Thursday, October 20, 2016

 by Sean Cook

   This year has been a year unlike any other year and it is not even over yet. For me though the big challenge was retiring from the US Army after 21+ years of service. Just that idea itself is epic and huge but not unlike what has been done millions of times before me by other great veterans like my father. For me it is really the past and for me looking back isn’t something I am necessarily good at doing. I have been programmed, as most of us, to always look at the next mountain the next obstacle, look forward, set goals, and make it happen. However, I really want to take a brief look back at my birth in running and compare that to my career in the Army. I think there are some life lessons there that we could all appreciate. Looking back is the easy part because for most of us it is either a good or bad reflection that we have stored away in our long term memory. Some of us may have chosen to delete it all together but it is still there. So let’s take a little journey back and see how we can better look forward or prepare for the unknown because in running we embrace that fear of the unknown.

  The past started in 2014 when I underwent reconstructive ankle surgery. I was at the peak of my mediocre CrossFit career and thought I was the next coming of Rich Fronning (Famous Crossfitter), however I was older and well much OLDER.  So after years of Rugby, CrossFit and Jumping out of perfectly good airplanes my ankle decided it didn’t want to work anymore. It had determined that it was time for surgery. So I underwent an ankle reconstructive surgery and became a new man. I literally ate so much junk food for one month I got fat and I was wondering where I was headed. Would I be one of these people you see that take it sitting down or would I get up and fight this, you can guess where this is going. So I started rehab and I cut out all this junk food. Then I got an unexpected surprise to go to Germany and work for six months. While I was there one of my peers was a “runner,” so we would talk about running sometime if we found time. Well as my rehab went better I really wanted to get out there and push myself to see what my ankle could handle. I was tired of the treadmill and the elliptical machine and needed trails or asphalt! So we started making plans to run the local German trails around base. They were beautiful and the weather in Germany is always one for running, reminded me of Seattle. We ran and ran over many lunches and I got to where I could run a 10 minute, then 9 minute, then 8 minute, then 7 minute pace for several miles. I felt recovered and I felt healthy it was a good time and place for me. However, I still hadn’t been bitten by the running bug. This all happened when I got back from Germany. You know looking back this was a very important period for me. I could have continued on my current course of using machines to stay fit. I could have continued to rely on processed foods and not cooked as much. I could have put my headphones on and shut out the world as I saw fit. However, I didn’t. I got off the couch, I went for a run, I met friends on the trail, I experienced a beauty and freedom that only running can give you and then I felt like a new person. This is how I came home from Germany.

   When I got home from Germany I thought I was done with running and would slide back into my CrossFit gym and push on to be that guy that didn’t run from the enemy cause I was bigger, badder, etc etc. etc. However, it just didn’t work out like that. When I got back I still reconnected with friends from the gym but I needed to be outside and needed the sun, fresh Colorado Air, and this freedom. One day talking around Thanksgiving or Christmas my friends who had run this crazy 100 Mile race called Leadville told me I should sign up. I think I laughed harder than they would have imagined. My friends had each tried it twice and not finished and this was their 3rd year entering it. It was one of those epic feats I wasn’t exposed to before so the mere fact of 100 Miles made me laugh. However, I went home and thought about it and thought back to who I was and what I have become in the Army. Was I content and happy with being this desk jockey? Well I thought back to 1998 when I entered the US Army Best Ranger Competition as a complete nobody from Ft Drum, New York. I wasn’t predicted to do anything much at the renowned competition expect put my best foot forward. What we did was finish the event where over half don’t. Each year 50-60 teams of two rangers from every unit around the military compete to see who is the best. I was happy then to just finish but I never would have finished had I not gotten to the start line or volunteered. So I signed up that night for the Leadville 100 and went to bed. When I was in Jamaica, early 2015 with my soon to be wife, I got an email that said something to the effect that I had been selected to run in the Leadville 100 Trail race. I literally dropped my phone and thought what had I done. Looking back, I can tell you exactly what I did, I changed my life for the better. I got out of my comfort zone and I sought out new challenges that you can’t find on any couch or TV Program. It was a turning point in my life but I was still a novice. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. But I made the first step in my new life and that was I toed the line and accepted what came ahead, of course I had no clue what was about to happen but here we go I thought.

