Monday, September 20, 2010

Calling it Quits

Munson Fisher didn’t let out a victory howl. He didn’t throw his hands into the air and he didn’t perform an end-zone dance. But he did smile. The smile took a while to spread across his face but after it was in place it remained for another while. Then he reached into his mailbox and withdrew the contents.

Munson’s mail isn’t like my mail and maybe it doesn’t resemble your mail either. For starters there was lots of it. The box was about ½ full. And it was comprised of letters, and cards, and two small packages. My mail typically consists of coupons and a few bills from companies who cannot or will not send them to me electronically. My mail is so dull that sometimes I forget to check for it. But Munson is 82 years old and he doesn’t like the idea of Facebook or e-mail. He told me that when he receives a message he likes to see the handwriting; he likes to know that his loved-one held the paper in his or her hand. His mail is his link to all those that he loves. And by the look of the pile there seemed to be a lot of them. With mail in hand Munson took a long pull on his oxygen canula and began the 45 yard return trek up the driveway.

I was Munson’s physical therapist and a couple of times a week, for a couple of months this summer, I would go to his house to work on his balance, strength, and endurance. Munson was patient with my advice but he really only wanted to do one thing; he wanted to walk. And so on most days he would reject my suggestions for core strengthening exercises and instead we would head straight for the mailbox. I always asked him to use his walker. I told him that he could lean on it and take rest breaks. But he never brought it along because he figured he would need a free hand to carry the mail on the return trip. And so twice a week for most of the summer we would get part way to the box before running out of steam and returning to the house to report the disappointing news to Dear.

Mrs. Fisher probably had a first name but I never learned it. Munson simply referred to her as Dear and she referred to him by the same name. They had the kind of love that every single person on this earth seeks. And they had had it for better than 60 years. They always called each other Dear even when speaking in a third person narrative. “Dear thinks I should be able to make this trip any time I want to, but I know my limits” he would say. “No amount of nagging is going to get me there.” And then we would smile because the man hadn’t been nagged twice in 60 years and we both knew it.

It wasn’t that the Fishers hadn’t had some rough times. Sixty years can serve up its share of troubles and the Dears hadn’t been spared. Munson told me tales of health problems involving family members, periods of unemployment, work stressors, meddling in-laws, and crises of faith that could ruin a family. I asked him how, then, did their marriage survive? His response was “Divorces happen at the courthouse and we swore that we’d never go through the front doors of that place”.

When Munson arrived home Dear peered from out the kitchen and spoke in a whisper “Well the prodigal son returns!” Munson responded by holding up the fistful of mail for her to admire. Her response came in the form of a wink after which she added “Well its about time”.

My habit for most of the summer had been to stop at the Fisher’s mailbox after our appointment and jog the mail back up the driveway. This time, though, I drove past the mailbox and smiled at the good Karma I had just been exposed to. I was on my way to the Burning River 100 Mile Endurance Run and I figured Munson’s success bode well for my own chances. “Yepper” I thought, “It seems like a good weekend for going the distance”.

Burning River was perfect. A world class field was on hand to compete for the USATF National Championship, the trails were well-marked and dry, and the temperature was even reasonably low after a month of scorching heat. The aid stations were well-stocked and humming with enthusiastic volunteers. A very astute person could look far and wide for a reason to fail and not be able to find one. I even had great company. Suzanne Pokorny and I ran together for hours and hours. Everyone knows Suzanne and everyone loves her. It was like running with a celebrity. Suzanne had the dual role of runner and volunteer coordinator to fill on this day and so we tended to linger just a bit at aid stations…but the love we absorbed from the volunteers made it time well spent.

