Monday, June 28, 2010

Mohican Report: Part 2

If you want advice on how to finish a 100 mile run you could very easily find several thousand sources more reliable than me. I do know a few things about getting a middle age body to a finish line though and I believe that the most important thing that a runner can do…more important than nutrition, more important than shoe selection, even more important than training or fitness…is to maintain an optimistic mind; an even-keel mentality. A 100 mile participant should prepare for tough times but hope for the best. They should have an easy, light feeling of confidence augmented by a bottomless cup of hope. A 100 mile buckle-seeker will be alone on the trail with their own thoughts for a long, long, long (LONG) time. And so it is necessary that their mind, their companion, be a good traveling mate. No one wants to drive across the country with an individual who does nothing but bitch about the heat, or about the traffic. Or about the government. No one wants to be reminded over and over again that the gas tank is running low, or that the “check engine” light is on (Its probably just an oxygen sensor thingy, so try not to get too upset right?). And no one wants to ride along in a body for one hundred miles with a mind that is being an annoying jerk.

I know all of this. But as I headed into the Buckhaven aid station I couldn’t shut my brain up. I was worried and, in all honesty, probably a bit irritated.

So far everything was going OK. I managed to get a couple of hours of sleep the night before. Terri and Mark Lemke hosted several of us at their house. The hospitality and friendship calmed me and the headlamp-lit excitement of the starting line made me smile.

I wonder do lemmings have a feeling of camaraderie in the moments before they plunge over the cliff? I ask this because I know of no other species that seems as peaceful, happy, and excited than a group of runners heading out into a day that will bring a 50% chance of failure and a 100% chance of pain. The tension is wonderful. Any joke brings laughter and all exchanges bring sincere, heartfelt wishes of wellness. I feel certain that the mechanics of our day-to-day culture are faulty. I feel equally certain that the culture that exists on the starting line of a 100 mile run is some kind of solution. In fact, I believe there is a thread to all of this; the running, the growth, the friendships, the care. It might be that if we think about who we are long enough, and appreciate it, and analyze it, we might have some sort of large-scale answer to our world’s troubles. Could the answer to the world’s problems be born in the light of headlamps on the trails of North Central Ohio? Something is afoot. I have suspected this for a while now.

But heading into Buckhaven I was starting to get irritated. Physically I was doing fine. I was in the best shape of my life. I was an experienced Mohicanite (Mohicaner?). I had all of the correct types of tape, shoes, and lubricants. I had a medicine bag that would have put a shaman to shame. I had a special hat that was designed to suck the heat out of my head (that’s what the advertisement said), and just in case it didn’t, I had it loaded with ice. I was doing everything right…but my chances of getting to the finish line were being reduced nonetheless, and for no noble reason.

This year’s course included a section of largely open road from miles 19-42. You will never hear me complain in any meaningful way about heat, or hills, or mud, or bugs, or river crossings. But I’m going to say it here and I’m only going to say it once: putting a group of individuals out onto largely open roads in the middle of a day that would reach 92 degrees, for 23 miles, is the wrong decision and, on the surface, seems to lack an element of care. I will complain about it because I can. I finished this year’s race and so my concerns should not be misconstrued as sour grapes. Call me a wussy if you want to but I’m a wussy who finished. I finished due to the grace of God. So many others did everything right and did not finish. Their complaints could be misconstrued as defensive.

I was fortunate.

I heard no one complain about the heat and pounding sun during the race. Ultra marathoners are a notoriously tough breed. Complaining brings along its own heavy karmic baggage and so it should, and generally is, and was, avoided. In fact one would have been hard pressed to find an individual to complain ABOUT. Don Baun designs the race course and he has designed it every year since the inception of the race. This year Don faced a problem. The race could no longer start at the Mohican Wilderness Campground and the road sections had to go SOMEWHERE right? Don should be applauded and credited for his efforts regarding the race over the years. I hope that some day a statue of Don will be placed at the base of the North Rim trail. He deserves the recognition. This year he saved things by hastily redesigning the course. The problem is that last minute changes that occur when relationships erode rarely allow for creativity. There were other ways in which the course could have been routed that would have helped to prevent the mass implosion that occurred at this year’s race. But such planning takes time, and communication, and I believe that Don worked through his solution without adequate access to either.

