Temporary Solutions: meditations from a 100-mile journey

(originally appeared in Huffington Post)

A day after landing in Florida upon completing Badwater 135 this past July, my cat and I boarded a plane to start our next chapter in Washington, D.C. A day after that, I started my new job and I haven’t had a minute to look back. Everything has been new, different, and nonstop without much time for reflection. I have been out of sorts with myself for days and weeks on end, and at times, connected and at peace. I’ve embraced this strange new phase the only way I know how: full speed ahead.

Javelina Jundred (JJ100), one of Aravaipa Running’s ultramarathon races out in the Sonoran Desert, has been one of my favorite races since I ran it for the first time back in November 2011. It was my first 100 miler, which coincided with the year of the monsoon. Crossing that finish line as a newbie while my dad patiently waited for me took everything that I had. So many of those miles I had felt my mother’s presence out in the desert; there was something in those vast and wide-open spaces that helped me to confront and release the pain I had been going through of losing my mom six months prior in 2011. Last year, after my fifth finish and being awarded my five-time jacket, I swore I was done. As much as I loved the JJ100 party atmosphere and the serenity of the desert, I was over the rocks, the sand, the struggle. Besides, I didn’t have the time to run it this year—life was simply too hectic—and I was okay with that, until I signed up, and somehow got on a plane headed west, all with the goal of attempting a sixth finish.

Medias res

This year, after my third loop, I sat at the aid station, cold and deflated, pondering my options. I was 62 miles in, and had 15 hours to pull off the last 38 miles. Plenty of time, but not much will to keep going. A dear friend came to check on me and I asked her to give me a reason to keep going. I felt blank, devoid. I was sleep deprived going into the race and really needed some rest. That week, I had been in Dallas for work, and returned Wednesday night after 11 pm. There had been a bright light in my life that Wednesday, though: the blood work my hematologist had run a few days prior came back okay. It was the first blood work since April in which my thyroid and anemia seemed to be under control. I was beyond grateful. Thursday was a long work day, and then there was packing for the race. I don’t want to be this person who is tired and working nonstop, and yet, over the last few years, that is who I have often been.  I left for the airport Friday morning at 5:30 am, and worked most of Friday once I landed in Arizona. I settled into my sleeping bag in my tent around 8:30 pm, and woke up on Saturday, race day, at 4:00 am, ready to give the race a go.

At 62 miles in, my friend asked me if I was having fun, which had been the last thing on my mind. I shrugged. I just wanted to sleep. My neck and shoulder were stiff, sore, and incredibly painful—most likely the result of sleeping in the tent without a pillow. She let me know it was okay if I called it a night, and reminded me that I may not always finish. Something in those words revived me. In life there is what we want to do versus what we do. We want to quit, to go to sleep. We want to listen to the person during the race that tells us it’s not critical to finish, that it’s just another race. We must search inside for the answers, even if they are not always what we want to hear. The easy choice will be there, but more often than not, it’s a temporary solution to a temporary wish or want.

No, I wouldn’t always finish, and there were times in my life, like my marriage, when I was okay with quitting. But nothing was really wrong with me. Mentally, I was flat, but I could shift at any moment—I knew that was how it worked. It was growing cold, and I had to get moving to warm up. I put on a shell, buckled up my race vest, told my friend I was going to finish, and made my way back out onto the trail.

The Grind

When you have been in this ultra-world for a while, the races are not enjoyable in the same way that they were that first year; that is, it’s wonderful to visit with your friends, but you know what you’re in for. There is no more blind bliss to tackling 100 miles. You know that getting through a race is about hard work, a positive attitude, and one foot in front of the other. Desperation comes, and you let it go. Physical pain persists, and you move past it. Defeat rises in you, and you take a deep breath and sigh it away. And then comes the mental negotiation: I don’t need this race, I am better than this, my life is about more. But somehow, you understand, in a remote part of your being, that the race is a symbol of all the difficult, painful, tedious aspects of your past, present, and future, and if you can just get through it this one time, perhaps it will teach you something about how to cope, how to live, how to be, and to smile even when the going gets tough. When my mood slips during these races, I remind myself that I chose to be here, that it’s not anyone’s fault that I am struggling, and then I keep going, because what I get myself into, I vow to get myself through.

The races have become a thread for me, linking me to all that I am capable of. If I can just pull myself along on that thread, anything is possible. In races, like in life, we are all often clinging. Sometimes we smile and laugh, sometimes we cry, sometimes defeat is so close we feel it, and sometimes we maneuver past the struggle to safer grounding. For me, the races alternate between defeat and redemption, and sometimes, if I am lucky, they fill me with a peace that surpasses understanding.