Despite all of this goodness I was suffering. As early as 25 miles something was wrong and I knew it. I was tired. Lightning Strike tired, and by 55 miles I was into a familiar but dreaded pattern:

It always starts with a spray of sweat. I sweat all day long during an ultra marathon but my sickness-sweat feels different; it is copious and not in line with the normal cooling-function that sweat serves. In fact the sickness-sweat is accompanied by chills that, if not addressed, very rapidly develop into full-on hypothermia. Terrible nausea is a consistent companion. The only solution that I have found is to bundle up in winter hat, light jacket, and light gloves, walk very slowly, and not eat or drink anything. Sometimes I can walk it off in about 10 hours or so. At Boston Store Suzanne was taking time to visit with friends and change clothes. We were hours ahead of the cutoff times but I knew that my night would be reduced to walking 20-25 minute miles and so, despite our comfortable time cushion I felt a need to save every possible minute. I pressed on alone.

Shortly after leaving Suzanne I heard the horrible little internal voice that told me it would be OK to stop. I swatted it like a fly. I knew how to get to the finish and I intended to make it. The cold grew around me as the sun went down. I shuddered when I saw shirtless runners cruise past me. One moment I was burning hot so I would take my hat off. The next moment the chills would be upon me and so the hat went back on. The walk became especially hard heading into Happy Days Aid Station. The love and good will I was able to absorb going through the Pine Lane Aid Station was present at Happy Days but by that time I was so sick that I couldn’t participate and allow it to refuel me. The walk through the ledges was beautiful but endless. I stopped at one point to vomit for perhaps the 12th time and couldn’t recognize the material that I produced.

It looked like salt.

My high school cross country coach always told us that there was a moment in any race when a runner would, consciously or subconsciously, decide to accept the challenge, accept the pain and discomfort involved, and actively engage in the race. The sad alternative was that when the decisive moment came a runner could withdraw from the challenge; allow the pressure and discomfort to convince them to back off. The idea that this moment exists has always intrigued me. I have tried in races, over the years, to identify the moment when it came. I have always wondered what series of thoughts, or bits of happenstance, would cause us to commit to the race. I have equally wondered why we would ever choose, after training for hundreds of hours and thousands of miles, to call off the challenge on a moment’s notice.

At Kendall Lake I stopped to look at the heavens. As I raised my head skyward sweat that had been collecting in my toboggan hat broke loose and trickled down my spine in an icy rivulet. There were a million stars out and somewhere lovers marveled at them, but all I could see was coldness. Space is a cold and vast place and as I peered up I saw steam rising from my face into the light of my headlamp; my sacrifice to the void. It wouldn’t matter though. All of my body heat could never raise the temperature of space by one trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a degree. By this point the doubts were surrounding me and I was doing my best to fend them off. The lone plaintiff voice seeking a DNF ten miles before had turned into a jury of demons that chose to convict me of the sin of pride:

“Who do you think you are?”

“You asked God for a buckle at Mohican and you got one. Now you are here seeking another?”

“Why should you deserve it?”

“Couldn’t your energy over the past six weeks have put to less selfish use?”

“You have jettisoned friends on this very trail on this very day, and you have jettisoned loved ones in your life for this. Those aren’t the actions of a strong man.”

I have come to expect these voices. They seem to have become more pointed and accurate in their assertions in recent years but I am aware that they only get a vote on the outcome if I give them one.

Instead of listening I formed my own counter debate:

“I am a good man.”

“I was one of Elmore Banton’s Bobcats.”

“I have run 80,000 miles in preparation for this and I have succeeded in a similar endeavor 10 times.”

I had been speaking to myself like this for miles and miles and miles. Sometimes I spoke silently and sometimes I spoke aloud. But as I headed back into the woods from Kendall Lake I began to realize that none of it mattered. Not my PR’s, not my 34 years in the sport, not the buckles, ribbons, or trophies; I was alone and I was sick. Each piece of trail now required a decision.

