April 28, 2015 Matthew Sonnenfeldt

Kyle Merber Blog: Raising Flagstaff

January 3

I am on the plane, and the stewardess has to take a seat because the turbulence is getting rough. This is when I start thinking about death, and I know the majority of the people sitting beside me are as well. It’s a strange phenomenon. I have done the research on the safety features of commercial airlines—to ease my fears. But it doesn’t matter that I know that a flight has never gone down due to some bumps, I still think about how much it would suck to be the first. There is still so much left for me to do. I can’t die with this mile time. As we creep out of the bumps, I turn my music up, adjust myself in the seat and put on a tough face. I tell myself I wasn’t scared, but the wet spots under my arms tell a different story.

The flight is heading into Phoenix, direct from JFK. We were delayed two hours, and I had sent on constant updates to my ride. No one likes having to rely on someone else when it comes to travel, but that’s part of maintaining friendships. I’ll get them back. Waiting for me is Donn, Trevor and Tommy D.

Turns out they had to go back to the airport anyways. Donn had lost a bag two days prior when he flew in. This was not a case of the airline-misplacing luggage. Donn brought all his necessities on board with him, and put that carry on down while grabbing his other suitcase from the carousel. So now he has to go retrieve it, and I guess I do as well.

As soon as I get off the plane, my stomach is rumbling. I suppose a cup of coffee and a small bag of salted peanuts wasn’t enough to hold me off on the flight. I am much too frugal to overpay for a crappy sandwich on the flight, but I justify it out of principle. Even though the guys have been waiting for 15 minutes beyond what they were hoping, I still stop to grab a snack. The half-sandwich and soup combo is a staple of my diet, and today is no different. I didn’t ask for the extra cookie, it was part of my New Year’s resolution to eat healthy, but the cute cashier accidentally gave me one. I will choose to take it as a sign that I need this cookie.

My phone rings and I see that it is Trevor, and he is looking for me. I haven’t seen him since before Christmas, and I am excited to be back with my teammates. He and Donn were two of my biggest college rivals while they were at Princeton, but we have since become friends and training partners. Trevor and I lived together two years ago while both at Texas for graduate school. Now he only lives 30 minutes away, a bit across the border into Pennsylvania.

As I pile into the car I am excited to see the smiling Tommy D sitting at the helm. Since graduating from Princeton he has moved to Phoenix, and in addition to working for the Suns,  has continued to run. Tommy was a good runner in college, posting a best of 29:41 for 10k, but has since really thrived since graduating. Since then he has crushed 100+ mile weeks, won the Denver Marathon and qualified for the Olympic Trials with a 64-minute half. We spent time together in Japan a year ago for the Ekiden Relays, and that’s when I got to know him beyond being just another Princeton jersey.

I am clueless of the plan. I left my trust for the entire trip’s itinerary in Donn’s hopefully capable hands. So I ask for a debriefing. We are heading back to Tommy’s apartment for the night, and we’ll make the trip to Flagstaff tomorrow after our long run. Donn unfortunately wasn’t able to locate his bag at the airport, and will have to wait another couple days to get it back. Despite this hiccup, morale remains high.

Tommy’s phone buzzes and he checks a text, and regretfully announces that he has some bad news for Donn. Turns out that the dog tore up one of his running shoes back at the apartment. I look as his face drops. It’s not his day.

The apartment is in Old Scottsdale, a fancy suburb of Phoenix, and the complex fits well into that description. The two-bedroom apartment is beautifully furnished, and an ideal bachelor pad. I throw my bags down, fish out some shoes and shorts [for Donn as well], and prepare to head out for a shakeout run. Donn already ran once this morning, but my flight left too early to get it in before leaving.

We take off out of the apartment, cross two streets and hit a dream-like canal path that runs straight into the mountains. It’s 50 degrees out; we are both in just shorts and a T-shirt. My legs still have some shit in them from the flight, but this is the best way to flush it all out. Being in the air for 5 hours does weird things to your body. I twisted my ankle a few weeks ago, and it hasn’t been an issue, but since landing it has inflated all over again.