Freedom

What is the point of running 100 miles? For every race, it’s different. For me, this time, it was about the opportunity to lose myself. My life has been about accountability, output, and giving 110% each day. I craved anonymity and the opportunity to turn off and tune in to myself. When I arrived in Arizona, just picking up my rental car and driving alone with no meeting to rush to was a treat. My visit to Target to buy race supplies was exciting. I was back in adventure mode, and I felt at home in myself. I love the open road, broad and bright skies, and hours to take it all in. I went up to McDowell Mountain Regional Park, claimed my tent, and dropped off my gear and luggage. I love the adventure of camping out in a safe place, surrounded by runners, because the city girl in me is too scared to camp out alone outside of a race environment.

I was grateful to have a tent next door to Jon Paradowksi from Canada, who I had met years back at my first Badwater 135 in 2015. We passed the afternoon each in our tents, sweltering in the 90-degree temperatures, as we sorted through our supplies and put together our drop bags, calling out to one another as we packed them. I laughed whole heartedly so much of that afternoon, that regardless of all the hurdles and hoops I jumped through to get out to Arizona, I knew I was exactly where I needed to be.

After a full day and fun evening around the fire pit at the campsite, I went to sleep with a bit of a cool breeze drifting into the tent, feeling excited and content. There is something to reducing the noise of my life and being small and free and quiet that is utterly satisfying to me. At heart, I am a girl that loves to read and write. I like simple pleasures—the Arizona sky overflowing with stars. I like peace and quiet and the excitement in the air tinged with anxiety for the race that is to come. I like the common good of being at a place amongst people who are ready and willing to take on a challenge that is so much bigger than their selves.

On the course

About 30 minutes shy of daybreak, at 6:00 am, all 600 and something of us 100 milers were off and running. Or walking, as the first few miles were extremely congested. I had learned the prior year that wearing a buff to cover my mouth and nose was helpful to survive the dust and sand residue of that first crowded section. By four miles in, when we reached the first aid station at Coyote Camp Aid Station, we began to spread out. That was when reality set in that I was in a race, and then there were the endless cascade of rocks as we made our way uphill. 6.5 miles later, we arrived at Jackass Junction Aid Station, which was first coming alive with its disco stage being set up, and 5.5 miles along the trail we arrived at Rattle Snake Ranch Aid Station. Then we were off on a 6.6-mile adventure through the Mars-like section of course, which we only covered during that first and longer loop. Then suddenly, we were back at the start/finish line!

The 2nd lap was probably my favorite one of the race for a multitude of reasons: it was the start of the washing machine loops, meaning we would intercept with racers who were either coming or going; I knew where I was going, we had daylight for hours to come, and because I love the feel of the hot sun on me and the mountain backdrops. I brought my music with me for this loop as there is nothing better than blasting sing-along songs to pick up the pace. Only when I turned on my Shuffle and situated my headphones just right, the music seemed to keep going back to the same songs each time I tried to forward it to the next one. I counted six songs, none of which I was in the mood to listen to. It was then that it hit me that in my rush to catch my flight, I had only downloaded a small portion of my 250 running songs list. All of which meant, no music for me. I put away my headphones and Shuffle and charged on. Adapting is the key to survival in a long race.

The 3rd lap I struggled with myself. I wasn’t right from the beginning. The world felt upside down. Why was I pushing myself when I was tired, when I wanted to rest, when nothing in my life depended on this race? It was during the 3rd lap that I was sure that I was going to stop for the day when I got back to camp and relax. And yet, after the mini-meltdown in the presence of my friend, I got my act together and pushed forward.

And then there was the 4th lap. This was the hater lap. I hated the course. I hated that I put myself out there. I hated that I was there, that I didn’t feel connected to the race, and that I had a loser mentality. I knew that the imposter within me was acting out—that the imposter just wanted to sleep and be done with these races, but then, somehow, after a nap on a cot at Jackass Junction, I lost the imposter and became one with the movement, and remembered to look up at the multitude of stars.  There is always a shift within me when I witness those stars. I am brought back to my smallness in the universe. I am brought back to the reality that I am just passing through this world and that years from now when I cease to be, the sun and the moon and the stars will all persist. There is something surreal, reassuring, tragic, and wonderful about realizing our mortality. It poses a choice: to live one’s life or to waste it.

Then there was the 5th and final lap. Was I relieved? No. Because I knew that there was still such a long way to go and so many unknowns existed between where I was on the course and that finish line some 19 miles in the distance. There were thousands of rocks, hundreds of feelings and emotions, and so many possibilities of not making it to the finish line. I wanted this race to be over not because it symbolized the end of anything, but because I wanted to stop moving. I wanted to sit for a bit. To be, before I had to rush along to the next thing in my life, which consisting of packing up my stuff, returning my rental car, getting myself on a plane, getting some work done pre-Monday morning meetings, not to mention prepping to fly out later that week to speak at a global summit.

