptography, no matter how commonly used (see Heartbleed).


“What a difference a prime makes” –
“NIST FIPS 186-4” –
“Safe Curves”
“Random Curves” –
“Openssl ECIES example” –
“Google End-to-End” –
“OpenPGP ECC standard” –
“Dual EC in TLS” –

Jack Bristol Lake Waramaug 50 mile race report

The day didn’t start so well. After a fitful but pretty reasonable 6 hours sleep, I got up at 4:30am to make the drive down to Lake Waramaug. It should have been pretty easy. Maybe it was too easy. Before I knew it I had missed a turn and had no idea where I was going. Car GPS didn’t bat an eyelid, and just rerouted me without even letting me know. There I was visualizing myself coming across the finish line in my first 50 mile race. Aren’t you supposed to do that? OK, maybe not while you’re driving to the race.

Fortunately, I had allowed plenty of time, and still got there early enough for my pre-race prep. It was so cold (36F) that I stayed in the car mostly, but spent time a little time talking to some of the other runners who had driven from all over to be at this race.


Jack Bristol Lake Waramaug is a historic ultramarathon. They’ve been running this race for 40 years now, and many of the sport’s old-time legends have run here. Now that ultras are trendy, and trails are the thing, attendance has dropped for the longer races. But still. 50K, 50M and 100K races around a lovely lake in northern Connecticut. At worst, it’s a lovely day out!

We were off promptly at 7:30am. My plan was just to run lightly, arms low and feet quiet, keeping somewhere close to a 9:45 min/mile pace. Through the first 4.4 mile out-and-back I did that pretty much perfectly – 41 minutes for that stretch. Now for the big stuff – 6 loops of 7.6 miles each.

I was in my Luna Mono sandals with a pair of Injinji toe socks. After the tests I did last week, I thought I could at least start the race in them, but I had put my GRUs in the drop bag for later in the race. Turns out that was a great idea because, you know, sandals and socks?!

The first real loop passed by without incident. I met a couple of people I would run with for the next couple of laps — Aaron, who was doing the 50 mile, and another guy whose name I never found out who was doing the 50K.

By the time we’d gone around almost two loops together though, we started to talk about pace, and Aaron said we were averaging 8:16 minute miles! I almost choked. I run by feel so apart from the race timer I’d see once a lap, I didn’t pay much attention to the pace. Anyway, at that point, I told them that I was going to slow down a bit. But at the end of loop 2, I was still a whopping 13 minutes ahead of schedule already! A bit before I came to the end of that lap I had decided that I was going to swap out of the Lunas because I could feel that the road miles were already making my legs very sore. I figured that with this huge cushion on my time I could take a 5 minute break and change shoes no problem at all. So, after 20 miles, I sat on the bank by the finish and changed shoes and socks. It felt so good!

Getting up after sitting down though did not feel so good. My heart rate went through the roof and it took me most of the next 4 miles to recover to the point my breathing felt normal.

One of the major selling points of this race are the aid station volunteers and the food on offer. I brought plenty of food with me, but I basically didn’t eat any of it. I’d decided to stay off the sugar train for as long as possible – at least the first 30 miles. Two egg wraps, some bacon, a few chips and water were what I ate up to the marathon distance. At my favorite aid station though half-way round the lake, I discovered my best running fuel ever – chicken broth. It was hot, so I took an extended walking break to down it, but it gave me so much energy! I fair pounded the last miles around that loop, ran the full marathon a shade under 3:58 (approximate, based on one of the very few road markers) and came around loop 3 for almost 28 miles in a touch under 4:13. I also passed Aaron for good around that point. He had apparently slowed and didn’t run with me when I came out of the aid station. I asked him if he was OK and he said yes, so I carried on.