It was hot this year. That’s a fact and heat is never anyone’s fault. But it has been 92 degrees and sunny at Mohican before. In fact it has been this hot several times. And the race never faced the crisis (I know it’s a harsh word but I’m using it anyway) that we faced this year, because in a woods one has an ability to slow down, regroup, get the core temperature under control, and move on. No such ability exists under an open sun. And for those who might sniff and point out that “This is nothing compared to Badwater” I will point out that Badwater, a race through Death Valley in July, requires its runners to have unlimited personal aid in the form of a vehicle that must stay with them at all times. The vehicle can be air conditioned and provide shelter and respite and easy access to ice. At one point on the road section of this year’s course runners were required to go more than 14 miles with only one aid station (and no other access to water). Furthermore they were banned from accepting aid from crews or vehicles during that section. Badwater also ADVERTISES itself as just exactly what it is…a race of survival. Does Mohican need to be a race of survival? Is that the race’s mission? And, if so, is it advertised as such? It is generally described as a very tough but wonderful choice for a first-time 100 mile experience. And as I ran down the hot roads, equipped with a hat filled with ice, 55 ounces of fluid, and a head full of the type of experience that 14 one-hundred miles starts (and several failures) can bring, I wondered how our first-time friends were doing?

Stephen Zeidner was a first timer. He was doing…OK. He should have been doing OK. After all, he was young, strong, fast, well trained, and had a personality ideally suited to this sort of adventure. He finished in the top ten in a prestigious 50K race a few months ago. Furthermore he had respect for the distance. He was running well but not doing anything stupid. The same could be said for his friend, David Huss. Dave finished Mohican last year as did their buddy, Michael Patton. All three were, in a word, ready. I did a training run with all three of them a few months ago on the Mohican course and severely strained my right quadriceps. I didn’t jar it, I didn’t trip, in fact I didn’t do anything to it…other than try to keep up. My connective tissue could not hang with these guys on a short training run. If they are the future of our sport then our sport has a fun, fast, strong future ahead of it. Despite this, by the beginning of the road section Michael was suffering from nausea, and by the end of this section Steve was feeling hints of the same. David had knee surgery in January and the knee was holding up fine. But his OTHER knee was aching a bit. Strange stuff. Rob Powell had more experience but only a bit more success. He could be found along the road, naked except for running shorts, sitting submerged in a drainage culvert trying to cool down.

Others suffered quietly.

According to a volunteer at the Rock Point aid station, the end point of the road section--the 42 mile check in, saw dead-eyed runners slumped in chairs, ill, considering dropping out. The volunteer told me “This was the type of stuff you would expect to see at 3 O’clock AM, not three in the afternoon”.

As for me? I was saved from my own mind by the sudden appearance of a friend who has developed a recent habit of saving me from my own mind. Suzanne Pokorny and I trained together for this race. We were in similar shape and so it shouldn’t have been a surprise that we would run a similar pace on race day. But 100 mile races seldom turn out that way. Runners leap-frog each other. Suzanne and I SPECIFICALLY decided, before the start of the race to NOT run together. Our reasoning was that any agreement to stick together would be a detriment to both of us. If Suzanne stuck with me during my inevitable bad patches, and I did the same for her, then simple math would dictate that we would be slowed by TWICE the number of bad patches. So the deal we made was “no deals”. Harsh but caring; that was our agreement.

