Those Moments

Did you ever have one of those moments where you knew that you were exactly where you were supposed to be?  When the cosmos lined up and something just stopped you and whispered in your ear that right here and now was your moment?  Or you instinctively knew deep down that you were where your fate wanted you and with the people the fate wanted you to be with?
 I’m get that gift every time I go running.  Whether I am on a solo run, doing a training run with friends or running in a race that I will never win.  I just know that I am where fate, karma, God, the universe or whatever you believe in, wants me. 
There are times when it feels like the universe is channeling all its energy down to me and it funnels through my soul, driving me on.  I can feel the energy circling me, pushing me and occasionally pulling me.   At times it feels like I’m not even running, rather that I am standing still and my legs are pushing the world behind me.  
Nothing else exists at that moment; just that moment.  There are no deadlines, no work worries, just putting one foot in front of the other as fast and as efficiently as I can.  With all that has been written about running, it all boils down to that: how fast can you put one foot down and pick it up.
Running is the one thing that I do that I can call totally mine.  I don’t have to depend on others to help me make it happen; it is nice to have people around to encourage and help me but, ultimately it’s all on me.  A bad run is mine, as is a good one.  I have no one to blame for anything, other than myself.  That is kind of appealing to me.  When I go out for a run, that thought is what drives me.  Along with the fact that I am doing what it takes to finish strong when others won’t even make an effort to start.
Don’t misunderstand me, there are days that I lack motivation.  Days that I want to sit in my recliner and do a different kind of marathon, one involving my remote and my Netflix account.  Somehow I manage to push through those moments of weakness and go anyway, knowing that there will be a small payoff when I’m out there running and a bigger one when I cross the finish line of whatever race I am training for. 

We all have those weak moments.  The trick is to learn to deal with them.  Occasionally taking a day off is not going to kill you or your progress; it’s when you make a habit of giving in to your weakness that it becomes a problem.  Giving in at that weak moment repeatedly forms habits.  These habits become lifestyles.    Why would you want to fall back into that lifestyle after working so hard to create a better one?

Brutal Truths

We all pick up little tidbits of advice along the way. Probably one of the best and most honest pieces I have ever heard was while I was in  marathon. I passed a lady who looked distraught. She was obviously struggling to make it through. What I assumed to be a friend of her’s was a few paces ahead. I say that I assume she was a friend due to the bluntness of her advice, because we tend to be more frank with someone we have ran and trained next to for hundreds of miles.

We tend to build up our shared experiences through the hardships of training, causing us to be more open and honest with each other. Like the Band of Brothers, we gain shared struggles, we’ve battled a common threat together. When one’s weakness is apparent, the others will step up and help overcome and as a group the challenge is conquered.  It’s through these shared tragedies, victories and just plain everyday drudgery that a bond begins to form.

Before you know it, you’re sitting around telling “war stories” about this race or that training run or how you helped each other. Much like the church scene in “Saving Private Ryan” where Captain Miller and Sergeant Horvath are discussing the battles of the past and soldiers they have lost. You shed tears and laugh together.

You’re building a story with these people so you tend to get very honest. So honest, that to the casual listener, you sound brutal. When you are on the receiving end, you know that it is not personal. They are just pushing you to be your absolute best. You know someday the tables might turn. Who else can you be so vividly honest with? There are not many people who you can do this with.

My two temporary running partners had obviously put in some miles together. The lady in front turned around and said “Well, some days are sugar and some are shit. Today ain’t really sugar for you.”

The advice, while blunt and somewhat comical, has a layer of truth to it. Many days since then I have thought back to that advice I heard on the course. Not all of your days can be sugar and when they aren’t, just roll with it and hope for some of that sugar in the future.

I wish I knew how they did that day. I didn’t get their bib numbers or remember their faces by the time I finished. Wherever they came in that day, I bet they are telling their war story and laughing about that day, having learned and moved on.