   Getting to the Leadville 100 was half the battle but it was a serious climb from someone who had never run an organized race over ten miles, EVER. So as soon as I got home from Jamaica and the rum wore off I was hitting the paths and roads of wintery Colorado. I was learning to run on ice and learning to run in snow. I was reading and absorbing so much information about running that I was the gadget guy. I had a shoe, a piece of kit, or a trick for everything. I had different bottles, bladders, gels, and drink mixes. I was like a mad scientist trying everything but what this did was 1) Cost me a lot of money catching up with people who had kit and been running for ever 2) Forced me to really look at a product and use it to see if it likes or I wanted to keep using it 3) It really made me start to look at what you need to finish a race and how to train for it properly with your kit. Well in that train up time for the Leadville 100 I ran a lot of Half Marathons. It seemed to be my go to race if I needed to do one. I put these races on my schedule and signed up for them to keep me focused and on track with my training. I was still running during the week 2 or 3 times a week and then a nice longer run on the weekend. I went to a school our east and was exposed to Sea Level running and then all of a sudden I was a Half Marathon Crazy guy. I ran a lot of them, maybe 20, and even got to the point where I would run one on Saturday and one on Sunday. I was also pushing my times and trying to stay around 1:45 for the Half. However, I knew I had to step up my game so I signed up for some marathons three of them to be exact, and I made that happen. When I came back from the East Coast I was still doubting myself and my equipment and my training. I think this is something normal with all racers and career folks. You think you are set and you have a good method then things change. For me I picked up running in Hokas which I would have never expected to do. I also picked up a Garmin and kept myself honest! When I got back to Colorado I was worried I wasn’t ready for the 100. SO I signed up for the Leadville Camp and the Sheep Mountain 50. Those two events were so tough and demanding that when I was done I knew I was ready for the 100. Yea right I didn’t know did I. Who is ever ready for a 100??

   When the day came for the 100 it was another day for me. I had put in the time and training and I had really changed a lot of how I went about life and I was rewarded in the end with a finish. It was a painful finish and I broke a bone in my foot about mile 60 but it was a finish nonetheless. But like I said it was just another day and when I got my buckle I was very happy and proud. I think I was happier and proud my parents and some of my friends and family were there to share the moment with me. I am a happy runner and need those small things on long runs to get me over the edge. Not only did I finish in 2015 but I also crossed the line and improved my time by 30 minutes in 2016. As I look back on my Army career and my retirement ceremony it was just another day. I have become accustomed to big events coming and going. I have an ability to not dwell on the past. I was ready for the next chapter and the next trail and next race. As I look out I can offer you this, Don’t live for the past but embrace it as you would the fear of the unknown. Live for unexpected joys and happiness in life wherever that may carry you. If you ever need a buddy or friend to catch a race with or share a view on life with I would love to be that person. See you on the high ground or see you at the next race.

'Live Free Run Free'
#Thumbsuprunners (Instagram, FB, Twitter, and all over)

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Pearl Izumi and the Runners they left behind.

   So like any runner alone on the trails you make friends and talk about things runners talk about Shoes, Poles, Clothing, fuel, food and beer. Those bonds grow and materialize into friends taking care of friends, or so that is my story and introduction to very brief introduction with Pearl Izumi. Well I met this runner who had connections with Pearl Izumi and wanted to get me a pair of shoes to try out at one of my upcoming races. I told them that if I liked the shoes, during testing,  I would possibly wear them at some point during the Leadville 100 trail race. Well when push came to shove I was running the last 25 miles of the Leadville 100 in a brand spanking new pair of Pearl Izumi M2's. So this is how I got there and how I fell in love for a quick minute to be left at the altar by Pearl Izumi who in one statement stated their demands as being greater than the consumer.

