Did you know that I have a pontoon boat? Yep, I own a leisure-time-vehicle. It’s a 20 foot, 1989 Mercury outboard and it was a beautiful boat, back during the Reagan administration, when it was new. Nowadays it sits in the sun, uncovered, all year long, except for the times when it sits in the rain, or snow, or dark, also uncovered. I imagine that my boat appreciates air flow and enjoys the out-of-doors as much as I do so I let it enjoy these things. My favorite times are when the boat and I are sitting in the sun together, with an inner tube hauling several kids along behind us. I keep the boat docked at Delaware State Park and when it is not serving as a refuge for my weary mind it serves as a refuge for various animal species. Seagulls and hornets are common in the summer and raccoons and squirrels in the winter.
The engine always works except for when it doesn’t. Just a while ago it didn’t work until I goofed with it, and then it worked again...and will for a while I imagine. It was the starter again. I can never tell when the starter will go until it goes. I can tell it’s the starter because of the sound of grinding gears and smell of hot metal. The first time it happened I worried that I would be stranded but now I simply pull the engine cover, take the popsicle stick spacer out, trim it, and wedge it back under the drive gear to move the teeth back into proximity with the other gear (the non-drive gear?). Then I don’t worry about it until it happens again. No sense planning for every single thing that can go wrong in life. Have a plan for the big stuff and figure out the rest when it arises. That’s what I always say…
Well, I don’t always say that…
I bought the boat 8 years ago and one of my favorite things to do is to sit on it and gain weight during the months of July and August. This is an especially enjoyable time after a Mohican finish. I can reflect back on the accomplishment and tell myself that I am a terrific endurance athlete as I eat another bag of Cheetos. This year, though, I am still bent toward the task of earning a belt buckle. Today the boat ride got cut a bit short because I need to pack my drop-bags for Burning River. And, despite all of my “fix life’s problems as they arise” platitudes, packing my bags for a 100 miler now takes the better part of a day.
I hate packing the bags for a 100 miler. I mean I really hate it. I used to think that I hated this activity because it was time-consuming but I no longer believe that the time factor is the chief irritant. I now believe that the thing that I hate most about the entire bag-packing process is that it is an extended exercise in imagining all of the things that MIGHT go wrong. The truth of the matter is that all year long I imagine running ultra marathons and, in my mind’s eye, I envision things going well. I imagine myself running powerfully and cleverly diagnosing and treating small maladies before they become killers. These thoughts are always pleasant, and I believe that this type of mental imagery makes us better athletes and better people. I believe that negative thinking yields negative results and that positive thinking ennobles us. But to assume that everything will go well while packing drop-bags is to render the entire activity useless.
The truth is that if everything goes well I will need 2-3 shirts, maybe 2 pairs of shorts, 5-6 ibuprofen tablets, 6 batteries, a spritz of bug spray, a dab of Vaseline, 8-10 Hammer Gels, a headlamp, and a few endurolytes. Beyond that I can rely on the aid stations and God’s love.
The problem is that I can’t be sure that things will go well. I know that I will always have God’s love but if things don’t go well I need to augment this with my gigantic pile of stuff, bags and bags of it, all gathered under the banner of “just-in-case”. I need some things just in case I get hypothermia, other things just in case I get hyperthermia, some things for high blood sugar and others for low. Let’s not even get into all of the things that can happen with minerals but instead mention that "they" say that pain caused by inflammation can be treated with ibuprofen but non-inflammatory pain might be better served with acetaminophen…so wouldn’t it be wise to have access to both? If I have no blisters I have no problems but if I do I need lots of things. The same could be said for gastrointestinal distress, or sleepiness, or chaffing.
Now, add to this list of possible tragedies the fact that I don’t know WHEN any of these problems might arise, and so I need to have access to EVERYTHING ALWAYS. But since I don’t own that much stuff and not every aid station allows drop bags I must sit around IMAGINING when each unfortunate event might take place. I will come home and, whether the race goes well or poorly, I will unpack my bags and find that 90% of their contents are clean and unused. The inefficiency can be chalked up to nerves and registered in the race ledger of my mind under the depressing line of “insurance”.
And that, my friends, is the worst part of ultramarathoning.
The worst part of ultramarathoning isn’t the blisters or nausea or muscle cramps. It isn’t even the loneliness or self doubt. These things are real and thus have earned their place in the pantheon of possible experiences that make ultras a challenge. The worst thing is the negative imagery that comes from trying to control the uncontrollable.
Isn’t it possible for me to just adjust my thinking? Grab the reigns? Possibly get myself on some antianxiety medication? The answer to these questions is that yes, these things are possible. But I have observed at the finish line of many ultra marathons and from what I have learned excusing myself from this painful imagery, while possible, wouldn’t be terribly bright. I have never heard a runner at the end of an ultra say “My legs just could not go on” or “I just ran out of energy”. I have learned that you can go a long long way on a pair of blown legs but you cannot go very far without a light at night, or when your body temperature drops (or soars) to dangerous levels, or when you cannot process food and water. Things like a sweatshirt, or an aspirin, a contact lens, an asthma inhaler, or a Tums can, if available at just the right moment, remove the “d” and the “n” from a “dnf”.
I love the spontaneity of our sport and nothing is less spontaneous than packing drop-bags. And so I must, if only for today, ignore my image of myself as primal-man, moving relentlessly across the landscape on a heroic mission to save my community, never knowing how my mission might end but moving forward using my strength of will and drinking from whatever stream might be available. Instead today I must play the role of primal man’s anal retentive nanny, making primal-man put on galoshes and wear a sweater. And on the way out the door perhaps a spoonful of castor oil “just-in-case”.
All of this is, of course, an effort to help me to stay afloat. Alas. Perhaps I should look into getting a higher quality popsicle stick for my boat.