Sunday, September 20, 2009

Since time moves too quickly, race me instead.

I have been writing this thing about a dead guy from Greece, but I can’t get time enough to think clearly and finish it, so let me keep that one on the back-burner and tell you about 36 hours ago…when things were so simple that I didn’t need to think much at all. I was running down the trail yesterday, my heart rate pushing 190 and my core temperature probably climbing into the triple digits, and I was thinking three things:

A. Lemme see if I can get out of this without splitting my head open on a rock. AND

B. This current activity is both VERY difficult and VERY simple…I like it. AND

C. When will that sumbitch in the floral shorts finally crack? One of us has to die soon…and I want it to be him.

I wasn’t always who I am today. I was never a terrific runner but I wasn’t always the guy who was walking down the trail vomiting and worrying his friends and relatives, either. Most of my running friends don’t know this but I actually have a competitive streak. Its okay by me that they don’t know. Most of my friends figure that being slow is just fine and dandy by me. I haven’t ever lied about my competitive nature…I just never mention it. Its easy to seem non-competitive when you are very very slow and somewhat good-natured. The very best part of being an ultra marathoner is spending time outdoors and meeting both new and old friends on the trail. I’m not lying about that either. If I relied on fame and fortune to motivate me I would have run out of that particular type of fuel and ground to a halt many years ago.

I love my friends, I really do. But I also believe that every so often, even if very long intervals of time pass between occurrences, it is healthy to give your friends the beating they so richly deserve. Yep, its OK to put your chin to your chest and administer an ass-kicking. That way, when you are exchanging pleasantries at the club’s ‘Secret Santa’ cookie exchange everyone knows exactly who’s-who. I like to be humble but how can I be humble if no one has ever, not even once, seen me do something to be humble about?

Most folks probably figure that I would be a bragger if only I had something to brag about. But that’s not true. Let me write that again…its not true! And just because I’m about to brag here and now doesn’t mean that I am a bragger. I’m still humble I’m just going to pass on this rare and valuable opportunity to display my humility for the sake of this posting. Its because I love you.

You are welcome.

I almost never race ultra marathons. Or do I? If racing means leaving everything out on the course and finishing feeling as though you could not possibly take another step then I race ALL of my ultras, because after each race I am more wasted than cooked carrots at a Viking feast.

Does finishing tired mean that you raced? I believe that it does. I also think that the two most rewarding things that you can race are yourself, or a clock. But you can compete against yourself or run a time-trial any time you want to. So why race?

I went to run the Youngstown Ultra Trail Classic 50K yesterday. It was a very cool race. Everything about it was awesome. They had terrific swag, great food, neat t-shirts, and wonderful volunteers. The course was marked such that if you paid sufficient attention you wouldn’t get lost. I got lost three times. The reason I got lost was because I wasn’t paying attention, and the reason I wasn’t paying attention was because I was tired, and this time…this time…the reason I was tired was because I WAS RACING!!

I didn’t start out racing. I started out trying to be polite. I was in a long conga-line of runners on a long stretch of single track trail and everyone was flying. There were 25K runners mixed in with the 50K folks which might have been part of the reason for the fast pace. But EVERYONE was flying, and no matter how many times I stopped to let a runner who was nipping at my heels go by, there were always more people whose path I was blocking. The only polite thing to do was to go fast.

And, as I now recall, going fast is fun.

After a while the runners strung out, of course, but by the time they did I was up in a part of the pack that I never visit. I found myself running with Nick Billock and Jeff Musick. On a normal day these guys can chew me up and digest me before breakfast. I knew this, and I knew that I should back off but they were so fun, so entertaining, and so skillful that I went into debt to stay with them for as long as I could.

Running behind Nick is a lesson in what proper trail running form should be. Watch Nick for a while and you will note that he runs with a full stride through the roughest terrain. The fact that he doesn’t twist an ankle or catch a root seems, at first, to be dumb luck. Watch him a while longer, though, and you will see that luck has nothing to do with it. Nick runs with his foot strike directly below his center of gravity, lands on whatever obstacle may be there, and makes constant tiny, almost unnoticeable adjustments in his hips, shoulders, and arms such that the sum line of gravity of all of his body mass always falls between his feet…regardless of the terrain they find. Run behind Nick for a while and its impossible not to duplicate the stride. And if you manage to duplicate his stride you will not fall often, and you will appear to be as lucky as he seems to be.

Running behind this fine runner showed me that some of my slowness is not due to
fitness but due to running form. My current form, developed by me over many years and
many miles, was crafted and practiced under the banner of “safety”. I figured that it is better to be safe-and-sound, even if the pace had to slow a bit. The irony is that while watching Nick I realized that jumping for spots between obstacles is neither safe nor efficient.