   So Wednesday of last week, the week leading up to the Leadville 100 or in my view the Super Bowl of Running, there was a pair of Pearl Izumi M2 Trail shoes delivered to my front door. Before I had a chance to even take these shoes for a spin around the block there some sad and disturbing news that hit the wire, Thursday, about Pearl Izumi. It appears that Pearl Izumi was discontinuing their trail running products and focusing their efforts on Cycling. It was to late I was committed so on Friday, in Leadville,  I took the shoes out anyway for a nice 4-5 mile romp to get my legs going and to see if these shoes could support me in the Leadville 100 starting the next morning. It was a very wild and dynamic week for anyone in and around Pearl Izumi but extremely sad for my friend who now was looking for a job. Some of the thoughts that raced thru my head included the typical why. Why would they put so much effort into a product to only walk away a couple years later. There had to be more to the story, which I am not going to look into here sorry. But it really provides you some good thoughts for a nice 100 mile run! Maybe it will be like new Coke and maybe there will be a change of heart but I won't hold my breath and don't recommend you doing that either.

   On the 'inbound journey' of the Leadville 100, after spending 8 hours going up and over Hopes Pass twice, I was sitting at the Twin Lakes Aid Station and went thru my planned shoe change. I switched to the new Brooks Cascade 2189 Scott Jurek special edition/tribute shoes, from his famed Appalachian Trail journey. My plan was to wear these shoes until I finished the race some 40 miles later. I started the race in a pair of Hoka's from the start to twin lakes. So this was just another change for me to keep things fresh based on my feet and the terrain. However, after about 15 miles i had enough of the Brooks Cascadias because they were rubbing my feet wrong and I was beginning to get some hot spots on the bottom of my feet and some discomfort on the top of my feet. Bottom line was I wasn't feeling it and if you have any mental doubts then you need to act reasonably quick. It had reduced me to not a lot of running so I was done and my decision was made. At the Outward bound Aid Station I asked my crew for my trusty Hoka's but my crew said they were wet and not ready. So they brought me back my emergency pair of shoes, my Pearl Izumi M2 trail shoes. There began my quick affair with the M2.

   The Pearl Izumi running line has been around for about 13 years now and you could say it has taken them 13 years to narrow down to a quality product, but I won't say that because I didn't wear them the previous 13 years. I will say I am new to their shoes but quite familiar with their very good product and clothing lines. They are renowned for their quality clothing and I have used their warm arm sleeves for some time now, specifically during 2 Leadville 100's. Their tights, pants, and shorts can also been seen all over the running trails and courses as they are a very popular choice among men and women. Inside Pearl Izumi the running section made up about 12% of the company sales and effort. You could argue they were never vested into the running scene which is funny since the company is based in Louisville, Colorado close to thousands of trails and famous road and trail races. But i won't make that argument because in the past couple years they made significant strides, no pun, and had some all-star ambassadors and athletes representing their company and really bringing it to the front of the running community, especially the trail running community. There are over 20 competitive running shoe companies that cater to the road and trail. Maybe this was one of the areas they felt hindered their ability to gain ground on some of the larger companies. I would say though, smaller companies do put out some great products and can compete at a smaller scale with the large Nike or Adidas behemoths. I would rather wear a sack of rice on each foot than a pair of Nike shoes, but that is my personal opinion.

   As I closed in on the finish and 25 miles of shoe testing my Pearl Izumi M2's, I realized my feet felt amazing. I was hurting in plenty of other places like my knees, hips, and back which all spelled HOPES PASS, but my feet were in superior comfort mode. I didn't have a single blister on my feet. My feet were able to expand in the wide shoe box and have some space for comfort without sliding around like they were to big. I also had a bruised toe nail from earlier in the race that was able to relax and not sustain additional pain thanks to the extremely soft feel of the M2. The tread was equally as pleasant and felt like I had a rock guard in the shoe somewhere because little rocks were not bother the bottoms of my feet. I was happy my crew had found these shoes in my emergency box and super pleased at the performance of these shoes up andover power line to the finish! However it was a short lived enjoyment because as I sat back I realized these shoes were going away. I debated not even writing this piece because who cares right? Well maybe it does reach one person and they realize that maybe making the shoe they thought wasn't right was really right for a couple of people and that the value of the dollar at the end of the day isn't the only driving force in life. 


