Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Mountains are Calling and I Must Go

Today I was chatting with another ultra-runner and in the course of the conversation I found myself saying, "I would run a 100 miler every weekend if I could."

Now, a few hours later I am reflecting on that statement and I realize that at the heart of it is this: I miss thru-hiking.

In ultrarunning, nothing is more epic than the 100 mile (or more) event. It requires extreme endurance, focus, and tenacity. In order to enjoy it, you must also thrive on pushing yourself and the beauty of being "out there". In backpacking, there is nothing more epic than a "thru-hike" of a long trail: 2,000+ miles and months on end of travel through the mountains or other wild places. In order to complete a multi-month trek you must posses extreme endurance, focus, tenacity, and above all, a love for being "out there".

It's easy to see why when I stopped thru-hiking I fell into ultrarunning with such fervor. The 50 and 100 mile events take me to the wilds. They tap into those same emotions and strengths I honed walking across the United States year after year in my early 20's. They allow me to kiss the wilderness. Plunge deep into the mountains. Run wild in the most gorgeous playgrounds. And still be home in time for a shower and dinner.

This has gotten me through 6 years of working and attempting to fit into "normal" society. The truth is, however, that my heart and soul are never going to be healed by running. Perhaps if I ran 100 miles every weekend it would be enough, but that would break my body, even if it did heal my spirit.

I am whole in the wilderness. I go there for redemption and rejuvenation. I go there because I need it. My homeland consists of rocky passes, broad plains, sparkling rivers, and impenetrable forests. After 6 years of short visits I realize that I need to go home for a while. A long while.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Failure Trumps Fear

I've been depressed about my health and my knee for months. It's gotten to the point where I don't even go running much because I never know when it's going to start hurting. I've been afraid of hurting myself more, afraid of pain, afraid of failure. I'd signed up for Badger Mountain 100 last November, but 6 weeks ago I decided to only run the 50k. I was afraid of hurting myself and screwing up my chances of finishing Western States if I tried to run the 100.

Wednesday at around 3pm I decided that I was tired of being afraid all the time. I'm not one to live in fear, it's not who I am. I'd rather try to run or hike as far as I could and be out there doing what I love, immersed in the adventure. If my knee crapped out, I'd drop. Who cares? I can accept failure more than I can handle living in fear. I went home, threw things into drop bags and emailed the RD to let him know I'd be starting the 100 after all.

Friday morning at 7am I started up Badger Mountain.

It was raining. It was cold. I ran along open ridges in the strong winds that ripped the heat from my core through my thin jacket. My hands were numb, but I was smiling. I laughed as we plunged down to the second aid station through thick soft sand. Glorious! Immersion in the moment. I knew what was coming, but it didn't intimidate. I was doing what I loved.

I wound along a ridgeline for what seemed like forever. The miles were steadily rolling by and I was feeling good. The rain stopped, the skies began to clear. I was eating a pbj and running downhill when I slipped in the mud and fell. Smack! I didn't even catch myself because I was holding the pbj in the air. I'd rather be covered in mud than eat it! When I reached mile 50 I finally realized why my face hurt...I hadn't stopped smiling the entire time.

Darkness fell and I was running back along the ridge. The ground was uneven in places–and quite rocky. I mentally cussed out the rocks every time I stubbed my sensitive toes. I was beginning to tire. My lack of base was showing in the overall fatigue. But, unlike Cascade Crest I wasn't falling asleep. I wasn't really sore. In fact I felt so good I couldn't even believe it. Two men caught up to me and asked how I was.
"Fantastic!" was my enthusiastic reply.
"Yeah, right."
"No, really!"
They laughed and moved on in the dark.

Around mile 77 my knee started letting me know it wasn't happy. Patellar tendinitis set in, along with my ongoing medial knee issue. I doctored myself with menthol patches and kept going. I had said I'd stop when it started to hurt, but at this point, with 3 marathons down and less than one to go, I couldn't let myself stop. Not with as much time as I had. I could still run. It just hurt.

The miles started feeling longer. I was hurting, but I was clinging to the hope I could still go sub-24. Winding through a vineyard in the wee hours I saw a shed with a light–the aid station! A person stood outside. I bombed past the reflective flagging into the sagebrush toward it. After 50 ft I came to my senses. I wasn't on course. I shone my light around and caught site of the flagging on the road just to my left. I went back. Then I ate something. I knew I had to stay more alert. I reached the shed to discover it was just that...and that the person was just some back-lit machinery. I continued on, reaching the aid station in a few more minutes. Mentally I knew there was a 5 mile out and back loop coming and then a climb over Candy Mountain, and finally, Badger Mountain, but when the aid station volunteer said I was at mile 87 I clung to a hope that maybe I was wrong and wasn't going to climb Candy Mountain after all. Maybe I'd misread the map.