If Nick was the master of the terrain then Jeff was the master of maintaining an
even keel. Jeff ran mile after mile seemingly without a trace of effort or any unnecessary expenditure of energy. He rarely walked, he rarely slowed down, and he never strained. On two of the occasions when I ran off the course it was because I had gotten ahead of Jeff and sacrificed judgment for speed. Fast runners have skill and I learned that from Nick. Fast runners also have flow and I learned that from Jeff.

And for what its worth, fast runners DO point out beautiful sights and they DO chat. They DO enjoy the moment. Nick, Jeff and I talked up a storm. Trail skills, and a proper mental outlook, allow a guy to multi-task I guess.

Another thing about running fast that I already knew, but had forgotten, is the simple fact that pain is a symptom. It’s a warning sign, but in the case of the circulatory and muscular system of a trained person the 'pain alarm' goes off far before we need it to. Because of this you can run in distress for hours on end…and sometimes you can get away with it. I did. I was so tired at 18 miles that I wanted to cry. So I settled in behind Jeff and he pulled me along for a while at a FASTER pace and I snapped out of it. The pain remained but it became a curiosity rather than something to be feared. My ability to keep on keeping on was a surprise to me, and I love surprises…even in ultras.

Now, before I go off the friggin deep end please allow me to calibrate things. Racing
must be defined by the individual. Although I was delighted and surprised by my race I need to tell you that the race winner came within minutes of LAPPING me on an 8 mile loop. I will also point out that my 10 minute miles aren’t going to earn me invited runner status at any race. But being in a race with other runners allowed me to know that 10 minute miles on this course were pretty good. Running alone I would have wondered if I was running well or merely suffering due to having a bad day.

But, regardless of pace, racing is racing and I did race the man in the flowery shorts…and he raced me back…and this time I won, and it was awesome. I raced another guy as well, he had goose bumps and he was kinda red all-over. He looked awful, and he dropped me so hard on a sloping uphill that the vacuum created by his vanishing mass caused me to slam my chest into a rock. That guy, and that rock, pounded me, and it was equally awesome. I also skinned my knee somewhere and it hurts today. I don’t remember doing it. And when you really think about it, isn’t that awesome as well?

So to answer my original question, if we can compete against ourselves or the clock any time we like, should we race? And if so why? I have absolutely no clue whether or not you should race. But since you have been kind enough to take the time to read my question, I ask you to please consider my opinion. My opinion is that we should race, at least occasionally, because it brings out the best in us, because we can make new friends in different parts of the pack, because each experience is a learning experience, because it gives us another thing to daydream about on cold winter days, because it doesn’t TAKE AWAY from our love of friends and love of the outdoors. And finally and most importantly, because surprising yourself is fun.

All my best (at least occasionally), --Mark

Friday, September 4, 2009

Werewolves, Teen Idols, and Us.

I just finished a run under a shining full moon. It was a perfect reminder that fall is just around the corner. I love fall. I guess all runners do. Thinking about fall got me thinking about Halloween which got me thinking about werewolves and you probably have already guessed that thinking about werewolves got me thinking about Hannah Montana. Its all so perfectly linear isn’t it?

I recently had occasion to watch Hannah Montana’s movie. I can’t remember its name because I wasn’t paying close attention but I think it might have been called ‘The Hannah Montana Movie’. Anyhow, I thought that it was just going to be another poofy meaningless tweener movie such as ‘Secret Agent Cody Banks’ or ‘The Godfather III’, but boy was I wrong!

Warning: I am going to give away the plot to Hannah Montana’s Movie here so if you haven’t seen it and don’t want me to ruin it you should go see it before reading on.

OK. Well like I said I didn’t pay close attention but the movie is about these two girls, Hannah and Miley. One of the girls (Hannah) overcomes the debilitating handicap of a dreadful singing voice to become famous and rich for some reason that I missed. The other girl (Miley) is fabulously beautiful and fun but is still, for some reason, picked on and misunderstood by all of the other children. I absorbed all of this while folding laundry and keeping up on dishes and making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches mind you, but the end of the movie was a shocker….THE TWO GIRLS ENDED UP BEING THE SAME PERSON!!!! I kid you not!! I have no reason to lie to you. They were the same person all along!! No one could possibly have seen that ending coming.

So really, when you think of it, ‘The Hannah Montana Movie’ had essentially the same plot and story line as ‘Fight Club’.

I don’t know who wrote and directed ‘The Hannah Montana Movie’. I could look it up in about 2 seconds because I am currently on the computer. But I am tired from my run and from life so I’m not going to look it up. Instead I will simply assume that it was Quentin Tarantino.

We mustn’t be too hard on Quentin Tarantino for ripping off the plot of ‘Fight Club’ and using it in ‘The Hannah Montana Movie’. Divided personalities and dual identities are commonplace throughout the history of literature and the duality of man has been portrayed in every form of media from the caped crusader, to Judas, to werewolves, to the Phantom of the Opera, to Hannah Montana.

