Reflecting on a Mammoth Weekend with the Kastors
Mammoth Lakes: running haven and training grounds for Olympians such as Ryan Hall, Meb Keflezighi, and Deena Kastor. The list of elite athletes from all over the world who train on the innumerable trails in Mammoth is long. At an official altitude of nearly 8,000 feet, Mammoth allows these athletes to reap the benefits of living and training at altitude, while also having a short drive from being able to train at much lower altitudes. Long climbs, endless flats, and a track nestled between pristine mountains. Mammoth is a place where running legends live and we mortals can train alongside Olympians.
Ever since I started following the sport, specifically the marathon, Mammoth Lakes has been a dream vacation destination. When I saw Deena Kastor was hosting a retreat, naturally I jumped at the chance! In July, I was finally able to turn my dream into reality.
I kicked off the weekend with an early morning flight to Reno followed by a three hour drive to my destination. I hate driving for extended periods, and three hours is definitely towards my upper limit, but this drive was different. Climbing and winding through the mountains provided unbelievable beauty and epic views of a mythic countryside. I had never before been up in the mountains and experienced landscapes such as these; The pinnacle being the Mono Lake Vista. At something like 9,000 feet above sea level, you quickly drop to about 7,000 feet where the lake lies. Describing the view as breathtaking is an understatement.
After reaching Mammoth, I checked in at the Westin and was more than exhausted from a long day of travel. I still had about two hours to kill before meeting the group and heading to dinner, so I did the only reasonable thing to do: I laced up my shoes for a self guided tour of the city! I had just enough time to pick a path, get a little lost, find my way back, and get cleaned.
Refreshed and invigorated from the crisp, dry mountain air, I met Deena, her husband, and coach, Andrew, and their energetic, hilarious little girl, Piper. Immediately they wanted to get to know me and each member of the group personally, talking to us like we were all old friends gathering after a long absence.
We sat together at a local restaurant, getting to know each other over amazing food and great drinks; Exactly what was needed to decompress after traveling from all over the country. Our backgrounds were diverse and our abilities as runners vast, but we were all clearly passionate about the sport. This passion quickly laid the foundation for new friendships, and lots of fun!
Left or Right
The next morning, after a light breakfast, we piled into a 15 person van and headed up to Coldwater Creek Campgrounds. Deena took us on a tour of the Consolidated Gold Mine to give us an idea of the history of the area.
After the tour, we took off on a group run past Lake Mary and around Horseshoe Lake. Naturally, I had to stop and take some pictures along the way, which lead me (and two others) to become separated from the group.
After a few confusing turns (and one particularly confusing trail marker) we eventually regrouped and took another lap around Horseshoe Lake with Chris and Thomas. The conversation we had about Thomas’ background, and about how Chris came to be the RunWestin Concierge is one that sticks with me today. It was profound and deep, and reinforced for me the idea that it is never too late to make your life exactly what you want it to be, you just need to be willing to work for it!
Goals and Purpose
After some time to rest, we regrouped for Deena’s Sound Mind Clinic. This was a deeply profound and emotional session where we dove deep into our goals and purpose in life. We talked about the power of optimism and positivity; how choosing to look at events in a positive light and being more mindful with our words can have a great effect on not only our mindset, but the mindset of those around us.
Deena described her goals, past and present, and how she was able to relentlessly pursue them. She told us of deeply personal moments when she faced injury and rough points in her career, and how she overcame them by first choosing to be positive.
My two biggest takeaways from this session can be summed up with these three quotes from Deena:
“You pack your head with you wherever you go, it’s always there.”
“You choose your own thoughts.”
“There should never be guilt in self care.”
One final thought on this session: A single bad event or thought can have long lasting effects on your day, creating a domino effect. Deena said it takes three positive moments to cancel out one bad moment. To me, this makes sense. In life, we tend to focus on the bad because we need to learn from it to prevent it from happening again, but that doesn’t mean you should be in a negative mood all the time, that’s downright harmful!
To help prevent this domino effect, take some time to pick out three things to change your mindset. For me it would be as simple as blaring some Bruce Springsteen and singing along at the top of my lungs. His passion comes through so clearly in his music and it is absolutely infectious! Similarly, rocking out to Avenged Sevenfold helps me burn off any anger or frustration I may be feeling and really gets my adrenaline flowing. If all else fails, I know I can just get goofy with my dog, Mac!
Meditation, a walk in the warm sun, or dancing in the rain, what makes each of us happy is different and personal. Whatever your three things might be, make sure they’re healthy. Healthy habits promote happiness!
After a quick break, Deena took us into the kitchen of the Westin and shared with us her philosophy on nutrition and some easy, healthy recipes. It came as no surprise that she favored a well balanced, whole foods, plant based diet with meats from sustainable local farmers. A daily glass of wine, to celebrate the day, is also an important thing to Denna. I can think of no better reason to enjoy an evening brew or glass of wine!
