For me, ultra-running is not about belonging to a group, or about acquiring belt buckles. It is not about my undying love for running, or any desire to win a race. Most days running is my salvation; some days it’s not. But each time I am out there, on the road, on the trail, on a bridge, I learn something. Sometimes I learn that I don’t feel like running. Other times I learn where I am at in my mind, my heart, and I go on a journey that is independent of my feet moving.
My last race of 2015 was Ancient Oaks 100. I love this race. The 3.46 mile loop in the Enchanted Forest is gorgeous, if not challenging, and the people who participate as well as the race director and volunteers are awesome, always. For me, this race is about family, friendship, focus, and the reflection that running around in circles for 29 times through sand, concrete, rooty trail, bridges, and more sand, brings. It was my third year running Ancient Oaks, and it would be my 20th 100 mile finish in the past four years. I wish that I could say that these races get easier, but for me, they do not. Each 100-mile race I embark on reveals a new chapter of myself, my life. Perhaps what I love most about ultra-events is the opportunity to know myself an inkling better, to grow, and to gain clarity.
This year, after a few loops—about 10 miles in—my mind malfunctioned. It told me that I am no longer cut out for this running stuff, that it is stupid, that I should just quit, and go do other things. The drama went on for a while, wreaking havoc on my mind, then moving into my soul, and then around 20 miles in, the tears started. I couldn’t stop crying. I cried about the last few months, how it was so hard in many ways, how living through change takes a whole different reservoir of courage and strength, of how I am scared of having so much responsibility, of how I miss my mom, how I was stuck with all those miles ahead of me, and no real desire to run. I wanted to just sit down and take it all in and no longer have to be part of the forward motion. I wanted to just stop for a while and not have to always push myself. Not always have to keep going.
I was with my running buddy Chip at that point, and after months of training hard with me for upcoming races, he did his best to let me cry and also reassure me. I am sure the folks who ran past us and saw me in hysterics were thinking, “What the heck?” It took me a good 15 minutes to calm down, and then the switch in me clicked, the one that always somehow does, reminding me of that trace of granite within me, and I resolved to finish what I had started, and get the race done. The sadness was still there, but I coerced it to the background. I focused. I admired the magnificent oaks. I thanked God for the abundance of good things in my life. And I put one foot in front of the other.
I wish I could say that happiness rushed in as the miles multiplied, but it didn’t. Not through this whole race. Sure, I smiled and laughed– I always get energy bursts when I see folks out there running their first 100 milers, and this race was no different. There’s something amazing and inspiring in knowing others are going to succeed even when they don’t yet know it for themselves. And there were times during the afternoon that Chip had me laughing so hard I doubled over from side stitches, but overall, I was just moving, pushing forward.
Because this race was an intense one for me, I seemed to have noticed things in more detail. I became hyper alert and aware. I observed how every root was placed precisely so, and how certain trees leaned in at certain angles, and how the logs were lined up just so, and how when the wind shook, certain trees shimmied more than others. I noticed how kind and happy the people gathered in the parking lot were – how helpful and encouraging and how they never tired of their cheer or good humor.
When nightfall set in, I went a few laps alone in the dark, trying to find something inside of me that seemed to have been misplaced, but I couldn’t. There was nothing wrong, no specific pain in any one part of my body, just an overall feeling of what am I doing here? I don’t belong here. I’m not cut out for this.
Later in the evening, Chris joined me on the course, and I got to vent a bit, and then we were immersed in catching up about this and that, holidays and events, and I was preoccupied with stories and characters until about 3 am, when I had heart palpitations. Those passed and soon after I grew dizzy; so dizzy that I had to kneel down on the course and close my eyes to regain my composure more than once. Then the exhaustion set in, and I remedied it with caffeine drinks, and then, slowly, daylight started to creep into the enchanted forest. Experience has taught me to trust, not to get nervous when things start to feel weird or strange in my body, and to know that whatever feels wrong will right itself through the course of the night.
29 loops. 29 times to go through my very own heaven and hell. To figure out what this all meant to me, what any of it means. At points, my feet moving seemed surreal to me. It didn’t make sense that after so many hours, so many emotions, I was still moving.
What did I learn? I learned that even when I am disengaged, I can muster the resolve to keep going – to finish. I learned that I can feel broken, but not break. I can second guess everything in my life, but not give in to the doubt and let it defeat me. I learned that when I feel like a total failure, there will be people cheering me on telling me that they believe in me. I learned that people will look after my dad even when he refuses to abide by his promise to return to the hotel to sleep.
There is no real reward for finishing these races, and nothing bad happens for not finishing. But for me, on this specific day, at this specific race, finishing was about quieting the voices that told me that I am not good enough or not cut out for this. It was about proving to myself that somewhere deep inside I am who I thought I was, even if I don’t always feel or act like that person. Because we are not always ourselves. Life, circumstances, move us to different chapters and it’s up to us to find our way back.
Alone again, I cried sporadically during the last few loops. It was as if a fuse in me I was holding together for those long hours had severed again. But this time I cried because it became definite that I was going to finish. I cried because I love the course in its early-afternoon beauty. I cried because I am healthy and so grateful to be out there attempting these races. I cried because there are so many things I wish I could tell my mom face to face. I cried because I am grateful my dad is healthy. I cried because I was tired, and thankful, and because I had somehow managed to keep going when everything in me had shut down. We all run ultras for our own unique reasons. For me, these races bring a certain honesty to my life – being with myself for so many hours, through highs and lows, helps me to know better who I am and what I am made up of. Sometimes our hardest endeavors bring us a clarity that we could not know by any other means.