I remember being seven or eight years old, lying on the grass in my parent’s front lawn on a lazy June morning, enjoying the sun. Our neighbor told me that I should stop lying there, that I should get up and play. He said that the summer would be over before I knew it, that the days would just fly by. He said “Carpe diem”.
“Seize the day” gets said quite a bit, usually to tell someone to quit being lazy; to get up off the couch and do something, which can be an important reminder for a runner. In graduate school, as we drank copious amount of coffee and worked in the lab late into the night, my classmates and I would jokingly alter the saying to “carpe nactum” - seize the night. The meaning, however, wasn’t really changed from the connotation of carpe diem; we meant that there was an opportunity presented to us, and that we should jump at the chance to exploit it.
There is a deeper meaning to the phrase though. It means not just to exploit the day, but more importantly to live in and experience the day. It reminds us that this day is all we really have. It reminds us of something said by sages, philosophers, and mystics; that we should live in the moment, enjoy what we have, and not worry too much about a tomorrow that might not even come.
As I’ve grown older, and run farther, I’ve tried to adopt this deeper meaning of carpe diem, the notion of living in the day that is. I’ve also tried to adapt it further to the notion of living in a place, focusing on the people who are actually present and the landscape that is actually around me. I try to remember that it is important not just to be someone, but also to be somewhere. You could call this “seize the place”, or better, “carpe locum”.
Focusing on your environment is important when running trails. It’s particularly important for me to pay attention to the surface of the ground extending from my toes ahead about eight feet and a few feet to either side. Missing an aberrant rock or root within this box has put me on my face in the dirt plenty of times, and I greatly prefer to stay upright. More than that, though, the great benefit of running trails is that they take me places I’d otherwise never go. And, when I pick my trails well, those places can be beautiful, inspiring, and serene. Paying attention to them can bring joy and strength that would melt away on asphalt roads and rubberized tracks. Running trails keeps me in touch with my immediate place, and my life is fuller for it. Carpe locum.
On the first Sunday of October I tackled a new trail as part of my first ultra race: the Blues Cruise 50K around Blue Marsh Lake near Reading, Pennsylvania. My wife and two-year-old and I drove over from New Jersey on Saturday afternoon, checked into a rather questionable hotel, and then drove over to the starting line at the Dry Brook public access. While the little guy played on the beach I jogged out about a mile and half to familiarize myself with the opening hill, descent, and stream crossing, and to get a sense for the technicality of the trail surface. Happily, it was largely smooth single track with only occasional sections of rocks and roots. The bugs were plentiful, but luckily not of the biting variety. The trees provided plenty of shade, and the leaves where an appealing mix of summery green and autumn yellow. All in all, very inviting. Encouraged, we headed back to the hotel to carbo-load on rice and quinoa with black beans, mangos, plumbs, and apples.
I awoke the next morning at 4:30 am, an hour before my alarm was set to go off. I was jittery and clearly a bit nervous, which might be understandable before my first ultra. I tried to calm my myself by pacing in the dark, added to my carb balance with an Ezekiel muffin and another apple, then woke the family for the drive back to Dry Brook.
I was a little intimidated by the field of runners I found at the starting line. I spent quite a bit of time examining shoes and hydration packs, T-shirts and tattoos (my favorite T: “that which doesn’t kill me had better start running”). I looked for people wearing Altra’s, a zero-drop but non-minimalist shoe I’d been thinking about buying for technical trails, and I looked for the Jurek/Krupicka style race vests with the bottles up front on the straps. There where plenty of both, and plenty of other gear showing that the people here where serious about trails and serious about ultras. Partially because of that, and partially due to my longstanding habit of flying and dying in races, I started far back in the pack.
The 8:30 start came with a cool but humid “Ready, Set, Go!” from race director Stephan Weiss. The pack jogged out across a short stretch of road to the trailhead, then spread out along the single track going up the first hill. We pattered over the crest and down the first decent, splashed across the tiny stream, and climbed up to the rolling, partially forested hills along the north side of the lake.
The first ten miles were pure joy, smooth, gentle, and beautiful. I moved up slowly, competitiveness getting the better of discretion, picking off a few runners each time the trail widened, and slowly the pack cleared out to small groups of runners carrying similar pace. By mile ten I was running nearly alone, until I smacked into the group that slowed to a walk on the course’s first real hill, the ski slope climb. I tried running up it, using all the advice about maintaining cadence and shortening stride, but ended up walking the top anyway. A great warning sign hangs at the top: “Long Downhill Ahead”. A few of us joked that we could have used a warning sign at the bottom instead!
After bombing down the “Long Downhill”, I found myself running along with eventual 6th place finisher Andrew McDowell. I told him that the Blues Cruise was my first ultra, and he told me about finishing the Vermont 100 four of the last five years. He told me that this race was his fifteen-year-old son’s first ultra, and I mentioned that my two year old likes running trails too, but that I usually have to carry him back to the truck after a mile or so. I kept up with Andrew for much of the middle section, eventually letting him go shortly before the bag pickup at mile 18. I’m proud to say that he and Scott Thomas were the only two runners to pass me during the race, but that pride is tempered somewhat by the fact that they are ten and thirteen years older than me, respectively. Who said old guys can’t run?!?
The aid stations at the Blues Cruise are particularly great, far more entertaining than the simple “table full of plastic cups” version I’ve found at shorter races. At one a grass-skirted Hula girl pressed a cold towel to my head. At another a Bavarian waitress filled my water bottles and joked that I might be faster running in lederhosen. My favorite, though, was the Blues Brothers station at mile 26.5. I’d had a tough time from mile 23 to mile 26, bonking and dehydrated, and I had trouble getting the lids off my bottles. A guy in black suit, black tie and sunglasses took them from me, filled them, and handed them back while I grabbed salted potatoes. We laughed about what health inspectors would think about the sweaty hands of so many runners picking through the food, and I looked at the 26.5 mile sign, officially farther than I had ever run. I left with renewed energy and optimism.
The last few miles were tough anyway. It was hard not to look at my watch, hard not to calculate the miles remaining and how long they would take. I had to keep reminding myself that the race was not about finishing. It was about running. I had to remind myself that I came here to run, that I came here to be here, in this place with the beautiful lake and autumn leaves, and the smooth box of trail, two feet wide and eight feet long, stretched out in front of my feet. Carpe locum.