I have often wondered what will eventually end my running career, and I suppose each person wonders on occasion what will end their life. I always figured that my connective tissue would go first. I have many aging friends who are now hikers and cyclists. They carry with them a torn ligament or permanently scarred tendon from their years in the world’s simplest sport. It seems in my case that my end might come as a result of my stomach. It takes 60-70 miles for my stomach to go out on me. And so for the moment my stomach only effects my performances in 100 mile runs. But it effects me a bit earlier every year and soon it might invade my 50 milers and then my marathons. The thing that I love about 100 mile races is the fact that they represent the absolute limits of my physical ability. I don’t know if anyone really knows how difficult it is for me to finish one. The distance exposes every physical and mental weakness that I have. Most runners don’t run this far and so most runners don’t truly know what their weakest link is. They are simply surprised one day when the final injury occurs. I think now that I know how my ultras will end. And as I walked along through the freezing 68 degree night it occurred to me that all of us, even the superstars that were already past the finish line, warm and rewarded at that very moment, will ultimately become persons trying to function well enough to stay in contact with their world despite its geographical boundaries… be they mountains, rivers, or 45 yard long driveways.

When I was younger I kind of half believed the platitude that “Pain is just weakness leaving the body”. That was before I really knew anyone who was in pain. I no longer believe that such a one-to-one correlation exists. My brother Steve died of cancer last spring and Steve wasn’t a weak man. The pain he went through was such a maelstrom that there couldn’t possibly have been enough weakness to fuel it. I also think that Nietzsche waswrong when he stated that “That which does not kill you makes you stronger”. I think that there are plenty of things that will not kill you and yet will leave you weaker. If you don’t believe me spend a few nights on the neurology ward at Children’s Hospital.

That’s the type of experience that will calibrate your shit.

There is a place for optimism in 100 mile runs though. In fact I don’t think I could ever finish one without it. One hundred mile runs are metaphors at best. When we speak of dying during a race it is not meant to be disrespectful to the natural and very serious act of actually dying. The pain we feel in a race isn’t remotely comparable to the pain of a cancer patient or the tortured hearts of broken persons or families. Only through analogy do 100 mile race reports have any business on the same page as writings about death or divorce. Platitudes and mental models have their place as well. But 70 miles into Burning River I couldn’t get my sick chilled being to absorb their nutrients. I wondered if it is all so simple. I wondered if Munson was right. Is keeping a marriage alive really as simple as refusing to quit? Is not quitting really as simple as refusing to make the trip to the courthouse?

I have absolutely no idea.

After leaving Kendall Lake I took more steps into a patch of woods, then into more open field. The bad patches and good patches were coming more rapidly now, sometimes each would only last a moment or so and I began to see each step as a choice. I thought about Steve. I was with him when he took his final breath and I recall feeling certain that he took that breath by choice as well. In the hours leading to the end Steve would occasionally falter, and then begin to breathe again. I found myself wondering why he didn’t let go. I will always believe that even though he was unconscious he must have held some hope. He and I were team mates for one year in high school and he knew about the moment of decision; well, at least he was familiar with its lesser version. Now he was experiencing it. I wanted to go on for Steve. But I suspect that when the true moment comes there is nothing in the world that can prevent it.

I brushed past a singular piece of wheat grass that had, under the weight of its dew, bent out into my pathway. The coldness of the wet dew on my leg caused me to shudder uncontrollably. It was, quite literally, the straw that broke my back.

And just like that it was done.

I will tell you this: The moment that I decided to quit, the VERY INSTANT that I knew I would stop at the aid station my journey went from very difficult to nearly impossible. Up until the moment of decision I had been sick and weak and slow but I moved forward with purpose nonetheless. The instant after the decision I turned into a stumbling wreck. I was nearly incapable of covering the ½ mile to the aid station. The experience makes me believe that on the longest and most arduous journeys we are held aloft by even the thinnest filigree of hope. Once hope left me I was left to absorb each tiny spot of uneven trail, every cold patch in the night air, every inner voice that tells me that the world is a poor environment for the development of my soul. There was no shield between myself and the hardness of my path. Physiological changes don’t produce such dramatic drop-offs. This crash came from a deeper place. Perhaps the Dears never divorced because they never lost hope. Perhaps the world is failing because so many have.

