Thursday, June 3, 2010

Monkeys, Maize, and Marathons: Part 2

Twenty miles into the “Forget the P.R.” 50K I knew that I was into uncharted territory. I knew it and my buddy Luc knew it too. He was standing at the covered bridge aid station and, when he saw me, he gave me a startled look that might have meant “Kudos to you my friend. You are running well and I see that on this fine day your years of training have paid off handsomely and your ship has come in”. Then again, the look might have meant “You have screwed the pooch this time buddy. You went out to fast. You know it, I know it, and the 18 calories worth of glycogen remaining in your liver know it as well. Have fun on the climb to the fire tower”.

The reason they build covered bridges is to cross rivers. They tend to locate rivers in low lying areas, such as river beds. The reason for fire towers is to spot fires. They tend to place fire towers in the highest spot possible so’s a person can scan a lot of ground at once. Race director Rob Powell is a nice enough fellow and I’m sure that his decision to run us from the lowest spot in the park to the highest spot in the park in just over two miles was a simple oversight at best, and latent malevolence at worst. He would never intentionally try to hurt a person.

At least that’s what I thought when I started the climb.

Twenty five minutes later I crested the last part of the hill and found Rob, whooping, hollering, and doing his best impersonation of a 1970’s track coach, pointing to his stopwatch and howling for greater effort. Rob likes to give his racer’s their money’s worth and today he was holding his own Blue Light Special on lactic acid…and loving it! I felt like my head was going to explode. But it didn’t. And I felt like my legs would seize up, but they didn’t. Instead I took an enormous gulp of air, ran past the aid station (surely Terri wouldn’t stop here and so neither would I; I didn’t want to let my species down) and automatically switched the quads from concentric contractions to eccentric contractions as we began the long, winding, swoop back down the hill to the bridge. Throughout this section I tried to get myself to forget that I could not do this. The idea that I could not run this hard and get away with it wasn’t negativity; it was an historical fact. It was 53 degrees and I had never been able to do this. Both of those were facts.

Actually I love the run from the bridge to the fire tower. I like it even better when we run it in reverse and have a long downhill on which to recover and chat. I remember running this section during the Mohican 100 mile run in 1997 with a good friend of mine who was and is a recovering alcoholic. My friend told me some pretty harrowing stories of his life of addiction. When I asked him if he thought that maybe he had traded one addiction for another by becoming an ultra runner he paused for a long while and then told me that he didn’t think that it was that simple. He told me that he had become an alcoholic for reasons that no longer mattered to him. He also told me that the act of transforming himself from an alcoholic into something different, anything different, forced him to create a skill set that he had used to morph into a Christian, and a better son, and a caring lover, and a runner.

Over the years I have noticed that the participants in our sport skew toward individuals who have lived difficult and troubled pasts. Others have noticed this as well. I once read the work of a theorist who believed that depressed personality types self-select into endurance sports for the endorphins they provide. Other theorists paint this picture in a more positive light; they believe that perhaps endurance athletes achieve a state of Zen or an inner peacefulness through the act of running. I heard ultra running once compared to the act of self flagellation...the claim was made that we are masochists.

I’d like to suggest that my fiend came closer to the truth. I like to believe that possibly the reason that our sport is populated by a higher than normal percentage of individuals who have experienced psychosocial challenges is because these individuals have mastered the art of change. Darwin said that the species that survive are those that adapt best to change. Why then, shouldn’t survival sports be populated with change artists? And why shouldn’t those who have experienced stress also be among the best users of stress as a change agent?

