running aspirations

I just got back from a weekend centered around running in a trail marathon that advertises its adversity and ruggedness as some of its virtues. In pre-race information runners are warned about cacti, uncertain footing, severe 1000 foot drop-offs, handholds on ropes, possible bee nests, and remoteness. In the “goodie bag” that supplies runners with a few extra coupons and ads, one also has an extra package of some therapeutic goo called “Sore No More,” along with an emergency safety whistle. It’s completely standard for people to drop out of the race with severe fatigue or seized muscles. This year I understand there were broken limbs.

Given all that, I was impressed and inspired to come up behind this guy.

Most runners have bibs only on the front, identifying them as legitimate participants on a given course. I wore 319 on my front so that the timing devices could register my time, volunteers could direct me along the appropriate 26-mile route, and rescue personnel could identify me as needed. These additional rear-facing bibs were for athletes running officially in the national championships. The label on the back told other approaching runners if this was a competitor in a common division.

This runner’s label designated him as being over 75 years old. I slowly caught up to him.

“Are you running the full?” I asked after a brief greeting. It was a dumb question, because there was no other reason he’d have that bib on. Clearly, though, he’d been asked this before.

“That’s what the sign says,” he replied in a manner that was simultaneously lighthearted and fatalistic, referring to his front bib. He went on to explain to me that he’s the only person in his division, and that as long as he makes the cutoff — getting to various checkpoints before a designated time at which they close the course — he’d be the national champion in his division. I told him that I hoped he was there at the finish to cheer me across the last steps. He waved off this notion with a laugh. “I just hope some of you save me some beer,” he retorted. I told him I’d be happy to, and that I’d raise my glass.

There would be plenty to appreciate at the end of this. These 26 miles up and down canyons, between rock fins, through sandy washes, and bouncing off loose rocks and uneven terrain all amounted to the hardest physical challenge I’ve ever participated in. I barely finished the route within 6 hours, and two-thirds of the field came in behind me. There were moments I’d wondered if I would finish. At mile 19 I truly thought I could have taken a long nap on the hard slickrock. My legs said something that roughly translated into a string of expletives and a wallowing of despair. I wondered how to strategize: walking was infinitely slow and running at times felt ridiculously impossible. Stretches of sand, loose rocks, and uphill stretches however short all seemed like personal affronts, if not assaults to my well being.

But there’s this other funny thing that happens on a trail run. I have a weird twitch in my hip that was bugging me before the race, an indication that I have been sitting for long stretches. And I’m feeling crushed with an overload of tasks at work. My eyes have been stinging and dry and squinty in my everyday tasks. Yet, none of these things bothered me in the slightest out on the trail. It could be other pains overwhelmed these senses, but I know there are truer truths. Running up canyons and across plateaus and over grueling terrain is all therapeutic. My friend Dan pulled me through by uniting our collective stupidity through some of the hardest final miles and helped me realize that there isn’t hope or despair to strategize. You just keep moving as best you can. “At least there’s no snakes,” he told me towards the end, after we’d had to guide ourselves across rocky slopes with ropes, claw our way up sandy banks, and then brace ourselves against a whirlwind of gritty sand. True, no snakes; and my hip didn’t bother me again until I came back to work two days later.

Two days later I’m mostly recovered, though some connection above my right ankle still protests with a sharp pain with most steps. I was ravenously hungry for lunch at 10 AM today. My legs are still angry with my brain, and my brain is still bitter that my legs are still resolved in their protest. Yet it improves, and soon most of my body will forgive me.

Karyn’s suggested to me that I could run shorter courses. She made a good point that this is a route that worries her more than others and maybe I could consider not doing this one again. She’s wise that way. In fairness, I wonder how much it’s worth making others worry about me when I’m out on remote terrain like this. Seeing people being delivered to the hospital after being trucked out by ATV, or witnessing the girl who was sitting in the dirt crying because her feet had cramped up and she could no longer move them, or just peering out towards the horizon and recognizing that that cliff above the Colorado River is where your loved one is traversing — these all are plenty to worry about. There’s plenty that could go wrong.

But so much goes right. I didn’t fall off the cliff. I didn’t need my emergency whistle. I steeled myself and ran against the wind and the dust back to the finish line.

And then there’s my role model, Bill. Bill, the guy I met around mile 6, is the national champion of the 75+ age division. I looked him up and, sure enough, he finished in just under 8 hours and 28 minutes. He endured all that I did, but for two-and-a-half hours longer.

You just have to keep working at it, I suppose. Make sure that you are just going fast enough to make the cutoff. I suspect Bill is the kind of person I should emulate. I saved a beer and raised my own glass, and I can only hope that I, too, can still be running across the desert thirty years from now.