Consider the peak of a very high mountain. It is usually very beautiful and it is usually very hard to reach. It can be the most beautiful part of the mountain. From the peak you can attain a perspective that is impossible to gain from a lower place. The peak can be, and often is, a risky place; windblown and crumbly. The path to the peak can prevent you from reaching it and if you do manage to get there the inclement weather or wear and tear of the journey can do you in. You cannot hang out at a peak for long without risk overtaking reward.
If these things are true of a literal peak then the peaking that occurs in our sport is a near-perfect metaphor. Most seasons end without a peak due to injury, exhaustion, poor planning, or bad luck. The peak is a beautiful place but when you attain it, by definition, descent follows almost immediately.
Standing at the starting line of the Run With Scissors Double Marathon-plus I definitely felt like a man who had reached a peak. This year has easily been my best year as an ultra marathon runner. The Fools Run, held in early April along parts of this same course, seemed like years ago, as did the Forget the PR 50K. I failed to finish Mohican in June but, in so doing, I decided that despite my 14 years in this sport, it was time to become a student of long distances. I spent the rest of the year experimenting with running form, diet, and mental attitude. I read of the resilience and looseness of the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico; I decide they had the correct approach and tried to copy it. More than any other change, though, I made ultra running friends this year. They encouraged me and I grew to truly love them and this sport. Standing on the starting line looking at 53.4 miles I felt fit, fragile, peaked, and hopeful that I could squeeze one more race out of my body. I felt like the day could end in success or in injury…and it did.
In one of my first blog posts of the year I mentioned that if you don’t know Roy Heger you need to get to know him. If you haven’t gotten to know Roy yet, make it a goal in the coming year. Roy is a beatnik. Roy is a genius. Roy is hilarious. Roy is soft spoken. Roy is wise. Roy is kind. Roy will throw your ass out of his race for littering (he really will). Roy has ten buckles from the Massanutten 100 mile run, eleven buckles from Mohican, has well over thirty 100 mile finishes overall, has finished in the top ten in a national championship race, and yet does not feel that competition is reason enough to run ultras. Roy can command the attention of a large crowd but just as often gets lost in a crowd of three. Roy can finish an hour behind you in one race and an hour ahead of you in the next. Roy drives a beautiful but somewhat unreliable vintage pickup truck. Roy suffers no fools. And Roy is the race director of the Run With Scissors. He doesn’t talk much but when he does you should listen. Sometimes he speaks with his actions and examples, and when he does you should pay attention.
Did I mention that Roy believes in safety? He does. But Roy doesn’t particularly feel that discomfort is dangerous. For this reason the Run With Scissors started at 5:00am on October 25 (2.5 hours BEFORE sunrise). It also traversed a course that had it all: freezing cold at the start, shirtless running by the finish, it was hilly, it was flat, it had fields, mud, and sections where ankle deep fallen leaves covered human-head sized rocks, it had river crossings. It also had wonderful aid stations and terrific volunteers. The course was spectacularly beautiful…one aid station was a covered bridge…and it had peak fall foliage. In trail ultra-running, unlike road marathons, evenly distributed energy expenditure is not always the best way to run, and on a course like the one we were running, such an ‘Even-Stephen’ strategy might do you in. On this course its best to “make hay” on level, safe sections and ease-off on highly technical terrain…saving the legs for the next run-able portion.
This was my last race of the year and, just this once, I wanted to run with the leader for a little bit to see what it was like. I kept pace with Dave Peterman for about 200 meters at what I felt would have been a good 10k pace for me before immediately backing off. I ended up running in about 15th place with Terri Lemke and three men for the opening miles. They were moving too quickly for me but the group’s five lights combined to make the forest floor well lighted and safer so I figured that staying with them for the first 13-14 miles was energy well spent. At daylight I dropped back a bit and the first 26.7 mile loop went pretty uneventfully. I felt sluggish but was moving well nonetheless.
