Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Fear, Freedom, and the Future

I used to be terrified of heights.
Somewhere between my tree climbing childhood and adolescence the thought of getting on a ladder became nearly incapacitating. One late night I prayed. And prayed and prayed. Please make me not afraid. Of heights, of death, of the unknown, of so many things. I was so exhausted by fear. That night something changed. I felt calm and reassured. The crushing weight of anxiety was lifted and I chose to embrace it.
Daily I chose to be unafraid in small ways. I began to seek out the things that had terrified me. Little by little I gained the confidence that I could live without fear.

3 years later I stood on the edge of a 50ft cliff. Lake Powell, deep and vast, sprawled below me. Others were jumping. My stomach was in knots, but I tried to pretend that I was unafraid. I had to convince myself. I walked to the edge and looked down. Oh God...
There is a normal level of fear when confronted with falling into space. There is also irrational fear that can take you over.
Deep breath. This is a normal feeling. You can overcome it. Deep breath. Three strides and I was plummeting.

In the new surroundings, dark and heavy, I was frozen. My limbs reached spasmodically for purchase. Then, the emerald glimmer above gave me a new path to follow. My arms and legs fell into sync, every fiber and all my focus were on that beckoning shimmer. Arid desert air filled my empty, burning lungs as I came bursting from the darkness into the light. I was free. I was exhilarated. Clarity. I suddenly understood baptism. The way it feels to conquer fear. The words, "Take up your mat and walk."

Sometimes the door to the future slams so loudly you don't hear the window down the hall opening. You rail at the door until completely spent. Slumping to the floor, staring back at your past, you notice the flutter of curtains. And when you reach that window you may find that it is ground level. The future is easily accessible.

But sometimes it reveals wide, empty space. You have to take a deep breath. Swing your legs over the sill...


and Jump.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Modern Day Adventurers

Amelia Earhart.

Their stories are American lore. Long before I was an adventuresome woman-in-the-wilderness I was enamored by their lives. I read a steady stream of their biographies throughout my childhood...and even won some awards for various essays I wrote about Sacajawea in middle school. From my earliest days I wanted to be like them. I wanted to discover and adventure and go places other people didn't, couldn't, or wouldn't. I used to climb the trees in my yard and stare south, wondering how far I could walk in one day if I just went. All day. Could I make it to Lansing?

Today I know I could make it to Lansing (42 miles away) and probably much further. But I still wonder, in their time would I have been as they were? Let's face it, running a race on a well marked course where people hand you food and water is pretty tame. Even thru-hiking, where you can buy supplies every few days, is nothing like bushwhacking across a continent...or flying around the world.

In the days of Google Earth, there are few untrammeled places left in this world. It would be difficult for me to find an unexplored place to go. Most feats have been accomplished. There truly isn't anything new under the sun. Perhaps that is why I do what I do. I have to turn the discovery, the exploration of the unknown, inward.

I'm not the fastest runner. I'm not the best at orienteering. But, I know my limits. And I'm also willing to push those limits...all the time. I want to know what it feels like to be broken; and I want to know what it's like to reach that point and continue on. There is an unknown wilderness inside each of us. These "what-we're-made-of" places are seldom reached–just like the dark recesses of rugged mountain valleys. It is a choice to go there. It takes courage to enter and attempt to find your way to the other side.

I've realized that today, to be an adventurer like my heroines, I can't simply pick a place on a map. Going there will not make me an adventurer. Instead I will find the place on the map and tackle it in a way that will force me deep into myself. My challenge will be my own, no one else's. What is hard for me will be easy for some, what I find simple would teach others great lessons.

I think of Amelia readying her plane, studying her maps. I imagine Sacajawea walking long miles yearning to see something familiar. Today I find that the terrain is simply the catalyst for true exploration and courage, but...

Perhaps it has always been so.

Friday, November 11, 2011

"Where Your Thoughts Are, There Your Heart Will Also Be"

I went along to "help", but I was really just a pig-tailed tag-along in overalls–with bare feet. He slowed the tractor to a crawl and the growl of the engine lessened enough so that his voice was audible. "Now, don't tell mama this cause she knows you get upset about these things, but when we die this is all yours." My dad gestured to the forested acres and toward the house, barely visible in the distance. Tears welled up in my eyes at the thought of my parents dying and the world became a blurred mass of tree shapes and golden light. But I didn't cry. I nodded resolutely and said "Ok" with all the solemnity I could muster. I knew, even at such a young age, that I was being entrusted with something important. My hero was confiding in me and I never told my mom about the most meaningful moment that has ever passed between my dad and I. Not even to this day.