Donn and I live together now in New Jersey, along with five more. But we are two of the higher mileage guys on the team, and so it feels like we are always running together. Our strides have a way of falling into rhythm with each other now. After a thousand miles in sync, it’s natural. The sun has set behind the mountains, but the sky is still illuminated pink in the horizon. It’s just enough light that we don’t have to worry about footing.

Both of us have just returned from vacations in the Caribbean with our respective families. It’s relieving to hear that my struggles of training while there were not exclusive to me. Donn was also terrified of the strays, and perhaps worse, the guard dogs. The heat and humidity was unbearable, and the roads would hardly be considered runnable between the traffic, hills and potholes. But perhaps worst of all is the temptation of the beach vacation lifestyle. It’d have been much easier to sleep in and head down to the beach for breakfast and a pina colada.

We are constantly reading each other’s online running logs whether together or away. Partially to check in on how the other person is doing out of interest or to hear about a workout from someone else’s perspective. But my log has become a sort of diary to me since I first started it in high school. Now it’s a ritual. It accounts not just for the runs, but the emotions of the journey.

Donn brings up a specific entry of mine from a few days prior, my final log from vacation. He struggles to piece together his thoughts on my own reflections, but I can take away his main point; he likes them. I had written about how difficult it was to make the sacrifices of training while in paradise, but how I had willfully held myself responsible for the work. In the end I was proud of myself, and so was Donn.

‘I just always had this idea in my head that if someone wants to accomplish something great, that they need to go above and beyond to get there. Like they have to put forth a superhuman effort, or do something special that makes them earn it before they actually go out and earn it in a race. And I know you work hard, and I see how good you are. But something about seeing you grind out last week makes me root for you so much harder, because you deserve the success of making an Olympic team.’

Donn often communicates his ideas rather bluntly, but I am used to it by now. I don’t take what he says to mean that I did not previously deserve it, but that I have proven [to Donn] that I definitely do. Coming from an Olympian, this is a high compliment.

Luckily we finish up the 50-minute run just before the pace starts getting too fast to be considered a shakeout run. Talking about goals is the quickest was to inject a surge of pace into an easy day. Trevor is already in the weight room back at the apartment and we stop by the room to grab Tommy D and let him know we are back.

Since we have a long run tomorrow, I am not going to do a big lift, but want to just get a little something in while we have access to such a nice facility. I get just enough blood pumping that I feel like I accomplished something. My attention span is also low, since Tommy and Trevor have moved their way into the basketball court, and look like they’re having more fun than us. I make a compromise with myself; 5 minutes of core, and then I can shoot some hoops.

I’m terrible. I want to see how many free throws I can make in ten. The first one barley makes it to the front of the rim, but I chalk it up to the fact that I had just been in the gym. Eight shots later, and I still haven’t hit a single one. So I quit.

Before heading up to the room, Trevor and I jump into the pool to fully marvel at Tommy’s living situation. I think about what my life would be like if I lived here with a buddy of my own, and worked a traditional 9 to 5. At first, it’d probably be pretty great. I’d come home from work and do exactly what we did this evening: run, lift, play basketball, and swim. But then I feel like I’d need a goal to chase; just something to make each day a little bit more exciting. And that’s probably why Tommy is running another marathon in a couple weeks.

While waiting for Trevor to finish his shower, I jump into the locker room’s sauna. The steam is too dense to see my hand in front of my face. As I take a seat to enjoy the heat, my mind flashes back to the run and Donn’s words. I made a few sacrifices in the Caribbean, but one week of running while on vacation isn’t exactly superhuman, or some grandiose effort. But maybe it’s just the mindset. And I guess that’s why we are headed to Flagstaff for the month—to try and deserve it.

January 4

Every 24 year old is in a perpetual state of considering getting a dog. Regardless of his chewing up Donn’s shoe, I had fallen in love with the pup the previous night. But at 7am I am awoken by a thunderous stampede of a dog running through the apartment. Before I can put up my defenses, my face is being licked and I experience a peek into potential future mornings–ones with responsibility. There will be no dogs for me anytime soon.

Trevor is fast asleep on the couch beside me. Somehow he has managed to ignore the commotion. My nose is still stuffed up, and there is a pile of ripped tissues hiding beneath my pillow. I try to sniffle and blow the gook out without waking the whole apartment. Today’s long run should be fun.

