This has been a busy few days. Today is Easter in the Western church calendar, so last Thursday was Maundy Thursday. I spent an hour – 2-3 a.m. – at the Altar of Repose. I got some sleep Friday morning, then attended the Good Friday service at noon. (I’d planned to be at the start line for the 100 & 50-milers running the Badger Mountain Challenge, but my desire for sleep overwhelmed me.) And then, the fun began…
I staffed the Orchard aid station from 11 p.m. Friday to 5:00 a.m. Saturday. That aid station is five miles from the one at Jacob Road, and just 2.3 miles from the Field Road aid station. But that section of the race seems to be the runners’ least favorite, and it gives them a chance to fortify themselves to make it to the next aid station.
The runners who were headed from Jacobs to Fields were at the 65-mile mark; those headed in the other direction were at the 84-mile mark. That’s a huge difference for 100-mile runners: I’ve read that the last thirty miles are the hardest. A few heading out were showing signs of deep fatigue and doubting their ability to finish. The ones headed in toward the finish could taste the belt buckle waiting for them at the finish line. Most of them showed more optimism than the ones headed out.
Finishing any 100-miler is an accomplishment. Those who finish in less than 24 hours accomplish something amazing. (It’s along the lines of a sub-three hour marathon.) It was a joy to hear the runners announce they were going to make the sub-24 time as they were leaving the aid station. One runner calculated he was on a pace for a 21:00 finish – and this was his first 100-miler.
For those runners who sounded like they were doubting their ability to finish, I’d say, “I’ll see you later” as they were headed out. (Because I was there for six hours, there were runners I saw as they headed out and then again as they headed in.) Some of them replied, “I doubt it…” For the ones heading toward the finish line, I’d say, “Go get that belt buckle!” I told quite a few runners that I’m hopeful that if I volunteer for enough ultramarathons, ultimately I’ll finish one. One runner, in response to my “Go get that belt buckle” replied, “thanks – and you too.”
100-milers battle fatigue, and darkness makes it worse. Should I ever attempt such a thing, I will struggle with my vision: I have limited depth perception, and low-light situations make it worse. Add to that my atavistic discomfort with darkness and extremely creative imagination and you an over-the-top level of crazy. (It’s one of the reasons I do not like tunnels. *shudders*) At some point, I’d like to test myself with an overnight 12-hour race to force myself to confront this.
I’d signed up to do the BMC 15K on Saturday. That race was scheduled to start at 8:00 a.m. I figured I’d have enough time to grab some breakfast, change my clothes, and be at the start line. However, I had a 15-mile workout on my training calendar, and 15 km is just a wee bit over nine miles. I decided I’d park on the Dallas Road side of Badger and hike up & over Badger to the start.
If all of this sounds insane, please know that I agree with you: it’s nuts. But Saturday’s race served a particular purpose. In endurance events, your body will rebel. It will tell you to quit because it’s tired. The best way to prepare for this is to force your body to work when it’s already tired. Another tip I picked up is plan workouts during which you will pass your vehicle when you’re tired. Your brain sees your vehicle, thinks “yay! we’re almost done!” When you keep going past the vehicle that promises deliverance, the brain really rebels. I’ve done this a few times, climbing the access road on Badger after running up & over Candy Mountain; I think I slowed to about a 45:00/mile pace because my brain was at war with itself.
And that’s exactly what happened Saturday. The turn-around point was at the Dallas Road trailhead, and the race course went up the access road. I climbed that section slower than I climbed the Canyon trail after the race was over & I’d filled my belly with a hot dog & a bunch of cookies. I was painfully slow.
I tried running a bit. While the knee felt fine, I was surprised by how much my toe hurt. Clearly, I need to treat that bunion before I worry about the knee.
At the finish, I got my hot dog from the good folks at Between the Buns, ate a cookie, chatted with other volunteers, ate more cookies. I’m glad I spent the time there, because I saw several 100-milers finish. I cheered on a few of them while I was on the trail myself, but seeing them finish was amazing. One of the finishers I saw was one of the people who looked pretty terrible at 65 miles. He willed himself through it, but he also looked a lot better at 100 miles than he had at 65. That’s one of the things that changes people who do endurance sports: there will always be a part of you that wants to quit, and sometimes the part that wants to quit is larger and louder than the part that wants to continue. The voice you listen to defines who you are.