Needless to say I was crushed when last year, in light of my now ex-husbands adamant statements that we'd probably donate the land to the state or put it in a trust when I inherited it, my mom said they were planning to change their wills and give the majority to my sister. Again, I said "Ok" and didn't cry–until I was alone. My forever home was no longer mine. In its stead were 14 acres of wild mid-west forest. A few weeks ago I wandered through that land–slowly–traveling trails I'd covered hundreds of times. I absorbed it, etching it upon my mind. I will always cherish that land in my heart.
When you dip below the clouds over Michigan you are greeted by an even patchwork of forest and field. The cities are perfect grids of lights and pavement. Every time the plane begins it's descent and I glimpse Lake Michigan and the familiar flat land I feel happy, safe, home. When you sink beneath the clouds over the west something completely different awaits. The world below is brown and crumpled–wrapping paper 5 minutes after Christmas frenzy. White cloaks the highest peaks, jewels of water glimmer from impossible perches. A feeling of adventure overwhelms me.

I finished my book an hour into my westbound flight. Skymall is only interesting for about 45 minutes. Luckily for me the sky was clear as we cruised the plains and I had a window seat. Soon the rumpled foothills began to give way to something more beautiful.

On my recent visit home, my mom had told me her thoughts after seeing me off on my southbound CDT thru-hike.
"When we flew out of Kalispell I looked out the window and saw those mountains in every direction. And I thought to myself, 'My BABY is going to walk over those.'"

I looked down at the Montana Rockies sprawling over the landscape and recalled her words. Mountains–snow laden and jagged–formed a veritable fortress against passage in any direction. Except I knew better. For a few minutes I traced a route from Glacier far in the distance southward and thought of my mom. I could see her, face pressed to the tiny window, staring at the labyrinth of topography below. Tears in her eyes, she prayed softly. Then as they faded to the distance she would sigh and lean back against the seat–still praying.

My eyes filled with tears at those thoughts, but also with the thoughts of what I saw. Where my mom saw hardship and danger I saw beauty, challenge, and freedom. Happiness. The best moments of my life. My heart ached to be there in the midst of those peaks.

The Rockies gave way to thick forests and flatter land. I watched the Columbia meander its way through Washington. Its enormous, sinuous being called out to me. I've seen its headwaters. I've walked across it near its merger with the sea. I've driven along it. My electricity is probably partially generated by its strength.

Then the Cascades swelled up from the land. I analyzed the topography of the volcano we were heading straight for. Its impossibly deep valleys and pure white crown told me it was Glacier Peak. I mentally traced my many routes in its shadow. Northward I smiled at the sight of Mt. Baker crowning the chain. I spotted the valley where Lake Chelan lay, even without seeing the water. My eyes read the mountains of, home(?), like a topo map. The plane banked and I glimpsed Rainier. We circled. Descending.

I had been practically sobbing over the Rockies. Again my eyes were overflowing. The mountains. My heart is in those mountains. These ones I've walked through. I've run through. Perhaps losing the home I'd been entrusted with wasn't the way to see it. Instead, knowing that I would always have a place gave me the fearlessness to embark and possibly fail. Like training wheels my Michigan home guided me to go and find myself. To fall in love with a foreign place. Home is where the Heart is. The tires touched tarmac.

The time was right for the training wheels to come off.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Race Recap: Bad Apple Ultra 12 Hour

I know. I know. I said my race season was over for the year after Cle Elum. Well, I did take 5 weeks off, but I jumped right back in with both feet when I went to Michigan for a family visit with my first timed event–Bad Apple Ultra 12 hour.

A timed event is different from my usual ultras. Instead of running a pre-determined distance you run a set loop repeatedly for a pre-determined time to see how many miles you can rack up. I had never done a timed event before, and in fact I swore up and down I would never do one. "So boring. Why the hell would I want to run in circles all day? I like going places!"

I took up ultra-running when I moved out west so my family has never seen me run. Shortly after booking tickets home this fall I did a quick search for ultras in Michigan–just on the odd chance I'd find one. And I did. Find one. And it was a timed event. No way. Uh-uh.


It took me a week of mental arguing, but I signed up. For the 12 hour. 12 hours of running in an apple orchard. A flat, Michigan orchard. 4 miles...over and over and over. Dear God, what have I done?

Fall was perfect in Michigan this October. I reveled in the crisp days and clear starry nights at my parents farm. There was cider and family. And in the middle there was a race.

