Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Blood On The Snow: Fall-Winter Running

Blood On The Snow: Fall/Winter Running

photo by Ras
by Ras

     You don't need a GoPro to get slo-mo, or even hi-def for that matter. My memory has all that and more, including both instant reply and continuous looping. So even now I am internally reviewing footage of a dear friend crashing to the ground, initially a victim of my ineptitude, secondarily a victim of gravity.

     If you've watched enough fail videos, you recognize the shot: a sideways view of the world from a helmet cam that has just swung suddenly downward to the right, then abruptly shuddered to a halt as it came into contact with the planet. That's when I heard and recognized the horrible interrupted cadence of a runner being tripped. Like a deep breath drawn in and held, when a runner's stride is stifled, there is a sudden and unexpected silence that portends impending impact. Foot foot foot foot foot - and then the eerie absence of the rhythm one expected. In a microsecond my mind warned me that a scheduled footfall had been missed, that someone was tumbling to Earth. 

     Tight zoom, focus, and there's my right leg perfectly, as if intentionally, wedged between Shona's planted foot, on which her weight is resting and her body slowly pivoting forward, and the foot she had been swinging forward to take her weight in the next stride. Thanks to me and my goofy right leg, her swing foot will never make it in to place to take her weight, and her body will continue to rotate forward on her planted foot until she suffers consequences only Sir Isaac Newton would delight in describing, and then only if she were a planet or an apple or a marble on a ramp.

     Shona fell well, not splaying flat onto her stomach, but turning onto her hip. She didn't try to arrest her falling body with the sort of rigid, locked arms that send bone-snapping force up the chain to the weakest link: the clavicle. She cushioned her fall and protected her head and face by allowing her arms to curl into place between her skull and the frozen roadbed. But her hand bottle wedged against the ground as her head was still being whipped forward by inertia and her nose and mouth bore the brunt of the impact. As if in a clear viscous fluid, this played out interminably slowly, her collapsed form at my level now as I saw her head snapped back up by the collision, pain contorting her features, her hand flyings to her face defensively, and a crimson droplet mimicking her fall to splash just as pitifully on the snow.

photo by Ras
Shona Hilton, in better times

     Seasonally, we are deep into the darker realms of fall in the Okanogan Highlands. Days are barely nine hours long. Nights stretch on into Seasonal Affective Disorder. Old snow on Forest Service roads without southern exposure has been compacted by vehicle traffic into two-tracks of twin luge runs. Sighting along them into the distance, these parallel perils seem to eventually meet. It is so dry during the day and cold during the night that puddles freeze and evaporate from the inside out, leaving an empty depression covered by a rotting skin of ice. Bare spots are so desiccated that footsteps send up puffs of moon dust, and foot prints of it are left on the next patch of snow reached.

     It's not accurate to say that Shona 'took a fall.' That implies volition or responsibility on her part, but she was blameless in this bloody affair. Shona was innocently, and wisely, running up the untracked snow between the icy wheel ruts. She had intentionally chosen to run where there was a crunchy layer of undisturbed snow, which provided both a small amount of cushion and a great amount of traction. Where she was placing her feet, it was excellent snow running conditions. So it would be no more accurate to say that Shona 'fell.' Even though that implies a passive role in her, forgive me, downfall, she had proactively chosen a good route on excellent footing, investing energy and attention into minimizing her chances of being dashed to the ground. Shona deserved to remain upright.

     It would be most accurate to say that I felled her. As though I were in sawyer mode with my trusty Stihl, I brutally cut her free of her connection to the earth's crust. I hadn't been paying attention. I hadn't been looking ahead for a safe route. I hadn't been noticing the changing conditions as three Forest Service roads converged and funneled us onto a narrow, rutted, and ice encrusted earthen bridge. I was zoned out and zenned out and blithely blithering on about what great training it is running in snow and ice, and how those wonderful challenges help hone one's form and technique.

     Suddenly I found myself dancing in mincing strides across a thin, crusty snow ridge between the cupped, icy tire rut and the drop into the creek. My next left foot placement just missed the snow and came down on the sloped ice, instantly washing out from beneath me. As I crumpled to the frozen path on my left side, my right leg was flung straight out athwart the trail, threading itself perfectly between Shona's shins in the middle of her stride. Cue haunting memory recorder; and we're rolling ... and ... ACTION!

     I may have a reputation for being a little bit intense, or occasionally confrontational, but I did not leave the house this morning with the goal of taking one of my wife's closest friends and slamming her to the frozen earth. If you saw Shona's fat lip, bloodied nose, and tear stained face, you might not believe that. I would not be surprised to find a large social worker pounding on my door tomorrow. "Mr. Vaughan, Mrs. Hilton refused to file a complaint, and she maintains that the entire thing was an accident, but we know what really happened. And we'll be keeping an eye on you. Watch yourself." 

copyright Altra Zero Drop Footwear

     Part of what I love about winter running is the possibility of breaking traction. I use a technique which is variously described as 'natural running,' a 'midfoot strike,' or a few other trademarked names that I am unsure of the potential legal liabilities of mentioning. What it comes down to is focusing on form and technique with the goal of eliminating all braking from your stride. By increasing foot turnover (the tempo, or rapidity of one's strides), leaning forward at the ankles instead of the waist, and landing with the foot below one's center pushing behind instead of reaching forward with the heel, both impact and effort required are greatly reduced. It can be visualized as your torso floating along above the ground while your feet rapidly make just enough contact to keep up.

     In snow and ice this becomes easily apparent. Braking is a big no no. It results in your feet sliding out in front of you and dumping you unceremoniously on your derriere. Skaters can think of it as a wilson. But with natural running technique, when you break traction your foot doesn't slide out in front. Instead, it suddenly kicks up behind you. Walking and running on snow and ice is similar to skiing. If you lean forward slightly at the ankles you have improved control and a better connection to the snow. If you weight your heels, you end up on your butt.
 And no matter how many times you lose focus or forget to go over your mental from checklist, snow and ice are ever vigilant, and will remind you as many times as you need.

     I am not on a quest for the fastest pace possible. My goal is the perfect foot placement, repeated to infinity. If I were to blend Navaho spirituality with bio-mechanics, I could say my goal is to "walk in perfection." And I'm blessed to find health and peace in the practice and the striving, even if I never achieve my goal for more than a fleeting moment. Will I ever take an infinite series of perfect steps? Most likely not while in this gangly earthly vessel. And if I do, I'll be too busy from that point on to write about it, should I ascend to that endurance nirvana.

     Until then, let this stand as a warning if you are directly behind or in front of me in a lemming line during a race, or if you are pacing me through the night, or if you are considering inviting me on a run. I suffer from Baby Huey Syndrome, blithely going about my business not intending anyone any harm, while inadvertently and unwittingly raining hurt and wrecking havoc on any and all unfortunate enough to wander into my event horizon. If you are within the reach of my potentially flailing limbs, you are in the danger zone. And if you're close enough to high five, you may not make it out alive.

1 comment:

  1. Agree with this. Use proper posture and forward progress. It is impossible to fall on snow/ice. Use the same principles for minimal mountaineering.