Wednesday, August 10, 2016


   What kind of person seeks to run further than they might have before, in more pain than you can fathom, and thru some horrific terrain that breaks you down. What is it about Ultra Running that makes it a magnet for these gritty individuals? Well I can tell you as a runner that there is something that uniquely bonds us all together and whether it is some sick sense of enjoying pain or pushing ourselves further and further, the bottom line is we are all linked by this event. This race or that race, really they are all a unique piece of what we are and who we have become, are irrelevant in the bigger holistic picture. The picture of a runner. A solo runner. But not in the Ultra running community because it is a collection of runners that make this picture complete. No one runs alone. No one supports themselves. No one person is the single key to their success. It is a family, a team, a company, a group, a collective unit or whatever you want to call it but a team of teams working together to achieve one goal, FINISH.

When one of my old Soldiers asked me why our unit was so great, his words not mine, I had a simple response for him. "Because we trained hard, played hard, cared about soldiers, and we didn't do any of this to get ahead or as an individual but as a collective group." You can take this and slap this on the Ultra Running community or any successful organization or company because we train hard as individuals and as a group seeking one goal. We play hard whether it is our running of races or our sitting back celebrating a great story or race. We all care each other as runners and humans whether it is a crew member, a fellow runner, a race director or a volunteer. Finally we all get better as a group and by working together versus working alone. At the end of the day sitting around talking about what we did on the trails is one of the best feelings you can have. A celebration of accomplishment within a group of runners. 

   So what makes this family great and what brings people to this community? After some amazing stories this past weekend while I worked an Aide Station for the The Silver Heels 100 run by Human Potential Race Series (HPRS) in FairPlay Colorado, I wanted to look at what makes up a race family. I want to analyze the components of a race that make us one big family. Our Aid Station was the first and last that runners hit on their road to success. So I saw the highs and lows of all the great runners out there that toed the line.

This is obviously the best Volunteer known to man but is freezing cold!

The Volunteer: The volunteer is one of the most needed and critical positions for a race director in the execution of his race. It is also one of the most important people to a runner looking for nourishment, motivation, and some aid. At our station we had three runners helping out and all of us had completed a 100 mile race, some of them multiple 100's. When you speak to a runner you know where they are with that experience. You can feel their motivation and needs just by speaking to them. Some runners want nothing to do with you and just wanna chair and pass out. Some runners want to engage and chat and connect with humans. The beauty of it all is that the volunteers are there to help out other runners. Many runners who pass thru take the time and energy to thank volunteers for their help and support and they truly mean it. That is something that bonds us all. I had multiple conversations with pacers, runners, and other aid personnel about the race and how they were doing and what we can do for them.  A volunteer can play many roles to a runner and making that 100 happen. 

The Pacer comes in all shapes and size but has one goal, move the runner forward.

The Pacer: The pacer is the friend, the companion, the confidant, or the complete stranger that has either been or not been in your situation but is committed to getting you to the next aid station or to achieve your goal one step at a time. You see pacers come running thru like dragon queens slave drivers and you see some that are more reserved and even following behind their runners. At Silver Heels we saw a lot of variety come thru our aid station. The lead runner had no pacer and you can argue he really didn't need one but looking at all the racers who did come thru they all shared one trait at mile 88 they looked like POO POO. LOL. That isn't meant to be degrading just a fact. SO the Pacer has lots of jobs in addition to motivating a runner. For me I used my pacer to keep me on a fueling schedule. I also relied on my pacer to keep my brain focused thru dull but necessary conversations. Silver Heels really had some amazing pacers come rolling thru. I would like to call out two especially. The first we kind of mentioned before as the Slave Driver. She rolls in with her runner and is barking orders, telling her runner what to eat what to do, she sat him down and pulled out a buffet and fed him.Then when she thought he was done it was time to move on.....we all knew when it was time cause it came loud and clear! She was awesome though and if you are on the backside of a good time she might be the motivation you need to keep running....away from her! LOL. The other Pacer was one who was nursing a severely wounded and hurting runner. She was positive reinforcement and motivation for her runner. She worked the line picking out foods and working with him to determine where he was. She allowed him to have feedback, maybe a little to much, but she was in control. She won over the aid station easily with her charm and wit and got us to do first aid on her runner like we were all one team. I was down there powdering feet and applying duct tape like a seasoned pro because she wanted him to continue on. That is why we call the the Pacer, they lead you when in times you may not be able to lead yourself. Invaluable and totally needed for us non elite runners. Or what I like to call MOP runners, Middle Of the Pack. 