The 5 mile loop brought me back to him and he said I was at mile 94, only 1.5 miles down a road, through a culvert, and up and over Candy and then up and over Badger. 3 miles to the next aid. I walked out of his station with all the numbers swirling through my tired brain. I stared at the hulks of Candy and Badger and things wouldn't compute. There was no possible way it was only 6 miles. Candy looked about 3 miles away, not one and a half. I wanted to cry. Either the course was long or he was wrong. My knee was killing me, especially on the road. I didn't know what time it was, but I was certain 24 hours was sliding from my grasp. I forced myself to run, which wasn't much of a run, it was a slow jog. After at least 2 miles on the road I was shining my light in the ditch, desperately looking for a culvert when a truck pulled up and called out "1/2 a mile!" I said thanks, but wanted to scream.

I found the culvert and went through. No raccoons or possums or skunks...thank God. Then, there was Candy. I started slowly up, eating bars that were in my pockets. I'd learned at Cascade Crest that after about 70 miles I was going to be hungry every 10 minutes no matter what I ate. I hadn't eaten since the aid station. I felt sluggish and I couldn't find markings. I just kept climbing.

At the top I faced east. Badger Mountain was silhouetted against a horizon that was glowing orange. I tried to breathe, but it was a choked sob. I wasn't going to make 24 hours. I shined my flashlight in search of flagging down the mountain. I couldn't see any. Tears were running down my face. I could see the bottom, the road, the freeway, Badger...I picked my route and started shuffle jogging down the mountain. "Stop crying. You can cry when you're done."

I fretted that I was off course, but I just made turns that seemed to make sense and would take me where I knew I needed to go. Occasionally I ran past some flagging that reassured me. I reached the road and went under the interstate. I walked. The aid station was just ahead. I took a cup of coke, asked them where I was going and how far. They pointed to the trail and said, "5 miles".

My heart sank. It had been hours of running since I was last told I had 5 miles left. I listlessly headed up the mountain. Within a few minutes I encountered a few of the 50k runners coming down. We exchanged the normal "Nice job" comments as they flew by. Then one woman stepped aside to let me by. She smiled and applauded. "100 miles...you're awesome." I was truly touched by that act of encouragement. It snapped me back to the moment, to the enormity of what I was doing, and away from how lost I'd been in the disappointment of my time and my physical discomfort. I had run for an entire day and night. I was, overall, feeling amazing considering the demands I had placed on my body. Obviously I wasn't going to feel awesome at this very moment, but that was to be expected. I had my perspective back.

A few more feet, a few more runners. Something inside me said, "Fuck you pain!" I turned up my music and started running. Somehow I still had energy. I wasn't tired. I wasn't going to make 24, but I didn't have to give up and drag myself to the finish. I was going to PR. I was going to run 100 miles without training. I was going to run it injured. I was going to finish strong.

I ran up Badger Mountain–something that would be hard for me even on fresh legs. I got to the top and started down. My knee was screaming at me, but I went all-out anyway. I saw the finish far below me and I focused on it. I was flying down the mountainside and–despite the pain–I was happy. Kevin was coming up the mountain, having just finished pacing someone else and without a word he turned around and started running behind me down the mountain. A couple switchbacks from the bottom I saw two men walking. I recognized them as the ones from the "Fantastic!" conversation the night before. They heard me coming up behind them and stepped aside, clapping for and encouraging me.

I crossed the finish line in 24:24 and I stopped. I sat down. It was over.

I still have a hard time believing that I ran 100 miles just the day before yesterday. I'm not sore, but my knee is not a happy camper, although after some ice and compression it isn't doing too badly. Running Badger was one of the harder runs I've done, but yet, I had a fantastic time. When things are most desperate out there I remind myself that I'm doing this because I love it. I get caught up in the epic-ness of traveling distances on foot that most people can only fathom in a car. Allowing myself to embrace all of it–the pain, the beauty, the challenge, the ridiculousness, the scent of sagebrush, the minute details of the way my body is working (or not)–gets me through moments like an unexpectedly long road walk...or a demoralizing climb up a mountain. I smiled nearly the entire time because I belong on trails, doing things that require extreme endurance and determination.

I am not meant to live a life afraid, I am meant to live.