Sometimes I need to remind myself that although a few others read this blog, the main reason that I write it is so that I can remember what ultra marathons were like some day when I cannot run them. I will say here that I want to remember the second half of this race for as long as I live, because it was all so strange…
I hit the midway aid station feeling OK. I was tired and beat up and dehydrated. I had another marathon ahead of me but I was PERFECTLY relaxed and confident that the energy would come from…somewhere. I had cramps and fatigue but no worries at all. In fact, what I had was euphoria. I had danced through leaves and around invisible rocks all morning and had not fallen or stumbled. My trail legs were tired but my trail legs were somehow just fine as well. There is an old adage in ultrarunning that says “It never always gets worse”. That’s what the second half of this race was like. I pushed along at a fairly decent pace and awaited the oncoming crisis. It never came. I recently read an article on an elite marathoner who described a perfect race when the miles flew by as being like “catching lighting in a bottle". Today my lightning in a bottle was more like the miracle of a car running on empty for mile after mile after mile without ever stalling. No fuel, just power. My form never dropped off. I suffered for hour after hour and the crash never came. I realized, as the hours rolled by, that I wasn’t feeling better, I wasn’t slowing down, I wasn’t going to slow down and, in fact, I didn’t slow down. During the worst of the pain and feelings of dessication I would look down at my legs and there they were, churning away and seamlessly shifting gears as terrain moved from uphill, to downhill, to rutted, to smooth. It felt like a trance.
At one point I knocked the head off the skeleton that was placed in the middle of a creek holding a book that we were required to cut a page out of with scissors. I stood for a moment and watched the head begin to float downstream and wondered, if littering would earn me a DQ, what the punishment would be for committing a skull-ectomy? Another time I ran off-course for about 18 minutes. And do you know what? I didn’t care at all. I didn’t mutter any cuss words, I didn’t roar into a new gear to catch up, I didn’t whine. And when I regained the course and realized that the turn I missed was marked by almost ridiculous amounts of ribbon and multiple pie plates (seriously, you could have spotted the turn from the space shuttle) I didn’t get mad at myself for missing it. It was as though the act was more important than the result. I was concerned with completely emptying my tank before the finish line and beyond that simple goal any other outcome did not matter. After the finish I realized that this must be what the Tarahumara feel a trace of when they talk of "racing not to beat each other but to be with each other". I think I might have become a real ultramarathoner in Roy’s race.
A few miles from the finish line I jettisoned the last of my water and gave my waist pack belt a tightening tug. I had lost a good bit of weight and was running shirtless, an absurd act in 60 degree weather but on October 25th, I figured, there was no sense using sense. I was hot for some reason involving a poor thermoregulatory system but with 30 minutes to go in the season I simply didn’t care. I stopped briefly to toss a gu packet into the trash. In the trash bin there was a nearly empty can of Dr. Pepper and in the can were a few bees clambering for the low quality sugar along the rim of the can. If fireflies signal the arrival of the main part of the ultra marathoner’s year then perhaps bees signal the end. These bees had no access to pollen. They had somehow survived a few frosts. They were past their peak and running on empty. The were seeking energy in the lowest places they could look. They could surely not survive much longer. I should have seen this as a sign.
I felt a thrill at this particular finish line that I have not felt before. I believe I have run better in races but I don’t believe I have ever pushed through nothingness for so long and so utterly without panic. And all of this happened in the final race of the Western Reserve Trail Running Series. It was perfection. I’ll ask other readers to please forgive my indulgence or any appearance of arrogance. My performance was only impressive to me but I want to remember it when I am 70 and so I am writing of it here. I felt that for the first time in my life I used every part of myself utterly and completely up. 2009 was a terrific success.
Two days after the race I awoke with a lump in my right groin. Two days later I was diagnosed with an inguinal hernia, and yesterday I had surgery to repair it. The doctor asked me how I strained it. I told him of the race and he told me that rather than injuring it with one single tearing motion I most likely fatigued the inguinal ligament by repeated stressing it. He used the analogy of bending an aluminum pop can back and forth until it finally fatigues and breaks.
I wondered how the bees were holding up.