Loops 4 and 5 were tougher. I had decided that I should walk in order to save energy for the last loop. As I was still on course to beat even my best goal, it seemed reasonable. So I walked the half mile at the mid-way aid station to drink my chicken broth, and I walked through the finish line section. Far from being helpful though, these walking breaks turned out to be such a bad idea for me. I started to feel like my legs would cramp when I would start running after walking! At first, I thought that maybe I didn’t have enough electrolytes in me, so I started up on the Gatorade — and continued with the chicken broth! Two pieces of banana and a few chocolate raisins too. I kept my footfalls loose, somehow, and my legs never actually cramped, but each time I walked, the running afterwards would suck. By the end of loop 5 I had realized that I simply couldn’t walk any significant distance if I wanted to be able to run afterwards. So although my pace had dropped significantly in loop 5, I actually started to pull it together at the end of that loop. I passed one of the old-timers (he has done this race every year since 1976!) doing the 100K race. He told me that the way I was going I could break 8 hours if I just kept a steady pace for the last lap. I wished him the best, and took off. Now that I had worked out that I shouldn’t walk, running was again easy! I couldn’t believe it. I was really going to finish. Just one more lap. I came through loop 5 in 6:45, knowing that I had to do a 75 minute lap to break 8 hours. If I could just avoid walking, I would do it. And even if I walked, well, I was going to finish, no matter what.

I didn’t even walk through the aid stations except the 3 steps it would take for me to drain a Gatorade and grab a banana piece. And coming around the back stretch it was all looking good until a couple of miles before the finish line, when I was suddenly incredibly tired. But I knew I couldn’t walk for more than a few steps before I wouldn’t be able to run again. Which was enough to force myself to get running after just a few walking steps each time. Just before the finish, Carl (the race organizer) started hopping and jumping around me, taking photos like crazy as I motored around the last bend. I had no idea, but I had apparently made it into 3rd place overall in the 50 mile race!

OK, so there were only something like 30 people in the 50 mile race. But it was a nice bonus.

An even nicer bonus was when the family turned up a half hour later (my wife had understood to be there no later than 4:30, when I had actually said 3:30). She was sporting a Big Elm IPA (a local Sheffield MA brew), from her chef friend Brian (who had said he had no idea that anyone actually did what I was doing!)

This course was pretty flat, so my quads were just fine. But my hamstrings, and whatever other muscles than run down the back of my legs to the insides of my knees. D e a d. I don’t even know how to get these with the foam roller. Two big blisters, one on each foot. Basically I never even notice blisters, so they were never a problem given that were always worse pains to think about.

All in all, a successful day’s effort. Weather was good for running, but otherwise chilly and rainy. Lake breeze was mostly welcome even though cold. The suntan I got on my face though is a reminder that a lot of different weather can happen in 8 hours! Staying off the sugar for the first marathon really worked for me, and I didn’t get sick of the sweet stuff in the second half of the race (as I have done in marathons before).

The race was well organized, and the volunteers wonderful. It’s already tempting to say that I’ll go back next year. The loop format makes this an ideal first ultra where you’re so unsure of everything. But road miles. Phew! I really have to figure out shoes that will work for the full distance. Neither the GRUs or the Lunas are completely ideal for that many road miles for me. The GRUs took a real pounding too – in just 28 miles, the sole is completely worn away over the balls of my feet (there was no significant wear before yesterday). They seem more like road->trail shoes rather than dedicated road shoes. I think I’ve pretty much trashed them and yet they only have about 250 miles in them total. The Luna Monos have more cushion for road miles than my beloved (trail) Leadville sandals, but the cushion is probably what caused the big blister on my toe, as they are less flexible because of the extra material. Flexible + cushioned + road-specific. Hmmm.

My accurate splits will be posted on the Lake Waramaug website some time, but here are my approximate splits (rounded up to nearest minute since I usually forgot how many seconds were on the clock, except for the last two laps):

1 (out and back, 4.4 miles) 0:41 elapsed (41 minutes)
2 (loop 1, 7.6 miles, 12 miles total) (missing, I forget…)
3 (loop 2, 7.6 miles, 19.6 miles) 2:59 elapsed (missing)
4 (loop 3, 7.6 miles, 27.2 miles) 4:13 elapsed (74 minutes/lap)
5 (loop 4, 7.6 miles, 34.8 miles) 5:28 elapsed (75 minutes/lap)
6 (loop 5, 7.6 miles, 42.4 miles) 6:45 elapsed (77 minutes/lap)
7 (loop 6, 7.6 miles, 50 miles) 7:59 elapsed (74 minues/lap)