Saturday, January 2, 2016

Thoughts on Gratitude

Well folks, it's a new year, with new hopes, expectations, realities and ambitions.  One of my hopes, I won't say the word GOALS, is to become more grateful. It is to develop the ability to say thank you naturally, without thinking of it, and in an uncontrived way.  I believe, as do thousands of other happy people, that being grateful and giving thanks leads to a happier, more fulfilling and meaningful life.  Below I've condensed a talk I gave in early 2015. I hope you take to heart the challenge to work on your Attitude of Gratitude.

An Attitude of Gratitude is not an easy thing to develop. I am inclined to take for granted the sun on the leaves on a spring morning, that I have two legs to walk with, and that at any given time, Brooke will have a bunch of perfectly ripe bananas ready for me in the kitchen, even though even saying the word banana makes her throw up a little in her mouth. 

But, if we manage to turn on the gratitude a little, and do it enough, the psychological research suggests that gratitude might just become a habit.  If you’re one of those highly grateful people, of which I’m sure 2 of the 3 people that read this are, then ignore this and go back to scrolling Facebook,  But, if you’re more like me, here are a few tips on how develop an “Attitude of Gratitude.”

1st: Once in a while, think about death and loss.
Didn’t see that one coming, did you? I’m not just being perverse—contemplating endings really does make you more grateful for the life you currently have, according to several studies. When you find yourself taking a good thing for granted, try giving it up for a little while.  Try binging on Reese’s Peanut Butter cups for a few days. Then try giving them up for a week or two before having another one.  From personal experience I guarantee it tastes a lot better after a bit of abstinence than after the binge.

 2nd: Take time to smell the roses
And the freshly baked bread, the smell of freshly cut grass, whatever gives you pleasure.  Loyola University psychologist Fred Bryant finds that savoring positive experiences makes them stickier in your brain, and increases their benefits to your psyche—and the key, he argues, is expressing gratitude for the experience. That’s one of the ways appreciation and gratitude go hand in hand.  As adaptive humans, we will become accustomed even to the good things.  When we do, their subjective value starts to drop; we take them for granted.  That’s the point at which we might give them up for a while- be it chocolate, a good run in the mountains, or even something like sunlight- and then take the time to really savor them when we allow them back into our lives.

3rd: Take the good things as gifts, not birthrights
What’s the opposite of gratitude? Entitlement—the attitude that people owe you something just because you’re so very special. The antidote to entitlement, is to see that we did not create ourselves—rather, we were created- by a loving Heavenly Father. Likewise, we are never truly self-sufficient. Humans need other people to grow our food and heal our injuries; we need love, and for that we need family, friends, and even pets.

 4th: Be grateful to people, not just things
A few paragraphs ago, I mentioned gratitude for sunlight and bananas. That’s great for me—and it may have good effects, like leading me to think about my impact on the environment—but the trees just don’t care. Likewise, the sun doesn’t know I exist; that big ball of flaming gas isn’t even aware of its own existence, as far as we know. My gratitude doesn’t make it burn any brighter.
That’s not true of people—people will glow in gratitude. Telling Sam he did great at his swim meet might make him happier and it can strengthen our emotional bond. Telling Brooke thanks for keeping me well stocked with bananas can reaffirm to her my appreciation for the little ways she shows me she loves me.

5th: Mention the pancakes
Grateful people are habitually specific. They don’t say, “I love you because you’re just so wonderfully wonderful!” Instead, the really skilled grateful person will say: “I love you for the pancakes you make when you see I’m hungry.”
My mother-in-law is a great example of this.  She is a master thank you note writer. I have never received a note saying “Thank you for the birthday present.  It was the best”  It’s always specific.  “Thank you for the wonderful scarf and gloves.  They will keep me warm on my early morning walks.”

Finally: Thank outside the box
Here’s who the really tough-minded, Graduate-level grateful person thanks: the boyfriend who dumped you, the homeless person who asked for change, the employer who fired you. “It’s easy to feel grateful for the good things. No one ‘feels’ grateful that he or she has lost a job or a home or good health or has taken a devastating hit on his or her retirement portfolio.”
In such moments,  gratitude becomes a critical cognitive process—a way of thinking about the world that can help us turn disaster into a stepping stone. If we’re willing and able to look, we can find a reason to feel grateful even to people who have harmed us. We can thank that boyfriend for being brave enough to end a relationship that wasn’t working; the homeless person for reminding us of our advantages and vulnerability; the boss, for forcing us to face new challenges.

To illustrate this last point, let me relate a short story a friend of mine recently experienced.  The Barkley Marathons are held the beginning of April every year in Frozen Head State Park in the backwoods of Tennessee.  It consists of an approximately 20 mile loop run 5 times in alternating directions for a total of around 100 miles.  There is over 60,000 feet of climbing. There is typically a combination of rain, freezing temperatures, hot sun, dense fog and everything in between. The route is not marked, is only revealed to the participants a few hours before the event begins, and there are no aid stations or pacers.  Since it’s inception in 1991 only 14 runners out of more than 800 starters have completed the 100 mile race within the 60 hour cut off.  In the slightly off kilter sport of long distance endurance events, the Barkley is the ugly step child.