Pushing Your Limits

At almost every race I’ve been to, I have seen people who were obviously broken and emotional. You can see it in their eyes, there is a lost look on their face. They stare off into the distance, oblivious to the bustle going on around them. Their eyes are glazed over, they move delicately. Some have finisher’s medals, some have tears, but all have a new appreciation for themselves and what they can accomplish.

These are the people who have my respect, above those on the podium. The runners who come in completely broken down, who have pushed themselves to a point that they never thought possible. When you look into their eyes, you can tell. It’s like they have scared the hell out of themselves and somehow in the process, they have learned what it truly means to live life to the fullest.

There are many things to fear, but fear of preconceived limits is the worst. We have no reason to think that we can’t do something, we just need proof of what is possible. Maybe these false notions of our limits come from others, after all negativity tends to rub off and multiply. These near zombies that I see at the finish line have ignored the limiters and naysayers. They have gone out and looked for that magical wall for themselves. This deserves nothing but respect and admiration.

For centuries we have celebrated great explorers, men who scaled the highest peaks, drove into the unknown forests or sailed off to the vast oceans, not knowing when or if they would ever return. We’ve idolized humans who have driven the boundaries of technology further than we thought we could ever achieve. I think that we should put the people who have explored their personal limits, and perhaps moved them, on the same pedestal.

There are times when a person hits a limit that they cannot overcome, the mental or physical demands are just too much. The task is just too strenuous to overcome. They scratch and claw to get past it, but to no avail. Some would see this as a failure, but is it failing when you have found what you’re looking for?

This journey is one of the most personal, internal struggles we face. Others can guide us or they go on their own journey that parallels ours, but in the end we must face these barriers on our own. We can have mentors counsel us, but the deep, dark trenches of our minds are our own territory to battle through.

The beauty of watching someone push these limits is that you get to see a newer, greater version of that person emerge.  It’s not like looking at a baby, who is a blank slate, full of possibilities. It’s much deeper than that. Like an entirely new soul being built from the ashes and recycled materials of the old one.

If done right, this is a never ending process. We will continue to push our internal limits, growing and evolving in the process. When we do find that point that cannot be overcome, that permanent boundary, we just turn and go another direction finding another way around that wall.

So the ones who are brought to tears at the finish line, whether of pain or of joy, are the ones who deserve our respect. The ones who limp in long after the awards are over, after the winner is home, they are the true victors.

White Rock Classic 50k

They advertise as “No fees, no frills”. There are no participant t-shirts, there are no finisher’s medals. What the White Rock does offer is hills. When you think you’ve done enough hills for a lifetime, you round a corner and there is yet another one. The first 2.5 miles offer 1,000 feet of elevation gain. Followed by another 2.5 miles of up and downs. When I connected my TomTom GPS watch afterwards, Runkeeper sent me an email congratulating me for doing my personal best on the most elevation in a single run and for the most elevation I had done in one month, this race was on February 6th to put a little perspective on it.

Course profile. Start point is 849 above sea level top is 2,343 above sea level

I have heard horror stories of White Rock’s past that included sleet/freezing rain, no such misery this day. There was a slight chill to start but it was in the mid-50’s throughout the afternoon. One could not ask for better weather for a punishing race like this.

The course itself is an out and back that consists of gravel roads through the national forest. Don’t let this fool you, there are plenty of jutting rocks and roots to look out for. Other things to watch for are the many small creeks and streams in the area. We didn’t have to wade through any, but they made for some beautiful views and a few waterfalls.

The road meanders through the forest, gaining altitude. What lies at the end is the reward, the highest point of the course, the turn-around. The last mile into the turn-around seemed to be the steepest, toughest stretch. Other runners I spoke to felt the same, looking at my elevations afterwards, I could see why. There was over 900 feet of gain in a little over a mile. Then add the psychological side, you know it’s almost half over. All those hills that you’ve been cursing will become your friend, they will soon be down hills. Gravity will finally work for you instead of against you.