Fate stepped in and made our agreement moot for a while. We happened to be moving at the same pace. We each had mini-bad patches and mini-good patches but were within hailing distance of each other for many miles. We tried to ignore the elements and instead challenged each other to name the worst song ever written. There were many candidates but the winner was “We Built This City on Rock and Roll” by Starship. The decision was based more upon the shameless sell out of the artist rather than the quality of the song (Shame on you, Grace Slick! I hope you spent the money on something that produced some good : )). We also talked about life, and past Mohicans. We visited with Roy Heger as he passed by and connected briefly with Ron Ross at an aid station. We learned that Fred Davis was somewhere behind us. We had a wonderfully long visit with Joe Jurczyk. Joe is a past race director of Mohican and the current race director of Burning River. I have known Joe forever and it was uplifting to see him back at his sport, in the event that he helped to make great. I wondered aloud about these legends being way back here in our part of the pack but chalked it up to some sort of wisdom on their part. We wondered how our other friends were faring. Neither of us spoke aloud of our fears that the race was eating its young. We didn’t know for sure and we didn’t want any confirmation if it was true.

Suzanne and I stuck together through the road section and into the green loop, past Rock Point at mile 42, and into South Park at mile 46. The trail into South Park was difficult for me. Suzanne moved out a bit ahead of me. I caught her and then she slowed a bit. Our bad patches were no longer in sync and my heart began to hurt. We would soon spend less time together. We would likely continue to leap frog each other but it would be at increasingly longer intervals. We had both danced this dance before and we knew that we were going to soon be disconnected. Neither of us spoke but, instead, as she passed me on a long downhill after South Park we decided to take five minutes and pretend that we were not in a race of any kind. We decided to be simply two friends walking through the woods on a beautiful summer day. And it was peaceful. And for a few minutes there was no worry. And we allowed ourselves to believe that this is how it would be. But soon the running started again, and then the leap frogging. We were separating and it was lonely. Like George and Lennie in Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’ the partnership was the only thing separating us from the other desperate, solitary, individuals around us. And it would end soon. To my absolute amazement it was Suzanne who dropped back first.

I arrived at the Fire Tower and walked into the heart of the Lemke family. They were gathered around Terri. Terri Lemke is the strongest runner I know; mentally the toughest runner I have ever known. And she was cramped and heaving and desperate. She had done nothing at all wrong. Its just how things were. I spoke with her. I wanted to do some good. I failed. I knew that she would recover so I felt empathy, not sympathy. But I also felt fear. If Terri could hurt like this what hope was there for me, really? When would it hit? I also saw the Pokorny family. They were ready to revive Suzanne. That was good. And Suzanne was a much better night-runner than I am. I told myself that she would pass me in the night and that it would be nice. I told myself these and other things. But mainly I just missed my friend.

The Fire Tower and the Covered bridge aid stations brought the first real news in a while and none of it was good. Horror stories were everywhere. So many of my friends were out of the race, others were alive but dying.

The sun was starting to fade and I was alone. It seems I’m always alone when the sun starts to fade. My own brand of nausea began at the 60 mile mark. I was alive but only because I had gone so slowly. And that meant that I had far less cushion than usual on the time cutoffs. The race basically had three types of runner left; the elite runners, the runners who had imploded and were marking time until their DNF, and runners whose conservancy led to time cut-off pressures. I was firmly ensconced somewhere between the latter two types.

And then I began to see ghosts.

And then I wasn’t alone any more.

And then it turned beautiful.

I began to see unexpected appearances of runners who had dropped from the race; individuals who had eschewed a shower and a meal for a bag of ice and a pair of sandals. They began to appear on the course. They cheered. They advised. They walked with the alive but wounded for a while. If the esprit-de-corps at the starting line signaled a solution for all that is wrong with the world then this behavior must be a symptom of everything that is already right in the world.

Runners on the course were caring for each other as well. No one seemed to ever pass anyone else without a solid conversation and a clear commitment from the runner being passed that everything was OK. I saw one runner give ALL of her water to another who was struggling. I saw food change hands. I overheard soothing talks, and uplifting messages from runners who were, themselves, in the depths of despair. Someone produced a piece of lamb’s wool and another produced a pair of scissors to cut it with. Together they fashioned a cushion for a third runner’s blistered foot. I saw Michelle Bischell at the Hickory Ridge Aid Station. She was getting her 2nd wind…or possibly 3rd or 4th wind…of the day. We exchanged encouraging words. Everything that might have been wrong with the race was being corrected by everything that was right about the race.