Before putting my contacts in, I’m wandering with limited visibility. I stumble on an espresso machine that appears nice enough to merit it’s own coffee shop. Maybe I should get a real job so I could afford something similar. There’s a fruit bowl over pouring with bananas. Who would possibly notice one missing? I take a seat at the counter and crack open my book, ‘The Idiot’ and wait.

After an hour of reading and two Americanos later, Donn and Tommy D are awake and starting their own morning routine. Everyone has his or her own habits before the day’s effort. I am only going 16 or so today rather than my normal 18. Every third or fourth week, I take a down week to recover, and with two flights and a lot of excitement, this was an appropriate time. But Tommy is tuning up for his race, and was planning on 10 easy, followed by another 10-12 miles at 540 pace. Donn is going to join him for the whole thing, and Trevor and I have been coerced to link up for our portion.

We head out the door and Tommy is carrying a string bag that he’s going to drop out on the course. It has water, gels, and a pair of racing flats. Trevor is renown for his ability to roll out of bed and run an honest pace. It’s impressive, but could be annoying. It used to be a lot worse, though after countless snide comments through the years, he has dialed it back and it’s no longer a major issue. But he still takes to the front and we are tucked in behind. It’s kind of nice to have a built in rabbit to the group.

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The path is a bit monotonous, besides a golf course that we cut through a few miles out on the trail. A few older gentlemen wish us a good morning, and jokingly encourage us to join them for their round. They’re laughing because one of them suggests that we picked the wrong sport. At this point in the run, I chuckle at the joke. However, in 8 more miles I may be more willing to agree with their point.

The discussion turns to Ken Cormier, the 2004 Footlocker National Champion who is originally from Arizona. A couple weeks ago a popular running news site wrote a ‘Where is he now?’ type article, about the guy who once dominated prep cross-country. After running for a couple years at the University of Arkansas, Ken had decided to retire and join the Marines as a sniper, eventually being deployed to Afghanistan. He was known for running an unreal amount of mileage for a high school kid, upwards of 120 miles per week, but had decided to move on to the next stage of life.

I start to share with the guys that Ken had been my camp counselor for a couple years when I was younger. A lot of our runs had been with just the two of us, and as a young dreamer, he was a wealth of motivation. When you’re first starting out, anything is possible. Any given season could be the breakout, and if you work hard enough, your body can learn to do things you’d never expect. Hearing his story imprinted me with that belief. I still believe it to be [mostly] true.

We stroll through 10 miles in about 68 minutes, not too fast, but honest enough. We stop so that Tommy can change out his shoes for a lighter pair, and for a quick bathroom break. Donn and I both take a single knee to the ground for a stealthy piss. After a sip of water, we set back on the path and roll into a swift pace.

The first 3 miles are a hair above 540 pace, and minus a heavy dose of mucus, I feel fine. But as soon as we turn, a gust of wind hits us in the face, and I realize that we had been running with the breeze. No wonder it was so easy. Trevor and I share the lead, and keep it honest, allowing Tommy and Donn to sit in our draft since they’re running significantly more. I keep checking my watch, counting down the seconds until we are finished. I am not struggling, but I have felt better and am straddling the line of the comfort zone.

We finish up just below the 540 threshold we had aimed for, and Trevor and I jog it in for 17 on the day. My right upper thigh is torn up and raw. I have been chaffing the last week, but I don’t realize how bad it is until we are about finished. There’s only a little blood.

Trevor and I quickly shower, get changed into street clothes and chug some liquids. We grab a couple energy bars as we head out the door, and plan to meet the guys at the finish for a little encouragement and camaraderie. Just as we are walking up, we see them finish and throw some high-fives their way. They’re fired up. The final tally was 22 miles, with the last 12 at 530 pace. The closing mile was 508. Tommy had clearly been downplaying his fitness all of yesterday.

Since arriving, Tommy has been raving about his favorite lunch spot. We get our bags together so we can get the rental car and head up to the mountains after eating. As soon as we sit down I get a text from my girlfriend, Patricia, who is back east. For Christmas I had given her a voucher for a flight to come visit me in Flagstaff. Partially because I selfishly don’t want to go a full month without seeing her, but even more so, I want her to see the Grand Canyon.