I enjoyed watching the 100-milers and the other 15K folks finish, but my truck wasn’t getting any closer. I needed to get back on the trail. That was an interesting trip, and another test. It was hard to move. My legs wanted none of it. Turn around! Get a ride back to the trailhead! Don’t do this! Sorry, legs, but you are not the boss of me. I got into a rhythm after a few minutes of climbing, but it was still a struggle. At this point, I was well past twenty-four hours without sleep, and I’d slept about eight hours total in the two previous days. I found myself talking to myself as if I was a pacer talking to someone who’d been running for the last twenty-four hours. (It sounds a lot like talking to a toddler. “Okay, we’re going to put on your hat now.” “Okay, it’s time to eat something.” “Don’t forget to drink your juice.” “I know you have to potty, but you can hold it.”)
I decided to take the service road instead of the trail because the service road is shorter. Unfortunately, it’s more lumpy & harder for a tired person to navigate. I debated going back to the trail, but short & miserable won out over slightly longer & slightly less miserable.
Obviously, I made it back to the truck. Jim & I headed to a local restaurant know for its obscenely large breakfasts. I was still wearing what I’d worn all morning, as I knew that if I tried to change out of my running tights, I’d have to take off my shoes. And once I took off my shoes, I’d see how dirty my feet were. And once I saw how dirty my feet were, I’d want to take a shower. And once I took a shower, I was done for. (I did, at least, comb my hair that had been buffeted by Badger winds for the previous nine hours.)
A lot of people ask me why anyone would want to run an ultra. It’s certainly not logical. It costs the runner an incredible amount of time and a fair amount of money to train for and sign up for one of these races. It can take the body a long time to recover from the effort. This, swiped from the Badger Mountain Challenge’s home page, describes it well:
“Perhaps the genius of ultrarunning is its supreme lack of utility. It makes no sense in a world of spaceships and supercomputers to run vast distances on foot. There is no money in it and no fame, frequently not even the approval of peers. But as poets, apostles and philosophers have insisted from the dawn of time, there is more to life than logic and common sense. Ultrarunners know this instinctively. And they know something else that is lost on the sedentary. They understand, perhaps better than anyone, that the doors to the spirit will swing open with physical effort. In running such long and taxing distances they answer a call from the deepest realms of their being — a call that asks who they are …”
For me, it’s about exploration. Humans are explorers. In our early days, we followed our food. Later, we explored to exploit resources and other humans. Now, we explore the depths of our oceans and the solar system – but most of us stay put, safe, unchallenged. I live a comfortable life funded by a cushy job (for which I thank God every single day). I trade my time and my intellectual efforts for some intangible thing we call money, and I use that to purchase the things that enable me to survive. I can’t explore the universe or the oceans, so I explore my mind. I plumb the depths of my character. I wrestle the part of me that wants only comfort.
I have too many friends & loved ones who cannot do these things. My physical health and mobility are such great gifts that I cannot take them for granted. I have status and agency that many people lack; I cannot take that for granted, either. I have the time to train because I’m not working multiple jobs trying to survive. Each of these gifts is precious to me.
Maybe that’s why I push myself. During long hours on a trail, my mind is free to think. I can explore who I am. I can ponder how I can use the gifts I have in service of those who face challenges I can only imagine. Even when I’m tired and having to push myself to keep going, I’m still fighting a much smaller fight than a lot of other folks. The pain, the boredom, the drudgery – each of these is its own gift, a tiny piece of insight, a bit of texture in my otherwise smooth life.
At this point, I’m still debating if I’m ever going to be able to run an ultra again. But I’m certainly going to keep moving forward, even if it means walking ultra distances. And if I can run, I’m not completely rejecting the idea of attempting a 100-miler at some point. Because I can, and that is the greatest gift of all.