That evening, we jumped into the van and drove to the base of Mammoth Mountain to take on the Ezakimak Challenge. This is a 5k race unlike any other! 3.1 miles with 2,000 feet of elevation gain as the sun is starting to set behind the surrounding mountains. Brilliant hues of orange and pink burn across the sky as you climb to the summit, just as a full moon rises over the opposite horizon.
Before we set out, I asked Coach Kastor how to tackle this beast and what I could expect for a time. Based on my half marathon time (at the time 1:21), he said something like 50 minutes. We joked that when (not if) I broke 50 minutes, he would have to invite me to be part of the Mammoth Track Club.
I “ran” (more of a glute conserving trot) for as long as I could, but eventually the steep climbs took their toll and walking was required. I expected this to happen and just kept two positive mantras running through my head, “Tucked chin, elbows in!” and “Move with a purpose!”
The first was advice from Coach Kastor from earlier in the day when we went down to the Whitmore Track (which he and Deena helped to build using more than 31,000 tires from California landfills!). He took a quick look at each runner’s form and gave us some advice on how to improve. Mine was to tuck my chin to open my chest up for breathing, which would also lead to better posture. He also said to make sure I kept my elbows from flaring out as my arms swing.
The second is something my dad would say to me growing up to prevent me from lollygagging in the outfield or getting off a golfing green. He has been a great motivator in my life and is partially why I work so hard at running.
I eventually made it to the snowy summit, lungs burning and legs screaming, but with enough adrenaline, strength, and sheer joy for a hard sprint to the finish. I was laughing and yelling in pure ecstasy of the moment. The race was harder than most marathons I have run, but I never gave up once. Deena came running up to me yelling about how strong I looked at the finish and how she couldn’t believe I was able to sprint like that at the end. Receiving praise like that from a running legend and hero of mine… the day could not get any better!
Then it did.
Andrew walked up telling me I came in well under 45 minutes; the official result was 42:31!
He was very busy with the Olympics at the time, but I’m still eagerly awaiting that invite!
We ended the day with a gondola ride back down the mountain (apparently nobody wanted to do the Kamikaze Challenge: running down the mountain!) and dinner at a German restaurant at its base.
Sometimes You Just Have to Break the Rules
The next morning we made our way back to Mammoth Mountain and took a bus down to Devil’s Postpile and Rainbow Falls. Deena led everyone on a trail run, from Devil’s Postpile to Rainbow Falls, but Chris, Thomas, and I struck out ahead of the group enjoying the warm, sunny morning in the valley and the technical terrain, hopping boulders, logs, and roots.
When we regrouped at the falls, we found that the stairway leading down the cliffside to the base of the falls was closed. Acknowledging that we were doing this at our own risk, some of us hopped the chain and carefully made our way down the steep stairway. This wasn’t an experience we were going to miss! (We also justified the act by picking up any trash we came across!)
Eventually, we made our way back to the trailhead. Once again, I struck out ahead and on my own to explore a few of the side trails along the river. The peace and serenity were overwhelming.
We met back up at the trailhead for a fantastic brunch beside the river. Coffee, mimosas, and great conversations ensued before eventually packing up and heading back to the Westin to make our final preparations for departure.
The retreat wrapped up with the group lounging by the pool of the Westin for a few hours with Deena, Andrew, and Piper. We recapped the weekend, talked about how we would carry this experience with us, and continued to learn more about each other. I, personally, received a lot of great advice from Andrew on pursuing running, coaching, and how to grow in the sport and make my passion more of a focal point of my career.
Finally, it came time to be on my way, but I could not leave town without one last run. I made my way to the Uptown Trail, running back to the base of Mammoth Mountain and gaining about 1,000 feet in about four miles. On the way back down, I missed a turn on the winding path, but luckily, when you are on a mountainside overlooking your destination, it’s hard to actually get lost!
One last stop was made on my way out of town, one I had been looking forward to all weekend. I dropped by the Mammoth Lakes Brewing Company for some outrageously good food and a fantastic beer, the Double Nut Brown. I don’t know if it was the altitude, the runner’s high, or just part of the experience, but it was seriously the best beer I have ever had! If you find yourself in Mammoth, get the Double Nut Brown ale, savor it, and bring a growler back for me!!!
As I rode off into the sunset (literally!), I replayed the weekend over and over in my head. It was an experience of a lifetime. I wondered when, not if, I would be back.
To sum up what I learned during this epic weekend succinctly, it would be to relentlessly follow your passions and surround yourself with people who will support you in your endeavors. There will be setbacks along the way, but with optimism and a support network, there are no limits to what you can achieve if you’re willing to put in the work!