Take Dr. Jekyll for example. Dr. Jekyll worked very hard to earn his doctoral degree from a prestigious university. In so doing he took out cripplingly large student loans, spent seven years in a dysfunctional relationship with an undergraduate modern dance major, and put up with a scaldingly abusive dissertation chair. After graduation the poor chap whips up a little celebratory homebrew and turns into Mr. Hyde, a man who is lacking a terminal degree and is, therefore, fearful and loathsome. Don’t we all relate to Dr. Jekyll on some level? Haven’t we all dated a lithe, gorgeous, total-nut-job dance major who is too crazy to live with and too sexy to leave? And if we haven’t, haven’t we always wanted to?

You see, I believe we are drawn to tales of the two faces of man because nearly all of us are two people. We see evidence in the news all the time. The loving nanny who steals from the children she is caring for, the husband who, after 20 years of love and nurturing, tells his wife it was an act all along, the priest who has performed 40 years of kind acts while also abusing children.

School started back 2 weeks ago and we’ve been having fun. I gave a 4.5 hour long lecture last Tuesday on zygapophyseal joints. The students loved it and so did I. I put on a nice comfy necktie and stood under fluorescent lights and we talked about back pain. You should have been there. But you weren’t because you were probably doing your other life somewhere as well. I’m a pretty good professor. Hardly anyone at work knows that I run. Dave Essinger knows though. He’s an English professor at Findlay and he finished Mohican this year. I see Dave every now and again and we speak in hushed tones of mud and carbohydrates and also of a mist we saw rising above a river. Then he puts on a tie and teaches writing. Dave told me he reads this blog. In my professor life it scares me that an English teacher is reading this. But my runner side doesn’t give a hoot. I hope that runner-Dave is reading this and not writer-Dave.

So if I can be a professor I wonder what else I can be? I can be a bad singer I guess. I could be an alcoholic if I decided to but I don’t think I could be violent or abusive. I can be polite in trying circumstances and I can hold my tongue in a staff meeting. I guess I could be, or pretend to be, nearly anything I like. In my life I have been a lifeguard, a pizza delivery guy, a land-crew worker, a boyfriend, a dad, a husband, a business owner, an overnight “guest” in the Summit County Jail, an alter boy, a brave, a bobcat, an oiler, a physical therapist, a recipient of an eviction notice, a professor, a patient, a race director, a faculty senate chair, a philanderer, a spendthrift, an enemy, and a friend. But in all of these roles, I held the dual identity of runner. In fact on very nearly every day that I ever portrayed any of those roles, I also ran.

I quit soccer and I quit the trombone, I quit chewing tobacco and I quit buying Volkswagon Jetta’s. I quit boxing and wrestling and basketball and football. But I never quit running. And more to the point I never quit running hard. I did, progressively and by sad degrees, stop running fast but I never stopped running to the point of exhaustion.

So if I use to be all of those things and now I’m not…and if I could be lots of other things that I currently am not…maybe I’m really a runner. It’s the only thing about me that has lasted.

I think some of you may be runners as well. You are probably other things but I bet the running has lasted the longest…or will endure the longest. Not everyone runs for a long time though. Some people run for a few months, finish that 10K or marathon, get their silver blanket and medal and head back to the handball courts. God bless their hearts. I really mean that. I hope they enjoyed their time in our sport. But the lifelong runners, the ‘identity’ runners that I know are different. They all have one thing in common. They all have suffered and will suffer again. They don’t like suffering but they do see the value in it. They go to great lengths to avoid cramping, chaffing, hypoglycemia, and anoxia. They use intervals, lubricants, tinctures, and orthotics to be pain free.

And yet…

And yet they do suffer. They have suffered and I believe that in that moment of purest suffering, that piece of aloneness, they see clearly the one and only person that they are. No necktie can ease the pain, no pep talk can lift them, its just them and eternity.

And its beautiful. And its peaceful. And it can be scary. Once many years ago I shared the lead in a small but locally important race with a friend. With one mile to go I looked over at him, sized up his long legs and bouncy stride, told myself I could never outkick him, and proceeded to set a goal of removing every molecule of oxygen from his bloodstream with an increased pace. I actually relished in the pain I was causing him. After the race I was alarmed that I could be so cruel. I have also marveled at how defeated or how lonely I can be when suffering…and how much I can love life and love God.

Some people are cynical regarding the concept of a sinner having a deathbed conversion. I’m not though. I believe that some unfortunate individuals only have the alone moment that suffering can bring on the day of their death. How sad that they might learn who they are and change only in the last moments of their lives. And how happy for us that we don’t have to wait that long. We all have the darkness and lightness that come with and from the duality of man. But some of us can, when we want to, synthesize the two by burning away the superfluous. And when we do the real us emerges. And it turns out to only be one person after all.