Running the last couple of miles into the Mohican Adventures aid station at 65 miles I was in dire straits. I was hours behind schedule, night was falling, and I had lost my light. A runner by the name of Karen Ray appeared. She invited me to call her K-Ray, and so I did. She was running powerfully but slowed to my pace and shared good advice, companionship, and a light with me.

My crew was there. I knew they would be. Before the race I told them to meet me at the Bridle Staging Area, another ten miles up the path. They correctly ignored me and made a plan to form a relay to pace me from this point on. Scott Wolf. Casey Clark. Nick Longworth. Holy Cow do I have good friends or what? We stood in the dark for a few minutes and for the first time ever I realized that I can no longer run 100 miles….by myself. I need help. Lots of help. And there’s something very beautiful about that.

We had no time to spare and so we quickly set out. I was too nauseous to eat or drink anything but seven-up and the aid station had run out of that. Nick was dispatched to buy some and meet us at the Bridle Staging area. I saw Mike Patton leaving the aid station as I walked in. He had a look that suggested that thoughts of stopping had invaded his mind. He was, however, accompanied his pacer, Kevin Martin, a recent MMT finisher (!) who wore an equally intense look that seemed to say “No way in hell!” My money was on Mikey buckling. What a tough tough dude. I tried not to listen to news but what I did hear was horrendous. I was informed that Steve was dropping out at the bridge. I also heard that Dave’s knee had locked up. There were conflicting reports about Dave. Some said he had left the aid station and was on his way to the bridge. Some said he was done. But no one seemed to believe that it made any difference. Dave was as tough as they come but he was a dead man walking. And his only real hope, the only person who could possibly motivate him to the finish line was stranded at an airport in Minneapolis.

I’ll post part three in a few days. This is very long but I will like reading it when I’m 70. If anyone is still reading you are welcome to come back. Some of the endings in this story are happy ones. I promise

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Mohican Race Report: Part 1

One hundred mile trail races have defined starting places. They usually start in campgrounds on the edge of a beautiful wilderness. But STORIES of 100 mile trail races can begin anywhere. They can choose to start at the beginning of the run, sharing the physical starting point of the race. They can begin at the moment that a runner stops marveling at the work of others and finds him or herself thinking “What about me? I wonder…what would happen if …? ” The story can start at birth, or rebirth. The story can be one of personal redemption or spiritual seeking. I know of one very accomplished ultra runner whose career started as the result of a bet made in a tavern.

We’ll find a starting place for this story eventually. Sometimes a beginning comes when we are least looking for one.

The Mohican Trail 100 Mile run started in 1990. A small group of runners from the Cleveland area decided to emulate the Western States 100 Mile Endurance run and created their own event, consisting of two 50 mile loops. About one-half of the distance of each loop was comprised of roads. At the time there were only eight 100 mile trail races in the country, and there were only three ultra marathons of any distance in Ohio. The race was an immediate success. The race developed and grew; adding more trail sections and more aid stations and more volunteers…many more. By the time I first ran the race in 1997 the ratio of volunteers to runners was nearly three to one. In the days before Facebook and Blogging Mohican was like a sorely needed family reunion. It was the only time all year that endurance-freak-outliers could reconnect. At least it felt that way.

I was speaking with a runner a few weeks ago who described Mohican as “Everybody’s first ultra”. I agree that more runners in the Midwest in the 1990’s first dipped their toe into the extreme distance waters at Mohican than at any other race. The trails at Mohican seemed to produce miracles. Lifelong love affairs began, dead legs revived for no knowable reason, fantastic back-from-the-dead finishes seemed commonplace. This pattern of unearned blessings, this presence of grace, took on a name of its own. It was called “Mohican Magic” and many a runner depended on it to pull them through when it seemed that training, or toughness, or gummie bears would not be enough.

