I looked down and my hands were trembling… I looked up and the sky was crackling. My heart raced, my bowels rumbled. As the clock counted down towards 0600 hours my nervousness was ever apparent. The collective anticipation, worry, and excitement of the 75 other runners at the Heartland 100 Ultramarathon in the Flint Hills of Kansas had reached a crescendo. Am I prepared? Did I do enough? Did I push too hard at the Mt Taylor 50k a scant 2-weeks prior?
The unknown lies ahead, yet the unknown must not be anticipated.
Life had become a series of predictable scenes. Work: clients, process, service… Family: passion, worry, unease, servitude. Each morning I awoke to the familiar. Predictability satisfies many but has never sat well with me. My life has placed me in the position of a steady, reliable, loyal leader/teacher/mentor. Consistency is appreciated, but is there more? The year 2012 delivered a desire to rattle the element of my life that has been my most personal friend, my physicality. To confront the unknown. To persevere. To endure. Can I? Will I? The ultramarathon presented the lowest barrier to entry: shoes, shorts, shirt, jacket, water bottle, headlamp, food, and fitness.
As the year unfolded I kept eyeing October for possible 100-mile events, eventually coming across the Heartland 100 in the prairie of Kansas. With 6-weeks notice, I was removed from the wait-list. My fitness was solid, but the mind needed more convincing. A solo 48-mile training run on my local 6-mile loop would suffice. As the coyotes yelped and barked in the pre-dawn hours I clipped off mile after mile. Around 36-hours with my hamstrings cramping, I felt a calm satisfaction that voluntarily going deep would harden my mind as much as my body. Here, we would discover. The last 12-miles were very satisfying. I found my pace, entered my flow state (current challenge = current skill-level), and became a stronger runner.
The human that toed the line that morning in Kansas was different than any other version of me. I had transitioned from believing in the potential of others (my clients, athletes) to believing in my own.
Come what may… come what may…
A long discourse could accompany this journey, but I’ll keep it brief. Each moment is to be lived without expectation. As the unexpected arrives it should be dealt with from a simple perspective.
What is the simplest, most basic, elemental way to solve this problem?
Onward we go. Does it hurt less to slow down or does it merely prolong the pain? Must I keep eating to keep moving? What is comfort? What is discomfort? All is perception.
Experience is not a vacation package. Experience includes suffering, sorrow, elation, and completion… come what may…
As I left the final aid station at mile 91 I knew I would finish. Looking up at a clear starry night (following a stormy day), now a jogger/walker, I shuffled my way to mile 100. Everything has its own ending. Yes, I crossed the finish line in just over 18 hours.
What followed the next 30 days was a level of inflammation I could not have imagined. Yet, I could not remove the positivity of that level of commitment out of my mind. I wanted more, and more would follow in the years to come.
Jump ahead to 2019. With the Western States 100 on my radar (June 30), I prepared with a serious 50-mile challenge the last Saturday of April near Payson, AZ. The Zane Grey 50 is a classic mountainous high desert race. Very technical (rocks, roots, loose terrain, steep climbs, and descents). Very extreme (sub-freezing pre-dawn to a blistering hot afternoon). The body is exposed to a high level of early-season intensity. The mind is callused by the imposed demand.
After spending a weekend in the grand canyon, camping and running, I made my way down to a mountain lodge in Pine, AZ. Over the years I learned to take the necessary time to create the space for a performance to fill. Competition is a group experience. Running an ultramarathon is a collective of human emotions, defined by we and us, not I and mine. Thus the idea of dividing and conquering a race, course, trail, or competition is a recipe for emptiness. To drop in and drop out of a place is to create a void instead of fill one. Experience taught me this.
Commitment, long-distance running, has taught me more about life than any philosophical, religious, or spiritual text. The personal voyage is my work of art.
Race day. At 5:30 AM the field of runners took off. Conversation, small-talk, elevated-pace, nervous-jockeying, accompanying us down the gravel road to the descent into the canyonous, rocky terrain ahead. To begin is to accept the unknown to follow. Yeah, I have a plan, but how long will that remain sufficient? Aches arrive, aches leave. Emotions rise, emotions fall. Yet the one constant is a smile and positive attitude when a moment is shared with a fellow human. There is something about effort, exposure, and experience that draws human beings together.
Together we go further. Together we rise higher. Together we lift the collective to higher levels, greater understanding, more acceptance, unleashing emotions big enough for us to live.
My stride is found at mile 31. A sharp climb, efficiently maneuvered, places me in the lead with 19 miles to go. The human being I just passed was having a moment unto himself. His silence an acceptance of my elevated ability in this moment, on this day. For 19 miles I ran by myself. With no one to chase, no one to converse, I lived in my mind, on those trails in that beautiful high-desert terrain. The Junipers and Ponderosas, the rocks, gravel, and roots accompany me mile after mile. Each aid station provides a jolt of energy to my physically depleted state. I’m now running when it is efficient and hiking when necessary. Fatigue brings with it rationality.
What one can force in an energetic, emotionally driven state is quickly halted in a state of fatigue and preservation. Where is my power? My power to persevere resides in my rational presence.
Leaving the last aid station, with 4.5 miles to go, I’m informed that two brothers, running together, are 10-12 minutes behind me and moving well. At one point in time, I would have panicked. Not today. I move with the terrain, not against it. I’m powerful, not forceful. I open to a smile instead of close to a frown. The power of grit is as an attitude, not an expression. I choose to flow, not grind.
As the first to cross the finish line I am the first to sit down. Nothing more. As each runner files in I rise to clap and congratulate. Stories are shared along with food and drink. What a day to be alive. What a time to endure.
If the desire arises to challenge your status quo, please say yes. The plans you make and the preparation you employ will only take you so far. It is in the moments of the unknown that your relationship with endurance will deepen.
Always onward, upward, and forever forward we go.