Relax Flow Focus Dance

moosilauke summit.jpg

I’m visualizing my run on Tuesday as a set of dots, with me as the pencil. As I run I connect the dots. It happens in four stages:

  1. Ravine Lodge to Last Water
  2. Last Water to First View
  3. First View to Bright Corner
  4. Bright Corner to Summit

I’ve been running Moosilauke in these same four stages for two months now, once a week, taking a five-minute break between stages. On Tuesday I’ll do the same thing, only without the breaks.

Each stage has a label:





Not a bad book title. It’s sort of like “Eat Pray Love” without the—well, without the eating and sex. But hey, there’s dancing. I think these labels could work for just about every scary goal, athletic or otherwise. In the beginning, you try not to push too hard. You take stock, get your form right, and enjoy yourself. Next, as the work gets harder, you get into the flow. Make sure it’s about the process more than the goal. Then, as it gets still harder, you focus. Get rid of extraneous moves or thoughts. And then, as you near the goal, you improvise, try to be nimble, let yourself get excited, and feel the joy. You dance.

Think of each stage as a dot, with smaller dots in between. Then run it in your head. With Moosilauke it goes like this:

You start below the Moosilauke Ravine Lodge, the big log cabin built in 1938 by Dartmouth College students. There’s a flat spot of dirt right next to a burned spot where students like to light campfires. The temperature is probably a bit warmer than you like it—about 54 degrees. You’re wearing a singlet, a pair of compression shorts, and “barefoot” style ultralight running shoes. No socks. And a running watch, whose stopwatch function you set to zero. You’ve gotten up at 4:30, drunk some energy drink, had a bowel movement, stretched, and recited your mantras during the 45-minute drive from home. (“I trained for this. I’m a true athlete. My legs love rocks. I flow up rocks. Feed them rocks. Running is my natural state.”) You’ve warmed up on a side trail for about 15 minutes. It’s now 6:15 or so, just light enough on the darker part of the trail.

With you are your wife, your friend Robert Bonazoli, his girlfriend Jessica Kehoe, and Jes’s 13-year-old daughter, Lydia. They’ve driven from Boston the night before and gotten up ridiculously early just to cheer you on. Robert says something funny and you grin, pretending to hear it. You’re breathing and stretching.

“Okay,” you say. “See you on the way down.”

You blow out hard a couple times, step up to the start line, relax your shoulders, and start your watch. Your friends yell, waking up the guests sleeping in the bunkhouses.

Relax. Move your feet. You’re going rapidly downhill to cross the Baker River, not a good time to trip. Your feet sound musically on the wood of the bridge; you ignore the river boiling below. Big rock just off the far end. Barely touch it with one foot, then lightly touch down the other foot. Slippery. Run to the trailhead. Now you move up, your legs finally getting to eat some rocks. Get your hips under you, elbows high, breathe. Enjoy this. You move up your first “hill.” Anything more than 12 degrees counts as a hill; some of the hills are 15 degrees or more. At 50 degrees you can reach straight out and touch the ground. It’s never that steep until near the top.

Up and up, pushing up onto some rocks, running around others, keeping your shoes dry as much as you can. It’s wet here, an old stream bed that follows the river. The rocks are huge and slippery. Don’t get frustrated, keep moving. You trained for this. You’re strong and light. Your legs love rocks.

Over the first big hill, a short downhill skip to First Bridge. The first dot! You say “Yay” inwardly as you cross. Walk it, moving fast; the old bridge, made of a few logs, is rickety and slippery. Now move up the next hill. More rocks to eat. Strong and light. Relax. Pump your arms on the leaps. Keep going up, and then you’re at the Trail Reroute, a bright orange whale-shaped sign. Yay! Make a hard right then run up stepped rocks to the new trail, suddenly soft underfoot. Now you can really relax, stretch out your legs, gain some speed. The student trail crew did a magnificent job converting this muddy trail into something runnable. You hear the river far down to your right. You’ve climbed an astonishing amount in a hurry. Keep your pace up. Relax. Breathe.

You reach Second Bridge. Yay! Moving well. Again, though, walk this. The bridge shakes as you cross it. Now up another hill. Eat more rocks! Moving well. Relax. Hips in, elbows high, pump to leap. You trip and catch yourself. Smile—nice catch! Breathe. Keep moving, fast light feet. Relax.

And you’re at a  hard-packed part of the trail that feels like concrete. Approaching Last Water already. Holy cow.

Last Water. Yay! You’ve completed the first stage, gaining 1,100 feet and almost half the distance to the summit, probably in 21 minutes or so. But don’t check your watch. It’s just a distraction.