In 1997 I was struggling with a very sick child. A chat that I had with God on the Mohican Trail during the race provided no answers but it did provide understanding and faith that God has a plan. It also instilled in me a belief that sometimes God’s plan is none of our business. The chat that I had with God that night wasn’t in the form of a still, quiet voice that one reads about in Hollywood scripts. It was a sit-down meeting about how things were and about my role in this world. It changed me. So many runners have so many reasons to love Mohican, and I have mine.

More magic.

Trail running is currently the fastest growing participant sport in the country., the “Go-to” site for 100 mile race information currently lists 79 different 100 mile runs. There is a flourishing community of ultra marathoners in Ohio. The state’s Ultra-epicenter, Cleveland, hosts the wildly successful Western Reserve Trail Running Grand Prix, a series of ten well organized and prestigious races. If you’d like to run one you had better register early. Nearly all of them fill to capacity several months in advance. And the region isn’t limited by this series. You can now find an ultra marathon within 100 miles of Columbus, Ohio nearly any weekend of the year. These are sophisticated races. Sponsorship money is available and often times a runner will collect enough “swag” to make the entry fee seem like a bargain.

Ohio runners aren’t even limited in terms of 100 mile trail races. The “Burning River 100 Mile Endurance Run” is held six weeks after Mohican. It has been named the USATF National 100 Mile Trail Championship for 2010. This race has sponsorship, hundreds of volunteers, a sophisticated website including live race updates on EVERY runner that operates until the final runner finishes.

Hopefully if you read this blog at all you have come to realize that Mohican is the central event of my year. I love the race like no other. But Mohican has, in many ways, failed to keep up with the times. Burning River is a magnificent race. I ran it last year. I was treated like a king. My father followed the web cast from Colorado and knew the moment I finished. Mohican continues to use walkie-talkies to communicate. The race has no website of its own and one has to search on a website dedicated to mountain bike racing to find the link to the race. Often this link has not been updated to contain current race information. Race results often aren’t posted on this site until long after the race has been completed, and this year the race start/finish and headquarters was moved from its traditional starting place into a different, more crowded, campground.

These words are not meant to be read as a criticism. I can only imagine what a logistical nightmare it must be to keep track of 250 runners, over the course of 50 or 100 miles of trail, utilizing seven separate aid stations, for a duration of thirty hours. Those who host the race, and most especially the volunteers, have a passion for the race and an ethic of care that smooth the rough patches.

The sense of community is there. Mohican is as cool as ever. But…

I heard someone ask a few years ago if Mohican was still as necessary as it was two decades ago. Then last year I heard a few people ask similar questions. The racing schedule is so crowded now. There are so many races in so many places seeking to overwhelm their racers with glitz it might be easy to wonder if Mohican still has it. I even wondered it myself once. Then I put it out of my mind because the thought made me sad. But it has crept back into my head once or twice since.

This year I found my answer. And I wasn’t even looking for the answer when I found it. The answer was sitting in a chair at the covered bridge at midnight, shivering under a discarded towel.

To any of you who might ask if Mohican is still unique, to those of you who wonder if it still connects us, to those of you who wonder if Mohican is still a source of adventure and self-discovery, to those that wonder if Mohican still has its magic…I present to you Mr. Stephen Zeidner.

I don’t want to discuss Steve just yet. For the moment lets leave him as we found him; a twenty-something Mohican rookie who succumbed to the heat and distance and dropped out at the 70 mile mark. Let’s also not discuss his best friend, David Huff, who was concurrently throwing in the towel a few miles further along the trail due to a bum knee.

I think that we have found our starting place for this story. We will start our story with Steve and Dave. But since this blog is a loop course, and since Dave and Steve aren’t going anywhere anyway, let’s get back to them in several pages.

The hour is late and I’ve been tired lately. I’ll write more tomorrow. In the meantime please know that I love Mohican and can’t wait to tell you about it. About us. I hope you come back to read it.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Quick Mohican Result

I ran the Mohican Trail 100 Mile Run on Saturday and finished in 29:26:27. I am very happy about it! This race was one for the ages. I have started Mohican 13 times and I have seen some bad conditions but I have never, ever seen it like this.  Not even close. The heat, coupled with a new course configuration that seemed to hit runners with the toughest parts of the course at the toughest times of day yielded a finishing percentage of only 38%. Because of this I had many friends...fine, experienced runners in wonderful condition, who were taken out by the heat. It made the day a sad one in many ways.