I had resigned myself to taking a few minutes of rest at the top, time be damned. I felt that 5-10 minutes of rest might pay a bigger reward later when I needed that energy. I’m glad I had made that decision because the view from the turnaround is at the edge of a cliff, looking down on part of the course and out at the many mountains as far as the eye could see. We could see the other runners coming and going from this vantage point.

My wife and some of our friends had done an early start at 7:30 instead of the official start of 9 a.m. I passed our two friends as they came down, so I had some warning about the hill. I also got word that my wife was still looking strong. (We had been in touch via some cheap two-way radios that we had carried with us.)

I caught up to her at, perhaps, the best time, just a fraction of a mile from the overlook. I spent my few minutes of rest taking pictures with her and enjoying what we had accomplished together. I did make the comment that we should return here…in the car.

Now I was rested and ready for all those wonderful down hills. I was fresh and ready to go as I managed to click off a couple of fast (for me) miles, everything felt great. Then I hit a little uphill, and then another, then a flat, then another uphill. I began to think of the old joke, “when I was your age, I had to walk to school and it was uphill both ways”. Had they really moved mountains to toy with me and my weary legs?

Of course they hadn’t, it was like anything else in life. We tend to focus on the negative parts while overlooking the easy. I had plenty of downhills, the uphills just hurt worse, therefore burned into my memory. The miles started coming a little slower, but I still felt good as I reached the 10/21 mile aid station. I took a handful of M&M’s and an Ensure, topped off my water and then headed back down the mountain.

The boost from all that sugar and nutrients didn’t last til the next aid station. I started to drain, but still felt pretty good. In the meantime, my wife and I had been calling our mileage to each other intermittently. I had started to worry about her location and pace, there was a cut off that she would miss if she didn’t pick it up. I tried to tiptoe the subject with her, but no answer, we had lost contact due to the terrain.

The thought of the upcoming aid station pulled me on. I knew a friend of mine was working it and he could give me any advice I needed. As I neared it, my radio crackled, my wife was 3 miles behind me. Kevin King was at the aid station handing out food and water as I had anticipated. His advice was to keep going, he would make sure my wife was ok and he would wait for her.

As I left, I passed the Ham radio and heard them say my wife’s number. I asked the operator what was said about #11. He said she was dead last but still going. Knowing she was still in and that there were people who were willing to help took a load off me, I picked up my pace a little. I knew there were only a couple of hills left so my internal morale had picked up also. Things were falling into place.

About two miles out from the aid station, I saw the co-race director, Lisa Gunnoe coming towards me. She is one of the people who got me into trail and ultrarunning along with Kevin King. She told me that there was only 1/3 of a mile of uphill left. I knew from there it was, quite literally, downhill all the way. She also assured me that my wife should be fine, they wouldn’t roll up the finish line right at 5p.m.

I hit that downhill stretch and saw 2 runners ahead of me.  My pace picked up some. I neared the first runner and was able to pull around him. The other runner was quite a bit in front of me, but I decided that if she was going to beat me, she would have to earn it. In my fatigued mind I was putting pressure on her. In reality, she probably never knew I was there since she was a good quarter mile up. Whatever the situation was, it helped me. In mile 30 in clocked a 7:55, which is fast for me on a short run, much less after that many miles.

I finished with a 7:41. Not lighting fast but about 50 minutes off my only other 50k, four short weeks ago. As I finished, a race official asked me if my wife had a flashlight. Ummm, no, this was a day race. I was informed that they might have to pull her for safety, my heart sank. She had worked so hard to get to this point. I discussed the options with some friends for a few minutes. What if we took one to her? We got the ok.

What I was unaware of was that she had already been pulled and was in the truck with Kevin. They sent him a text that I was on my way and as long as I stayed with her she could finish. He turned the truck around and took her to the point where her picked her up. When I got to her, she was standing outside the truck looking at the uphill that lay in front of her. I could tell she had the drive and energy, she just needed a push.