My pacer, Nick Longworth, met me before I got to the aid station. He was sitting under a tree in the darkness but out of all of the hundreds of runners and pacers I knew it was him because I knew that he would be looking for me. I know Nick well and so I knew that it was the only place he could have been. If you know Nick then you know what I mean. Nick had gotten me through Mohican and he would have ruined his own health to get me to this finish as well. We are very good friends though and I believe he knew that there weren’t any words or actions that would provide an answer. He knew that no convincing, no rational talk regarding cutoff times, no amount of nagging was going to get me there. He knew that I knew my limits.

Instead he provided care. He and the aid station workers tried to feed me. They provided blankets, soft reassurance, and finally support for my decision.

The day after the race, and even now- months later, I wonder; was there ANY POSSIBLE WAY that I could have continued? I don’t know and I guess I never will.

Last fall I hit a deer while on my way to Mohican to meet friends for a run. The entire front end of my car was bashed in. It all happened so quickly that I didn’t even tap the brakes. One moment I was looking through my windshield at a predawn sky and the next moment the journey was ruined for all parties. I never knew what was in my path until I hit it. It has occurred to me since that time that quitting is a lot like hitting a deer. The morning after I hit the deer I realized that there would never be a time when I would know if it could have been prevented. Could I have been more vigilant? Could I have slowed down? Was I tired from life, consumed by goals, or too eager to get to my destination? Did I take my eyes off the road? And if I had kept my eyes open could the crisis have been averted?

Life is a case study. Ultra marathons are as well. So are marriages. So are car rides. A sample size of one will never yield a statistically significant finding. I can project and hypothesize but I will never know if I could have changed in a way that would have allowed me to make it to the journey’s end. Similarly, I will never know how much of the crash was caused by me and how much was caused by the dear.

Then again…

Munson had the advantage of a lifetime worth of successes and failures on which to draw. And the plan he developed in response to these experiences was to wake up the morning after a failure and embark on another hope-filled attempt.

Who am I to question such a strategy?


  1. Wow! Incredibly written and deeply felt. It was worth the wait. Definitely makes me question what makes me go on, or not -- in my life endeavors. I especially like your surmises about how much is driven by things inside us vs things outside our control. That topic alone could fuel many long discussions which would surely raise even more questions than could be answered!

  2. I absolutely love reading your blogs, Mark. They are so very well written and carry such depth to them. This is an inspiration. Thank you for putting your thoughts down for others like myself to read.

  3. Leigh, that is exactly the way I feel about your video work! Thank you!

    Lisa, the best way to hash all of this out is, of course, on a trail...not at a keyboard. lets run soon please?!

  4. Another awesome post! I completely agree with your views on the 'no pain, no gain' phrases - I cringe every time I read/hear such sentiments. I am so very thankful to have a healthy, functioning body to breath life into and to use to explore the athletic pursuits my mind dreams up - could I be any more fortunate? I don't think so.

    Also, I am so sorry about the loss of your brother this year.

    hugs, Karen

  5. Mike, I love your two word synopsis of what Mark has painted here. Mark, you are right....words can only go so far. Sometimes you just have to run :) 'Course, I'm gonna get my chance Saturday for the big 50 and I will text you from no mans land up there to let you know how it went! Have a great weekend.

  6. KB, it has been so much fun watching (reading about) your adventures!!! I hope we both do the same event some day! Mike you are too nice man! I have to admit I AM an excellent texter, but not as good as my 18 year old daughter : ) Lisa, tear that race up!!!! Let me know how it went ASAP Saturday. I'll be cheering for you!

  7. Great read, Mark. Congratulations on making it to your "decision point". It sounded like a tough reality... However, those around you had really set the bar!? Thank you for sharing your story. Your approach to writing makes them memorable and motivational. I will inevitably think of this post as I attempt 100K... Thanks again.