And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy.
Just before 5:00 AM I stood in the cold dark by the Bear Mountain Inn, surrounded by tiny pockets of light thrown by headlamps and fire rings and strings of electric bulbs. As the clock ticked down the announcer called for the first wave of runners to gather at the starting line. I positioned myself at the back of the corral, my shoulder blades quite literally touching the cold metal barrier. My plan was to go out softly and try to run easy all the way to Anthony Wayne at 41 miles. I wanted to arrive there without feeling too beat up. If I managed that, then I would race hard over the last ten miles to the finish. It wasn’t much of a strategy, but it was what I had.
Coach Jimmy Dean Freeman is fond of saying, “An ultra is ninety percent mental, and the other ten percent is in your head.” What he means is that a runner’s physical capacity is fully determined well before he or she reaches the starting line, and that virtually everyone on that line has the physical capacity to finish well. The deciding factor between running well or failing from that point forward is the mental – or more importantly, emotional – strength required to push the body into the depths of that physical ability for hours and hours. A race of this distance on this terrain is virtually guaranteed to provide plenty of physical pain and exhaustion. As runners, it is up to us to float above that pain, grind our way through it, or succumb, and all three are possible.
My mother is a psychologist and councilor. She told me once about a training course she took that covered psychosomatic strength and weakness. In one of the sessions the participants held out their arms at ninety degrees from the shoulder and gripped a heavy weight in the extended hand. They closed their eyes and told first a truth, then a lie. With the truth, they could hold the weight steady. With the lie their hands trembled, or even dropped. The cognitive dissonance confused the brain and interrupted the neural signals that keep the muscles firing in their arms.
The psychosomatic test is a distilled version of what I would face over and over during the race. Over fifty miles I would take between seventy and ninety thousand steps. If my brain could convince just a few extra muscle fibers to fire on each of those steps, I would fly through to the finish. If it couldn’t, I would slog along, the effort building with every step. What determines whether on not my brain would perform are all of the ephemerals: happiness, confidence, resiliency, and adaptability facing off against sadness, confusion, loneliness, and rigidity.
I’ve run both ways in the past. Just two weeks earlier in the North Face DC marathon an aid station volunteer had chided me for making the race look too easy. I was twenty miles in, in third place, gliding along and chasing down the leaders. It actually wasn’t easy, physically. I was running against the edge of my ability, hot and tired and hurting, but I was running with the joy of visiting my sister’s family, the beauty of the day and the positivity of the other runners. It must have showed.
I wouldn’t have that advantage in this race. Just three days before I’d gotten the news at my job. Not getting what I wanted was hard, but for many reasons it became far worse than that. Hearing through the rumor mill hours before anyone got around to telling me directly made me angry. It devalued the months of managing uncertainty and the effort of creating a base of support. The patronizing consolations and realizing how deep the breach of trust ran finally shattered the thin veneer of civility I’d been able to maintain to that point. I felt shocked, hurt, and adrift. I try to remember how badly I lost my temper in the ensuing conversations, but the exact words refuse to arise from memory.
Afterward I drove to my refuge on the Watchung trails. I burst immediately into a reckless sprint, no warmup, and burned over the first mile. I stopped suddenly, wanting to scream. Too suddenly. I’m prone to cerebral hypoperfusion when I stop an intense effort, as my body maintains blood flow to the muscles and forgets about the brain. My vision turned blue, narrowed, and I fell to the ground. I bizarrely got up and started running again before coming to, only regaining consciousness as I crashed through a thicket and slammed into an old oak. Blood dripped from my elbow, and I cursed it as it splashed on the ground. Then I finished the loop.
With the Bear Mountain 50 mile coming on Saturday I knew I was in for trouble. I couldn’t get my mind right. I cancelled our reservation at the Bear Mountain Inn; I didn’t think I could run the race. Then on Friday my buddy Andrew Siegmund texted, asked if I was ready to crush it. I told him I was mentally wrecked, and he understood. He told me to do it anyway. I told him I would try to run, just to see if I could go fifty miles on spite and anger. He told me to fly like Peter Pan instead. I asked what he meant, and he reminded me: happy thoughts.
I set my alarm for 2:30 am on Saturday morning, but woke up at 2:20. I was quietly thankful that the alarm wouldn’t wake my family. I drove north, and there were no distressed thoughts or worries this time, not like last year. There was only a yawning, empty sadness. I wanted the black night to be comforting, but looking out at it only felt like looking in a mirror. I saw grey hair and stubble, blank eyes and a wrinkled face.
I caught the last shuttle from Anthony Wayne to Bear Mountain, arriving at the start/finish at 4:20. I milled around, picking up a bib and arranging my drop bags. I tried to be sociable, honoring the connections I made with Lena in DC, Sue and Maya at the Skydive Ultra, Adam and Eric at the Hurl Elkhorn, and Karen at Cayuga Trails, but mostly my attempts fell flat. I did chat a bit with an Ironman triathlete named Rob, who has a two-year old daughter and another on the way. We joked and commiserated about the difficulties of parenting while training for ultras, and glorified the hot coffee offered up by volunteers in the predawn chill. The conversation felt almost human and almost real.