Here was the plan, keep going, I would follow in the car, using the radio to encourage her. This seemed to work well for a mile or so. Then we passed our friends sitting in their car on the side of the road, so I stopped and told them I needed someone to drive our car. My instincts kicked in and I did something that I never would have guessed that I had in me after running 31+ miles, I got out and paced her in for the last 2.2 miles. Honestly, I had to hold myself back some because my adrenaline was flowing and she was tired.

That moment you become an ultra

She kept asking how much further we had. I kept telling her till we were done, that’s all. How many miles didn’t matter, we were committed to finishing. I kept telling her to show them that they had made the right decision to let her finish. Those last couple miles were truly run on emotion. We rounded the last corner and I dropped back, this was her time. A cheering carload of friends following her and Lisa Gunnoe waiting by herself at the finish line were the only witnesses, but she became an ultrarunner. (Without the need for a flashlight, I might add, but it was an understandable call from the RD’s point of view.)

She now truly understood what I mean when I say that it’s the heart that makes an ultrarunner, not the miles. For me this was the highlight of the race.

Numbers Do Lie

I have a confession to make…I’m addicted to my GPS watch. I tend to look at it constantly. Worry about the numbers it shows on the LED screen. It is the greyish and black face that judges me. It judges my current state. It judges how well I have done up until that point. It tells me how much work I have done, how much is left to do. It tells me when I will get to my goal. It doesn’t lie to me. It is my friend, my coach, my comforter and cheerleader. Most of all it is my enemy.

This new truth came to me one day on a training run; the numbers kept telling me a truth that I didn’t like, I was tired and slow that day. I made a conscious decision to avoid looking so that I would not erode my moral any further. When those results don’t show what I want, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I don’t feel good and there is proof right here on my wrist. A little judge and jury, ready to execute my goals, moral and effort.

There days that the opposite happens, I look down at it and see the hard truth and become angry. “Bull, I know I am doing better than that, I’ll show this little computer.” It starts to feel like a showdown. Like a gunfight in the old west on a dusty street. I hear that whistling music from a Clint Eastwood movie (which is strange since I don’t usually have music when I run). The first one to flinch loses.

I bought this little gadget to be an assistant, an aide to my training. I wanted to accurately gauge my milage and get an idea of what pace I was going. Somewhere along the way, it took over my running. If I didn’t have it, it didn’t count. It became my masochistic coach, taunting me with it’s display. Not only did I go along with this, I let it speak to my laptop so that it could taunt me also. They became contriving electronic partners in the demise of my moral.

These two also began create an act. They would act as if they liked me at times. They would conspire to inflate my ego, knowing that an inflated ego is as detrimental as a completely deflated one. I would look down and Mr. GPS would be smiling a fantastic number. I would get home and Mr. GPS and Mr. Laptop would talk, then tell me the great story of my run, leading me to believe that I was becoming one of the greatest runners around. I didn’t need to do my strength training or boring old hill repeats tomorrow, look at how good I did today. I earned a rest.

I slowly came to realize that they were what some people call “frienemies”. They acted as if they had my best interest at heart, but in reality their only concern was with themselves. The very things that were suppose to be my assistant had become a thorn in my side. Their very existence had become devoted to destroying me.

Busted by my Ion camera!

I wonder, has anyone else had their electronic friends turn on them as I have? Is there a support group? There is a movie based on a Stephen King story called “Maximum Overdrive”. It’s the story of machines taking over the world. Are these machines trying to take over my world like those in the movie? Everytime I stand at the starting line, I hear what can only be described as R2-D2 throwing a temper tantrum, so I can’t be the only one.

I have come to the truth, they will take over, but only if I let them. I must keep them at bay with all my mental strength. I still wear my watch and still let it visit with my laptop, I just keep them in check. Never letting what they say effect my sense of accomplishment.

Good or bad, a run is still a run. The numbers on your watch or the results on your computer don’t show the heart it took to get there.