Stress IS a change agent in organisms you know. I wrote the following paragraph in a very old and boring posting that no one ever read, here it is again:

In the body, stress is needed for growth. Without stress there is the opposite of growth; atrophy. As tissues are stressed, an inflammatory reaction occurs which leads to environmental changes including increased temperature, a lack of blood flow to the affected area, a buildup of damaging acids, an accumulation of waste products, and a lack of oxygen. This environment, though unpleasant, does have beneficial side effects. If the body is stressed, cells called osteoblasts spring into action and repair an area using collagen; a bony material which makes the tissue stronger. Osteoblasts only function in a hot, acidic, low oxygen environment and so stress is always needed to strengthen tissues. There is no growth without inflammation and no inflammation without stress. The next time the tissue is stressed it takes more stress to cause the area to become inflamed because the body is now stronger and more stress resistant. Continued mild stress applied to tissue being repaired causes it to form itself to new job demands. This process is known as remodeling. It’s a great system.

I wrote it then and I’ll write it again now: It is a great system. And I believe that it works not only for tissues but, metaphorically, for the mind and the soul as well.

The final mile of the “Forget the P.R.” race turns cruel. I arrived at the base of the North Rim Trail nearly 40 minutes ahead of my predicted time. Even though the race leaders finished over 4 miles ahead of me I was having the race of my life….all I had to do was keep it ‘rubber side down’, and I managed to. But the last mile of the race brought cramps into my inner thighs that felt like high voltage electrical shocks, my balance was thrown off and I repeatedly stumbled over rocks and tree roots. I had absolutely nothing left. None of it mattered, of course. I slowed to a crawl, lost a minute or so, and met a smiling Rob Powell at the finish for a hug.

The immediate joy of the finish line remained, but was soon accompanied by a realization that my race, as strong as it had been by my standards, showed a need for growth and change before I could expect to finish the Mohican Trail 100 Mile Run in two months. I would need to become patient; no more howling nasty words into the woods about poor old Rob Powell when I become tired of the hills. I would need to take care of the details; no running 12 miles with a rock in my shoe. That sort of thing produces bloody socks in a 100 miler. And I would need to learn to handle the slow trickle of poison that my body would produce better than I had in the 50K. Dehydration, low blood sugar, and swinging blood pressures make for a good post-race story when they happen in the final miles of a 50K but they make for sober sounding excuses when told by a runner seated in the back of an ambulance at a 100 miler.

My long winter runs with Terri had turned me into a better 50K runner. And I now need to leave those skills behind and change again if I am going to survive those same trails in June.

That’s OK though. I can change. I know that I can.

I have been asked to change so many times this year, and in so many areas of my life, that at times I can almost forget what my old life was like. I might be stronger and I might be weaker. I’m probably a bit of both I suppose. But one thing is certain. I’m here. I’m not extinct. I’m alive because I have been given a gift that allows me to change and to adapt. It is a gift that is so unique to us that I wonder if God even needed to warm up to the idea.

The Old Testament is chock full of stories of God telling us what to do. In the stories we routinely DIDN’T obey him, and then we were punished. And God didn’t mess around either. We aren’t talking about getting grounded or not being allowed to watch TV. We are talking plagues, boils, locusts, floods. And still we didn’t learn. God doesn’t seem to operate this way anymore.

This is going to sound blasphemous but I like to think that maybe God didn’t understand us.

Maybe God sat up in heaven and realized that we were different. So he took on the form of a man and came down to be with us. And maybe God then realized that being human is hard. After all, God is perfect. This means that everything that God does is Godly, which means that nothing that God ever does is a sin. And that’s absolutely perfect and unchanging…like sweet corn. But the problem is that if God never sinned then this means that maybe God was never tempted. Maybe God didn’t understand envy and greed and lust. Maybe God didn’t understand guilt. Maybe God didn’t understand stress. And if these things are true then God wouldn’t understand how we couldn’t follow VERY SIMPLE ORDERS, no matter how many times he punished us. I like to think that after God became man he understood all of these things. It seems like it. The relationship sure is different than it used to be, at least that how I see it.

So why doesn’t the North Rim Trail get easier after I ask God to allow it to? Why do families break apart if God loves us? Why do healthy young people die horrible deaths and wretched sinners prosper? Where is God at these times? Maybe God is practicing his new sense of empathy. Maybe God is cheering for us and watching us grow, and watching us change.

Maybe God is proud of us.

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