At the 5:00 am start I jogged off behind the first wave of runners. I had no intention of overrunning the early miles. I held back on the first rocky climbs, and soon the lead racers from the second wave came streaming by, their headlamps shining through the dark. I let them go. I knew I would see most of them again, and I did. Over the first twenty miles of hilly, broken ground I passed each one of them and many others, one by one or in bunches, the race unfolding exactly as I intended. I still felt sad, but I felt strong.
On a different day, after a different week, I think I could have kept it up. I wouldn’t have won – the talent in the field was far to deep for that – but I might have had a chance at the top ten or fifteen. On that day I would have been mentally strong and happy. I would have waved at the photographers, maybe clowned around and flexed the muscles on my thin arms. Instead I could barely smile. When the pain came I gritted my teeth and forced my way through it, but I couldn’t float above. Half way to Anthony Wayne I realized that my strategizing was already lost. I slowed, and on the way into the Camp Lanowa my legs cramped in a strange way behind the knees, hamstrings and calves betraying me together. On the way out of the aid station the volunteers cheered and clapped. They told me I was doing great and to keep up the good work. Secretly I wished they would stop cheering. I felt so worthless, and I wished they would turn their backs and shun the useless creature before them. I covered my mouth with my hand, hoping they wouldn’t see my expression.
By mile thirty I was walking. It was by far the easiest section of the course, on a paved road of all things, smooth and only slightly uphill. The runners I had passed earlier passed me back. One asked me if I was okay, and I told him I was walking back to Anthony Wayne to drop out. He told me I’d feel better in while, and to keep going. Another told me it wouldn’t last, and a third told me he’d see me again when I caught up. Then a young guy gave me a chunk of ice he’d kept in his hat, to cool my hands and face in the growing heat.
It was the kindness of the other runners that finally broke through my sadness and shame. These were the people who were facing the same struggle I was, and that commonality allowed me to hear and feel their support. In their presence I was not alone. I began to jog behind a trio of European runners, letting their energy pull me up the hills and over the rocks. I felt like the end car of a freight train, no longer responsible for my own motion, but filled with the inevitability of that movement. I was no longer competing, but I was running.
By the return to Anthony Wayne I felt a small measure of strength again. Many families and friends of the racers were there, cheering on their runners and laughing and smiling. Amazingly my own family came running across the parking lot, looking beautiful and clean and not at all like the beaten down lot of us who’d been running for eight hours. I told them that I would be slow on the last ten miles, that it wasn’t a good day for me, and they said they would meet me at the end.
Amazingly, I beat my family to the finish. They were at the park, playing, when I came across the line. Alone, I bent over and buried my face in my hands. For so many, this would be a moment of victory, a chance to celebrate the accomplishment. I stayed bent over and let the anger and shame and sadness wash over me for another minute. I felt the pain and exhaustion in my bruised and broken body, then I straightened up. I walked through the finish festival to a pine tree and lay down on my back in the shade. I thought about the race and the pain, my failures and my partial recovery. I thought about mental strength and emotional weakness. I thought of what Christopher McDougall said: “If you don’t have answers to your problems after a four-hour run, you ain’t getting them.” I asked myself why I felt the way I did. At first there were no answers, but slowly I gained a modicum of understanding. I felt like I'd been led on. I was ashamed that I fell for it. I felt betrayed, and I felt embarrassed to see my raw ambition paraded so publicly about. I looked in at the core of my self and saw the shriveled, seething mass. It stank of base arrogance, petty selfishness, and foolish wounded pride. I recoiled from it. It was my worst self, but I couldn’t escape it. It was part of me.
In the end I knew that nothing had changed, not in the ten hours of the race and not in the week before. I was the same person, living the same life, albeit much more bruised and scraped and sore now. Only my perspective had shifted. That morning Bear Mountain had glowed crimson in the sunrise; now it glittered green in the afternoon light. Soon night would fall, and it would loom ominously in the gray dark, but it was the same mountain. I was getting to see a different side of my life from the one I usually enjoy, a darker, more ominous side. I would have to get used to its presence, but I knew I had to stop letting it consume me. If spite and anger weren’t enough to fuel me for fifty miles, they certainly wouldn’t sustain me for months or years. I would have to find the freight train of runners in my real life and join in, become part and parcel of that support and inevitable motion, and refuse to allow the unstable rocks a place in my foundation.
By the end of the day my wife and son had lifted my spirits. Together we dragged my body back to the truck, and I followed them home. I began to mentally rebuild the veneer of civility. I began to take back my right to feel good about the better parts of who I am and how I conduct myself. I began to prepare for the difficult part.
As always, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the volunteers at the start/finish and the aid stations, particularly to the girl at Camp Lanowa who kept me focused on taking one section at a time and to the woman at Tiorati who sunscreened my burning skin. Without these people, and without the organization provided by The North Face, I wouldn’t have been able to start the race, much less finish. My thanks and my wish of blessing for each of them.