The Director: The director is your anchor your truly one person that can either lift or drown your spirits thru simple things like organization or mere words of wisdom. Some races you don't even know who the race director is. Others you know exactly who it is. In larger races I guess it really doesn't matter who the director is. Like in the Boston Marathon you really think the Director will speak to 40K plus runners and get them fired up for the run? In Trail races you have a different kind of feeling and this goes back to the family atmosphere. Also some races have a race director who is more behind the scenes making things run and you can have a celebrity up front leading the motivational charge and getting you believing in yourself, like Leadville 100 and Ken Chlouber. Your director, Sherpa John in this case, was all over the course working and supporting runners. At the end of the day they want to create a challenging course that tests you and brings you closer together with everyone who helped you get to the starting line or the finish line.

The Crew: The crew is one of the more important aspects of the race that helps a runner ground themselves thru the fiends and family that come out to help support their runner. Groups of people huddled around a runner doing everything they can to keep that runner going. For Leadville my parents came out to crew me and they got a lot of lessons learned over a course of 30 hours. Sometimes crew members work hand in hand with pacers to ensure that they are taking care of their runners. When I rolled into twin lakes with 7 minutes to spare last year at Leadville, I had no idea what was going on around me. My mom was getting me coffee, my dad was changing shoes, and my pacers were off talking in a corner. Probably talking about how to use a cattle prod to keep me going. The crew serves another important boost, Morale. it is something warming to come running into an aide station and see a loved one waiting and cheering you on. It really lifts you up and takes all the pain away. 

This picture highlights the fact that no runner is alone.

   The Runner: Your runner is the person living next door. A man or woman of any race or age. A person that over time has realized that there is something special inside them that makes them want to go far. They get there because of numerous reasons. Some people are overcoming life obstacles, some people are athletes and runners since they were knee high, some people are getting old gracefully and fighting it un-gracefully, some people are simply into the adrenaline of endurance events, and then some people are just out there because they enjoy the community and finish or not like to be part of events like this. What is unique is what runners bring to the table. Many have vast experiences and pedigrees of running, like the Silver Heels winner who also finished 4th at San Juan Solstice 50. Then you have your first timers who are out there pushing themselves to new levels because they too have a internal drive to do so. I was able to see many of these come thru our aid station and the stories they all had and shared was amazing. One runner from Florida took a ten minute lap then filled up his Camel Back with Mountain Dew. Now he did finish last and I did laugh but he simply responded he was pushing along as long as he could stay awake. Guts and determination, a characteristic of all runners who toe the line. The bottom line is that runners are why we all are here and why we put on these events and help out. Without that demand there would be no supply of events like these. Hats off to those who toe the line. 

   The sum of all parts equals a finely oiled machine that produces results that are talked about long into the night. The essence of it all is one person, man or woman, versus a course that is finely crafted by race directors. The backbone of the runner is their crew and their pacers. The runner mentally controls the race after they toe the line. At the end they all come together as a family and a bond is created. People exchange numbers, social media contacts, and develop long lasting friendships. Each race has thousands of stories and what keeps us all coming back. What else would I rather do on a weekend then run with family!

Sean Cook

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Incline: A Love Affair

A beautiful sunrise at the top of the incline (w/ a sweet filter).