I awakened at 4am and drove the 40 minutes to Greenville, dodging deer with my mom's new pickup truck. It was cold and raining lightly as I gathered with about 20 people under the awning. Shortly after 6am we headed out for our first loop. The dark orchard sprinkled with headlamps was quite fun. I was near the front of the group and ran a couple loops with a guy from western Michigan. As dawn began to break a cloudburst of sleet and cold rain drenched me. My hands were icy, but I took comfort in the fact that I was able to click off my light and run through a gray shadow world. The orchard and forest were like a grainy old photo and I was a flash of pink winding through it.

"4 loops before you caffeinate." My goal was 60 miles for the day and I didn't want to start the music or the Coke too soon. Little rewards when I reached certain goals helped me focus. 16 miles down, I can start drinking Coke. 10 am, 20 miles done. Ipod. 24 miles, ditch the jacket. 28 miles drop the tights. 32 miles amino acid supplement. 36 miles...40 miles...

The sun was out. The fall color was brilliant. Blue skies punctuated by fluffy white clouds. The orchard was busy with families and workers on a gorgeous Saturday. And I was running. Running, running, running. I settled into a rhythm early and kept it. My legs were like pistons operating on their own. My mind would wander, then check in, wander and check in. I had my 3 short walking distances (probably totaling less than 300ft per lap) and my one spot to stop and decompress my lower back and stretch my hamstrings for 10 seconds on every loop. Aid station: Oreo, potato, salt, Coke, Coke, run 4 miles, repeat.

44 miles... 48 miles... 52 miles....

The monotony didn't kill me and make me want to quit as I had feared. Like any ultra my attention was driven by the things to look at along the way–natural beauty, people, where I was putting my feet–and internal maintnance: Do I need electrolytes? Am I warm enough? Calories? Pain? Is it serious? Too slow. Too fast. I can't stand to listen to Rihanna right this second...
In between my mind wandered to many topics and the miles passed with surprising speed. The onset of pain in my legs and hips and knees and feet began around mile 32 and increased with every mile. But pain is part of running long distances and I learned long ago how to triage and block out anything that wasn't going to put me out of commission once the race is over.

56 miles...
I rounded the corner, with the aid station in sight and saw my dad and my niece coming toward me. This made my day and reinvigorated me. My dad has never come to any events like this before and seeing him there made me feel like I could keep running forever if it would make him proud.

"How many miles you run?"
"56" (big dumb smile on my face)
"You in the lead?"
"I think so."

My niece fell into stride with me and I waved at my mom as I came into the aid station. Oreo, potato, salt, Coke, Coke...
Megan and I ran through the golden afternoon. She'd run her cross country regionals that morning, so I'm sure she was glad her aunt was moving slowly! The euphoria of seeing my family faded quickly and the pain came rushing back. Without my ipod cranked to help distract me I was nearly overwhelmed, but Megan helped me maintain my pace as we chatted our way to my goal of 60 miles in 12 hours.
I hugged my dad and stood in the "recovery stance": hands on thighs, hunched over and trying not to collapse someone said, "5:30! You're good! Go around again!"
I looked him straight in the eye and said, "Do I have to?" I was done mentally.
"Well, no..."
The guy I'd run the first 2 laps of the morning with shouted, "Do it!!" I think some of the other races and race volunteers echoed the sentiment. I'm not sure because something inside was already clicking over. It was a chance to really push myself.

Oreo, potato, salt, Coke, Coke...

I put the ipod back in and headed out. Megan didn't feel she could run another lap with me and it was probably for the best. I was tired and cranky inside and I didn't want to talk. Just run. Like I had been doing all day. By the time I was a mile in the pain had receded, beaten back into submission by my dogged determination to not let it conquer me. The mind has to be as strong or stronger than the body to run ultras. Running 4 miles more than I was mentally prepared to do was training my mind more than my legs or lungs. I was smiling as I passed the half way aid station. I was smiling on the descent and climb that followed. I was basking in the sunset light streaming over the fields as I headed down the home stretch. I was smiling when I came into the finish for the last time.

I can't say that I loved the timed distance, but I did love this race. It was well run, a great course and delightfully low key. My family was able to attend and I was able to push my boundaries–running nearly 2/3 the 100 mile distance in less than half the time. The orchard was not flat, the terrain wasn't hard packed. The views were not boring. I didn't get sick of running the same loop, in fact the rhythm was almost meditational. I am certainly glad I did it.

64 miles, 12 hours (and a bit), 1st woman, 3rd overall