Jared Campbell showed up in April 2014 for his third attempt.
                                                                                                                                  Psychiatrist Nassir Ghaemi says that most people “have what psychologists call "positive illusion"—that is, they possess a mildly high self-regard, a slightly inflated sense of how much they control the world around them.
Jared, in a sense, is not normal and is able to distort the reality of the world so that he does have control in the very real and difficult world around him.  In his words ”There are lessons in life that can only be learned through fairly massive deviations from our normal, comfortable routines. These lessons alter our perspective on life and better equip us to deal with life’s unforeseen challenges. They can sharpen our optimism and generate a deeper appreciation for the simple things in life.” As Jared attempted each of the 5 loops, he looked for the positive, something to hold onto, something to be grateful for, the silver linings.  Here are the silver linings he was grateful for on each loop
Loop 1-The silver lining of wet conditions at Barkley is that you slide through saw briars far easier. I focused on that.
Loop 2-The silver lining of the pain “in both my achilles tendons was that it forced me to ascend in creative ways, which spread the wear-and-tear out over my body. It would also make switching shoes for lap three something to look forward to. I focused on that.
Loop 3-The silver lining of snow on the course meant I could more easily see and follow my footprints from the previous lap. I focused on that.
Loop 4-The silver lining to cold temperatures during Barkley is that you can wear pants, which means you have protection from the briars and poison ivy. I focused on that.
Loop 5-The silver lining to warm weather at Barkley is that the footing is much better. I focused on this.

Being grateful while in the darkest hours of his race, Jared became the 14th person to ever finish the Barkley marathons.

My favorite quote ever is by President Gordon B. Hinckley, one of the most optimistic, grateful people I can think of.  He says, "In all of living, have much fun and laughter. Life is to be enjoyed, not just endured."

It is my hope that we can be grateful while in our circumstances, that we can focus on the silver linings, and that we can laugh and enjoy life.  Above all, I sincerely hope that we will recognize God’s handiwork in this marvelous tapestry of life and thank Him for all that he blesses us with.

There you have it.  Try to say thank you, in a unique way, at least once a day. If you're feeling particularly ungrateful, then fake it.  Over time, it will become a habit, and the world will be a better place.

I'm grateful for Sunshine 
on a miserable day of 
February Salt Lake Inversion

Monday, August 24, 2015

Dolomites Running

Looking down Val Travenanzes
This past weekend, in a frantic effort to get some miles and vertical in preparation for the Wasatch Front 100, I headed north to the Dolomites for the Ferragosto holiday. While Italy has many great mountains, most would agree that the Dolomites are the greatest.

Refreshment Along the Way

Austrian Trenches on Lagazuoi
Why? Just as great is usually defined by a unique set of characteristics, that in combination, create something unequivocally remarkable. The character set for the Dolomites would include a high density of narrow, deep and long canyons, sheer rock faces often manifest in pinnacles and spires, ample streams rivers and waterfalls, and a network of trails including the highest concentration of via ferrata routes in the world. Then of course one needs to add alpine villages surrounded by verdant pastures, strategically located refugios with caloric sustenance, historical military fortifications from when these mountains were the front line in a stalemate between the Italians and the Austro-Hungarians during WWI, and a bus network that allows one to move with ease through a 6000 square mile all-season playground. “Greatest” seems to be well justified!

Cinque Torri
In the words of Reinhold Messner, local boy and hero, “they [Dolomites] are not the tallest mountains in the world, yet they are definitely the greatest.”

Cinque Torri as seen from an Austrian Gun Position
My base for the weekend was Cortina, an alpine town with a Tyrolean feel. From here I was able to explore. Enjoy some pictures from four days of running.
Austrian Positions as seen by the Italians on Cinque Torri
Forcella Lagazuoi
Climbing to the top of Groda Negra

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Running, ALIVE!

Path between Wayuu Communities
We all have them. Maybe not often enough. But if we had them with greater frequency perhaps we would not appreciate them the way we do. You know what I’m talking about – those runs when you feel completely ALIVE!

I had one of those runs this morning in La Guajira, Columbia. The Department of La Guajira comprises the northern tip of Columbia – sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and Venezuela. It is not a friendly or inviting land – rainfall is scarce owing to the powerful rain shadow created by the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, wind is a constant, the equatorial sun strong, and rebel groups and drug traffickers largely control it. Not the likely place for a great run.

Wanting to beat the heat I departed Riohacha, a sad little coastal town (interesting in that is mentioned several times in One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera) in the early morning darkness and headed out of town with the objective of completing 50K without wilting, getting lost, or kidnapped for ransom. The stakes were higher than in a typical run.  I knew that if anything went wrong the run could quickly turn into a suffer-fest, or worse.

Fishing Boat

First I traveled along the coast, watching fishermen taking their boats out to sea at first light. Then, I crossed some coastal plains where the local Wayuu were harvesting salt. From there I moved into the desert where I followed the tracks between Wayuu communities The Wayuu live as extended families on their communally owned ancestral lands which are generally several kilometers apart to prevent mixing of their goat herds. The Wayuu in general have not migrated to towns, preferring to live on their ancestral lands relying on subsistence agriculture and raising goats. They are well know for their woven handicrafts which provide some cash income. What is notable is that is has not rained for 17 months. Life at present is very hard for the Wayuu.