   The Manitou Incline in Manitou, Colorado is an iconic piece of terrain in the Pikes Peak Region of southern Colorado. The first time you lay eyes on it from your first flight or drive into town you see this open scar or natural terrain like zipper that shoots straight into the sky, for almost a mile, along one of the hills leading up to Pikes Peak. You don't think much of it, at first, as it could easily be power poles or a fire break for this area of Colorado.  An ominous look to it from far away and even more intimidating up close you are naturally drawn to it and curious about it.  However, once you hear the stories and tales about it and once you put it all together it becomes something you must see in person and you must try. Or at least that is how it all happened for me. Our office used to do it once a week for physical training. It wasn't mandatory and really not many people went but when I got bit by the running bug I had to try it. I was probably living in Colorado Springs for almost a year before I went up it. Well it is fair to note six of those months I was over in France suffering and working so hard! So once I tried it the rumors, myths and the lore somewhat was resolved but actually grew into a love affair. So it began one summer day in 2013 me and Incline.

An early morning climb up the Incline thru the snow

   I remember the first rumor or story I heard about the Incline and about how Olympian Apollo Ohno had ran up it in 18 minutes. This is a story that made me think it is either not that bad or he is really a freak of nature. However, the story is very true and there have been three super humans to make it up the Incline in sub 20 minutes. The other name you might know as Ultra Runner Matt Carpenter. Then you also hear the story of the people who have to be reduced off the Incline because of death or injury. The incline gets about 20,000+ people a month that attempt to defy odds and prove something deep down inside that they are capable of overcoming this mammoth. With that comes heart ache and heart break. Over the past three or four years there have been about 15 rescues each year and about 4 deaths. So while it is a challenge that can be overcome it poses great risk to some. However, it is this that makes it much more of a pursuit and a climb for some people. For myself it became a challenge of time and a test to see how hard and how far I could push myself to the edge. I don't wear any fancy heart rate monitors but I know when my chest is about to explode I should slow my pace down. I should mix up my steps with a slight break or even a water stop. I didn't get that way by mistake I learned the hard way. My first attempt up the Incline was a crush to my soul and spirit. It took me almost 50 minutes and I was close to the back of the pack in our office. I made a vow that day to get better one step or one day at a time. Since that first climb I have been up the Incline about 30 times. Each time the goal is simple; push yourself as much and far as you can but listen to your body and be smart. If I improve my time I do if not, I earned my climb regardless. 


      Top: Summiting with my Friends Dave (Winter 2016) Right: Charlie (Summer 2015 2 weeks before Leadville 100)

   So unlike any typical love affair you have periods where you cannot get enough of each other and then you have periods of never wanting to see each other. Over the past two years I have used this to my advantage and improved my training for the Leadville 100 Trail Race (LT100). The LT100 is one of the most iconic trail races in the USA and the second oldest 100-mile race behind Western States. Ken Chlouber started the race back in the 80's to help a depressed town recover from a loss in the mining industry. Since then it has grown and grown to become a true legend. With an average altitude over 10,000 feet and 11,000 feet of climbing and declining you really have to be tuned into the mountains. So if the incline is my love affair and helps me get ready for the LT100 I guess you could say the LT100 is my mistress in the night. Please don't tell her though she might crush me on the climb next time. So with developing my training plan I wanted to do the Incline once a week but unfortunately it hasn't happened. I loved it when the Incline was wide open for start times but now you are only able to start at 6am which makes it brought for getting up and down and then to work showered up properly. Regardless I have tried to fit the Incline in at least twice a month while I have been getting my body ready for LT100 and Hopes Pass, the 13,000 foot climb you do twice in the LT100. With any good love affair though I keep coming back.

   Top: A view of the incline from a trail across the valley (2015) Left: another glorious finishing selfie (2014)

   So as I continue to evolve as a runner and grow personally and professionally I like to keep things in my pocket that I know and use them for training and for building upon myself. The Incline is one of those pieces that helps me stay grounded and helps me develop. No matter how good of shape you are in about fifteen feet up the climb you are gasping for air and having to rethink how to breath and trying to pull some yoga tricks out of your hat. Regardless it is that feeling I crave. Knowing you are being broken down only to build yourself up all the way up the almost mile climb. Then when you get to the top and you stop and look back you can smile and enjoy the beauty in what you just did and the beauty in all that surrounds you. if you are ever in Colorado Springs and you need someone to go up the incline with you, I am game!


Push yourself and let the trail come to you!