I have also never seen such cooperation, teamwork, and comaraderie among the runners. No one seemed to finish on their own. I saw many runners slowing down to help ailing friends and strangers. I saw people with only a few swigs of water left in a bottle offer it freely to someone who needed it worse than they did. It seemed that no one actually had any property or crew of their own. Rather, any resource, renewable or not was freely offered. Many of the runners who succumbed to heat exhaustion remained on the course to assist those still in the race.

It was our community at its best.

As for me: Wonderful friends like Suzanne Pokorny and Joe Jurczyk kept me company during the early miles and Scott Wolf, Casey Clark, and Nick Longworth poked, prodded, encouraged, cajoled, and cared for me in the late night hours. Nick was supposed to run eight miles with me. He ended up running 21 miles with me...and do you know why?

He did it because I needed him to.

It was grace. I mean that literally. It was an unearned blessing, an act of korima. I accepted it because I simply could not have succeeded without it.

Thats the kind of day it was. I will write several thousand words about the race over the next week or two. I'll do it in several installments. As usual I will write it so that I will remember it when I'm 70 years old. But you are welcome to read it if you like. Peace. --Mark

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Brother Donkey

"I regard my body as I regard brother donkey. I feed him, and I care for him, but I ride on him and he does not ever ride on me". --St. Francis of Assissi

That is my favorite ultra running quote.

Tomorrow I go to my favorite place on earth, to be with some of my favorite people on earth, to do one of my favorite things in life. Why then the stress and fear? I need to remember that this is all a gift. The fact that I'm standing on the starting line of a 100 mile run necessarily means that I have the health, security in life, spare time for growth, and financial means to do so. I need to remember that this is a blessing and I need to be grateful. I also need to remember that a person can go a long long way on a pair of blown legs but will crumble without joy.

Thank you.

Believe, believe, believe.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010


I know that I said that I would never include traning advice in this blog but I am going to cut-and-paste a note that I wrote recently to a friend re: tapering for the upcoming Mohican Trail 100 Mile Run. I should be forgiven for not keeping my word on this because: 1. noone wants my opinion anyway and so this one will go unused, and; 2. Sometimes I don't keep my word; this is one of those times.

Here is the note. I may or may not have changed the identity of my friend to protect her privacy.

Dear Terri Lemke of Loudonville, Ohio,

Thank you for writing to me and specifically asking my opinion regarding tapering. Thank you, also, for insisting that I go on at great length about this important subject!

Tired legs are one thing, but...

Really truly what we are doing in a 100 mile run is processing a slow trickle of poison for hours and hours. This is a tremendous stressor on our endocrine system (kidneys, liver, adrenal glands, spleen). The endocrine system adjusts chemicals so that we can digest food, maintain blood pressure, have an even level of electrolytes. Running 100 miles is really all about the endocrine system. When is the last time your heard of a runner dropping out due to being "tired" or having "sore legs"....almost never!!! Instead you hear of people becoming nauseous, hypothermic, overheating, becoming confused or disoriented.....these things are signs that the ENDOCRINE SYSTEM isn't operating well...signs that it has gone haywire.

You have got to go into 100 miles with a few weeks of having not been exhausted, or dehydrated, or suffering electrolyte imbalances etc. In other words your endocrine sytem needs 3 weeks of near total peace and even if your legs feel good you have to taper.

If you are doing Mohican you need to REST NOW!!! And I mean 50 miles this week, 40 next week, and 10-15 in the week before the race. No more runs over 20 miles and only 2-3 more runs of 10 miles or more. I know you will be climbing out of your skin and you might gain a pound or two but this is what you should do.

I will write more later regarding my opinion on that investment you made recently in the factory that makes solar powered flashlights.

All my best, --Mark

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.