Wayuu Salt Works

The light, the sounds, the intensity of the sun, the stunning landscape and my curiosity about the Wayuu people intensified my senses, gave me courage to push outside my comfort zone, and kept me intently present. I was ALIVE! Enjoy a few pictures of an amazing run.

Desert Track

Salt Flats (not quite like ours)

Grazing?? Chivo

Goat Corral

Wayuu Rancheria

Effects of the Drought

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Grand Sasso Playtime

This past weekend I was able to make my first trek of the summer season to Gran Sasso National Park for some superb trail running. For day one I decided to circumnavigate Corno Grande (2912 meters) & Corno Picolo (2655 meters) and for bonus fun summit Gran Corno. Distance 30 miles with 11k vert. Day two was a run out the ridge from Campo Imperatore then a descent down to Fonte Cerreto and back up to Campo Imperatore. Distance 16 miles with 6K vert. It felt good to be back in the mountains and on trails.

Some pictures so you can see just how excellent the running is in Gran Sasso.

Corno Grande (left) Corno Piccolo (right)
An Old Farmhouse on the Grasslands 

Cables to Help Old People Like Me on the Technical Stuff - Nice!

Corno Piccolo (Is that a nice looking peak or what??)

Pizzo Intermesoli (2635 meters)

Rifugio Campo Imperatore at the Main Trailhead. This Place Rocks - 3 course dinner, a carafe of wine, lodging and breakfast for just Euro 45 - and the Trailhead is Right Outside the Door! 

Following the Ridge out from Campo Imperatore

Rifugio Carlo Franchetti (I want to overnight here on a future run)

Valle dei Ginepri from the Campo Imperatore Ridgeline

Monday, June 15, 2015

Comrades + South Africa Running

It seems that once people learn you run races longer than 26.2 miles, one of the next questions invariably is, “Have you run Comrades?” While I’ve been asked the question many times, I’ve never really had an interest in the race. The idea of traveling halfway around the world to South Africa to run 54 miles on a road in the hot sun was not appealing.

That was until this year. When I learned I needed to travel to South Africa for work, I realized it was my chance to finally be able to answer the question with a, “yes!” While I knew this would be a race like I have never experienced before, I had no idea quite what to expect. Some of my experiences and impressions included;

Race Start with 23K Human Radiators
  • Feeling the heat of the crowd as I stood among the runners in the dark waiting for the 5:30 am start. While the morning air was cool, the heat transfer from 23k radiators was noticeable.
  • Part of the course is on a closed freeway. Yuck!
  • Sensory overload! 87 kilometers of people calling out your name, music blaring, inhaling smoke from braais as people barbequed along the course, and runners wanting to chat, particularly given it was my first Comrades and they wanted to provide their encouragement or welcome me to their country. There was never chance to mentally go to that mental other place, and just run.
  • The number of times you run the race matters. Each bib identifies a runners number of completions. Finish ten times and you get a green bib. I was one of the few runners with a big fat ZERO on my non green bib. Perhaps a quarter of the runners have completed 10 or more.  Remarkable how many people come back year after year to run Comrades.
  • Aid stations every couple of miles with volunteers eager to give you little plastic bags of water and sports drink from which you would bite off the corner to sip (so much better than cups). After a number of aid stations I learned it was easier just to take all the bags I could hold in my hands (then I no longer had to say “no thanks” to the enthusiastic volunteers) and carry the bags to end of the aid station where young kids would congregate and I would give the drinks to the kids.
  • People immensely proud of their country. My bib identified me as an international runner and people would call things out to me like “thanks for coming to South Africa” and “I hope you are enjoying our country.”
  • Most everyone belongs to club and has a club jersey. Running in an unofficial button down shirt turned heads, and had people confused and not sure what to think. Maybe the ZERO completions on my bib explained the break with common practice. I would not be exaggerating by saying that no less than 100 people along the course complemented me on my choice of race attire. 
Along the Course - Sensory Overload

Official MRC Race Jersey (note the ZERO completions on my bib)
Following the race I was able to enjoy several days of rest traveling with my family through Kruger national park. Rest is mandatory in the park where you are a) either required to be inside a fenced and gated camp (which makes one wonder who really are the animals) or b) in your car. The rest in the various cages did me good.

Following the park we traveled to Mpumalonga and the Blyde River Canyon. The canyon is one of the biggest canyons in the world and is considered the largest “green canyon” owing to its lush subtropical foliage.  Here we had several exceptional days of exploring and running along the canyon edges in the lowveld and into the canyon where myriad streams, waterfalls and grottos can be found.

Running the Lowveld

On the Rim of Blyde River Canyon

One of Myriad Waterfalls and Pools in the Bottoms

Will I go back to Comrades? For the week after the race is was a definitive “no.” But as time has passed, perhaps Comrades would be the perfect excuse for a return to South Africa. We’ll see what 2016 brings…