Lost and found

There is a middle of nowhere aspect to these races that both petrifies and attracts me. Because once you are out there, you are really out there on your own—there is no one coming to get you to bring you back. It is you and your two feet and your mind, which creates heaven and hell based on your disposition. You realize how much you control your attitude, which propels your journey, and dictates how people experience you. We are all out there together, strangers in a strange world. For those of us who have a few races under our belts, we understand that the finish line is what we seek in the short term, but it’s not what sticks with us in the long term. The race is about the journey and our relationships with ourselves along the way. We are all in the belly of the whale to use Joseph Campbell’s metaphor. So much happens in a day—so many moods, so many encounters, so many thoughts. It is hard to manage it all. And yet in a race, we get to be quiet. To think and feel and experience. When I hear people on the course chit chatting, I almost want to tell them not to miss all the moments—not to blow them—as there are so few times in life that you can appreciate being such a small peg in such a grand and incredible universe. There is something spiritual in being out there alone, taking it in, and knowing you are pushing yourself forward, away, and back to where you started. Because it’s never easy to go off on our own down a dirt path, full of obstacles and hardship, and to find our way back. And yet, it is only by taking the risks that we can gain insight into who and what we are made up of.

Foreign territory

These races force us to corners deep within ourselves that we don’t visit daily. They are the fastest route to gratitude, to self-acceptance, to team work. There is nothing like being at an aid station and hearing each runner thank the people who are volunteering as they make their way back out to the course. What the volunteers may not often realize is that they are the lifelines that we look forward to in our darkest moments, and that they make it possible for us to keep moving forward in a race. The races are solitary excursions. Some of us invite pacers and crew to share the journey, but for me, it has always been about going inside, feeling what I feel and experiencing the drama as it unfolds. Sure, I love to be in the company of my friends and some of my most favorite experiences have been completing a race alongside my pals, but there is something to going the journey alone, amid other travelers. In a world in which so many are so quick to blame and bicker and give up too soon, the world of ultrarunning asks us to let go, to quiet down, to find our internal rhythm, and keep going. Each runner needs to find that voice, that granite, that grace, that will, that strength, that power, that determination to keep moving forward. It hurts for everyone—the fastest, slowest, and those in between. You need to be able to say so what to the pain, so what to the struggle, make your peace with it, and carry on. This is what we do over the course of our lives—we don’t crumble to the daily heartaches and hardship. As people, we are so much stronger than that. In a race, you get to learn that about yourself in a 24+ plus span. What an incredibly valuable experience.

I finished the race this year—my sixth JJ100 finish—not because I was trained and ready, but because of my experience. I know that what feels like forever on the course becomes 10 miles, then 5 miles, then 2, then it’s over, and suddenly you realize it was no big deal to finish, that you had it in you all along.

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The traveler

I suppose that I keep signing up for these races as there is something of the traveler in me that likes to know that I can go the distance. But it’s not just me; in fact, it is amazing how many of us keep returning to run 100 milers. On the course, destitute and broken, we claim never again. And yet we show up to the next one and the one after that. Perhaps the why is in what the races give us. It’s not so much a sense of purpose or accomplishment as it is the opportunity to use our bodies, our minds, to lose the excuses, embrace the pain, and push forward, come what may. For those of us who have crossed those finish lines, we get this. We know that each finish line moves us closer along the spectrum of ourselves. When you are running long distance, there is nowhere to hide; you are stuck with yourself every inch of the way. Sure, there are moments when you lose yourself—those magical, effortless miles that happen are gifts—but then you meet yourself at the next turn, or the next mile, and are forced to figure it out all over again: your life, your goals, your reason for being. These races strip you bare, bring you face to face with your own craziness. It seems like the worst experience of your life, except for the moments that it seems like the best experience of your life. The clarity that comes to me at random moments during a race is something I want to bottle up and keep with me, if only to remind myself that life is not always such a mystery. Sometimes, in those moments when we least expect it, our life is everything that we wish and want it to be, and more.

The night prior to the race, an old friend who I met way back at my first Javelina Jundred mentioned that very few people have completed 50 races of 100 miles or more. Which got me thinking. 19 more to go to reach that landmark. Do I have it in me? Am I made up of that? Probably not. It’s just so appealing to kick back and relax, to blame it on aging, on being busy, on running not being that important to me. But if we don’t go after the challenges that seem outrageous, difficult, and beyond reach, then what’s the point? Are we supposed to live quiet and tucked away lives in which we admire other people’s feats, or are we supposed to get over our self-fears and doubts and go for it? It’s a question I am still working through, but somewhere deep inside of me, whether it’s driven by insanity or a deep-rooted sanity, I know that I am going to go for it all while this body and mind of mine allow me to keep carving my path.

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