It’s not going to work though. She can’t get off work, and I understand, but I am disappointed and try to convince her otherwise. It’s a no go. And I think she can sense I am upset. So we start planning a different trip for us to take after the indoor season. I realize I have been zoned out this entire meal, and apologize to the guys. They hadn’t noticed.

We wish Tommy goodbye, and thank him for the hospitality. We get the car after long arguments with the attendant and many meticulous readings of all contracts. Donn’s mother is a lawyer, and it’s obvious right now. He opts out of the insurance, and solidifies himself as the only driver of this car. Coming from a family of insurance salesmen, I disagree with the move. It’s getting late, and we will only see the final flashes of sunset before the mountains block us out.

The majority of radio stations won’t transmit, and there’s a peaceful comfort in the silence. We’ve left the chaos of the northeast for this reason. Donn finds a classical station that is humming Vivaldi. I wonder what he’d think of today’s Lady Gaga. Just noise, or could he see the appeal? Jumping three hundred years in the progression of music might be confusing.

I have been to Flagstaff once before on a road trip with a few friends. Following the end to a terrible season, I needed time to think. So we got in the car and drove the whole country. We had stopped in town for brunch.

As we pull into the driveway and there’s an anxious energy to run inside and see where we’ll be living. The door is pushed open and we are screaming with excitement. There is running from room to room, turning all the lights on and yelling about the size of the showerheads. It’s just a normal house. But it’s our house. We open the back shades and there’s a high school track in our yard. It’s like Donn planned this.

There are three queen mattresses, one bedroom with a set of bunk beds, and a second living area in the basement with a futon. Donn rightfully gets his first choice and takes a room to himself in the basement. The bathroom across the hall has a locker room style shower, and enough space to sit and stretch when he’ll be too exhausted to stand post-run. Trevor and I take one for the team, and I get the bottom. The guys getting in tomorrow hopefully appreciate this gesture.

Our stomachs are once again growling. This happens after long runs. We set off to meet up with Alejandro, who is now in grad school at NAU. He’s a former teammate of Donn and Trevor from Princeton. I used to hate all these guys because they wore a different uniform. Now they’re friends. We are headed to a Mexican place that’s been on TV a few times. That endorsement is plenty.

I first really met Alejandro at a race in Mexico in 2012. I was representing the US at 1500, and he was running the 10k for Mexico. The stadium was just minutes from where he grow up. As we flip through the menu asking questions about what each dish is, he answers us like a tour guide. He uses his hands a lot when he talks, and his eye contact is thorough. It’s refreshingly polite. Spanish is his first language, and his accent is seeping through. He’s fun to listen to.

Almost immediately Alejandro let’s us know that he has some news; he’s leaving school. He’s burnt out on it. My mind flashes to this morning’s conversation of Ken Cormier. He’s been away from home for seven years, and the classes are leaving him a bit empty and wanting a break.

‘I am a perfectionist. I don’t like to do something unless I am fully in it, and school isn’t motivating me right now. I worked so hard for years, and I need a break. I thought I could go right into it, but I need to relax. I need me time. I am going to give myself six months.’

This is a sobering conversation to have. We had actually already known this. Tommy had informed us earlier, but we didn’t let Alejandro know we were expecting the news. We ask him a few questions, and provide some supportive comments. He doesn’t seem stressed about it though. The weight has been lifted because the decision has been made. He can breathe now.

Alejandro moves on and starts telling us everything we need to know about Flagstaff. He hasn’t been here long, but it’s still longer than us. The list goes on, but the truth is, we’ll probably be relatively boring the next month. We came for the trails.

I ordered the waitress’ favorite plate. Always trust the expert. It is overflowing with food, and just hot enough to break a light sweat. With each bite I apologize with moderate embarrassment to Alejandro for my lack of spice tolerance. It’s humiliating to be patting my forehead with a napkin.

On the ride home, Trevor and Donn are talking about his decision to leave school. They remain sympathetic and reassuring even after we have said goodbye. He hasn’t told his friends, coaches, roommates or anyone else in Flagstaff yet. But at least it’s been decided.