The rocks here are really tricky. Flow over them. Flow. Now you’re at the first of two big hills at this stage. Flow up them. Strong and light. You’re starting to suffer a little. You can take the suffering. You trained for this. Your right gluteus maximus feels a little stiff. Imagine it as ice cream and let it melt. Breathe. Flow up these rocks. Your legs love rocks. You flow up rocks. Feed them more rocks!

That hill done, you quickly reach the second hill. Keep running, even if you’re not running fast. Slow running works better than fast walking. You come to Ridiculous—a part of the trail elaborately fixed up by an ambitious Dartmouth student, with perfectly placed birch logs and hundreds of small stones. Yay!

First sign of fatigue. Hello, fatigue. You’ve been expecting it. See you at the top, you say. Keep running. The trail levels out a bit. Relax here. Keep your feet up so you don’t trip. First View doesn’t ever come as soon as you think. Let it take its time.j

You see the flat spot—maybe 20 feet of dirt—where trees have been cut for the view. Yay! That’s stage 2, which you probably completed in about 12 minutes. You’re on target, doing beautifully. Relax. Flow.

Now comes the fun part. This is the part that makes or breaks the Time Barrier. If you can run enough of this stage, you’ll blast right through 58 or even 57 minutes, maybe better. It’s now up to you—not your legs or your mind but you. Strip the governor, the part of the brain that tells you you’re taxing yourself too much. Strip the governor that responds to acidosis, the buildup of lactate that makes your legs feel like iron. Relax. Breathe. Flow. Your legs love rocks. Let them flow up the rocks. You can suffer more than this. You trained for this. It’s not as hard as the three-minute intervals you’ve been doing for weeks.

Focus. As your body uses up its remaining glycogen, your brain struggles to make the myriad decisions—where to place your feet, where to keep your hips, whether to leap up or run around. You’re in control. Focus. Flow. Relax. Breathe.

You have to walk a couple of places, just to climb up some car-sized boulders. But you run everywhere you can. You strip the governor. After the first hill, the second hill—longer and steeper. Yes, fatigue, you’re still there. I understand. Can’t talk right now though. You smile.

First Picnic. Yay! This is where hikers often stop to eat—a series of stepped rocks. Run these rocks. Run them, don’t walk. Pump your elbows. Breathe. Relax. Flow. Focus.

Second View. Yay! Move quickly between tightly spaced boulders on the narrow trail. You can enjoy the view on the way down.

Second Picnic. More stepped rocks. Yay! Some of these you walk. Focus. Pump your arms. Run. Strip the governor. You trained for this. This is where you truly run your age. Beyond your age. Younger.

Bright Corner! The rising sun hits you here. You expected this. Warmer than you’d like, but you’ve trained for it, doing your training runs in a wool shirt. Besides, you’ve reached the final stage. Fatigue doesn’t matter now. You’re heading for the top. Run this. Run this! You feel like vomiting, and your breath comes in croaks—asthma setting in. Doesn’t matter. See y’all at the top.

The trail flattens out but gets technical, with giant awkwardly place rocks you have to walk through. Happy to walk. Relax.

Now up a short hill. Lift your feet. Pump your arms. Flow.

You get to the Scramble. Yay! Pull yourself up with hands and feet over a vertical stretch. You reached the Coll. Yay!

Time to really dance. Hurricane Irene washed what little dirt lay between the loose rocks. Move your feet as fast as you can. You trip. Smile—nice catch again. Dance. You’re almost there. Just nine minutes from Bright Corner to the top, and you’ve already covered that hardest part of that. Dance!

Summit in View: yay! Now nothing else matters. Dance. Focus. Flow. Get your hips under you and move your legs. You’re in control. Don’t just strip the governor; it doesn’t exist anymore. It’s just you and the running. Run.

And you’re at the final steep part at the very stop. Run this. Use your hands to pull yourself up to the top. The Top: click the Stop button, making sure it’s the right one. Holy cow. Oh my gosh. You did it, and did it beautifully. You breathe. Relax your shoulders, try not to gag. You feel tears coming on. You did it. It was beautiful.

Take in the view, the fog in the valleys below, the wind moving the red tops of the summit sedge. You’re at 4,806 feet. The wind chills you a bit and you shudder.

Walk down for a while, then jog the trail. Your wife and friends have been hiking up for an hour. If they’re very fast you’ll find them around one of the picnics. If they’re not, you still should see them by First View.

“Yep,” you say. Show them your watch. Have one of them take a picture of it, and of you. Remember to thank your wife.

“Thank you, Dorothy. For letting me do this.”

“Happy birthday, Love,” she says. “I’m so proud of you.”

You feel like dancing.