from mile to marathon

The journey of a thousand leagues begins from beneath your feet.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

race for Leonard Peltier

We took off when it was still dark, close to thirty of us, a few on their first 50-mile run. The big loop on which we would go around and around was shorter than 10 miles, so we started with a little extra loop to make up for the shortfall. I wanted to hold back as much as possible at the beginning, so right away I turned out to be the last one in the race, but I was also concerned I would lose my way in the dark, so I strived to keep up with the runner in front of me, not letting her headlight out of sight. I ended up running much faster than I intended to.

After a while I let go. I was puzzled - was everyone really so much quicker and stronger than me none of them needed to preserve their strength for later? I also wanted to do my own thing, so I stopped worrying about it. As soon as I remained behind, alone in the dark, I actually felt better. I never lost my way. And daylight came soon enough.

Once the 50K started an hour later more than a hundred runners circled the course, but most of the time I ran without seeing anyone else. Although we did the same loop again and again, it never got boring. The rain enlivened the hues of the forest, but left the ground strangely runnable, with only rare spots of slippery mud that borrowed from the wetness an almost bluish sheen. It drizzled for hours. A few times the rain gained enough strength to raise a clear patter sound from the canopy of trees. Once, for a few glorious moments, we had hail, a brief shower of tiny quicksilver pearls. Once, sometime midday, the clouds thinned and we could sense sunlight.

It was warmer than I thought it would be, and I took one layer off the first time I returned to the trailhead, but I kept the jacket on throughout, an armor against both the rain and the shivering that comes with exhaustion. I never got cold. My socks (I had forgotten the spares at home) didn't get wet until the very last loop when I didn't need spares anymore.

The real food at the trailhead was a blessing. I stuck to French fries and mashed potatoes (absolutely yummy, the mashed potatoes) - safe enough choices that came with the incredible advantage of being carbohydrate, good fuel, and not sweet at the same time. In between I ate pretzels and dried fruit and "stinger honey wafers" which are about the only sweet thing I can handle without problems. I forced myself to eat more than I wanted, and it felt I was doing a good job at it. In hindsight, I probably didn't eat enough. But - most extraordinary - I never got sick. Sometimes, often enough, even a marathon brings me to the brink of throwing up. Here I did 50 miles without even a thought of nausea.

The course was difficult for me. Maybe because I didn't really ran trails before. Maybe because of the elevation gain - the path went up and down and up and down again, and whenever I thought a flat stretch would come next we went up and down again. Or so it seemed to me. I kept a pretty steady pace, but I was slow - I mean even slower than I normally am. Which is slow enough already.

Somewhere before mile 30 I became aware of the pain in my legs, especially the calves, especially the left. I had felt the pain before that point, but somehow it hadn't sunk in that I was hurting. It almost felt as if I hadn't had time to notice it before. Now it crossed my mind that I still had more than 20 miles to go, and that pain would only increase with each step of those 20 miles. It wasn't a pleasing thought, but it came and went without consequences. I kept running, and from time to time I remembered that I was hurting, but the pain didn't bother me. It was there, it was heavy pain, and it was easy to ignore.

Coming to the trailhead after the third big loop I went dizzy. Like the pain, this worried me only for a moment. I am anemic; sometimes I get dizzy even when I am not running. I felt I needed something, but couldn't figure out what. After a moment I decided on caffeine and had a bit of hot coffee. Then I took off again. The dizziness still came on each time I slowed down, but as long as I ran I only felt a vague weakness, indistinguishable from fatigue.

If I had to describe this race in one single, simple sentence it would be, "I just ran." For twelve hours, I simply ran. I didn't get bored, I didn't get sick, I didn't get cold, I didn't hurt too much. I just ran. I loved the colors of the leaves, and the gentle touch of rain. I learned that the forest smelled of pine needles just before I got to the halfway point of the loop. I thought of running this race for Leonard Peltier and how - even he is not forgotten by all people - he is forsaken by all gods. And I ran.

I would have loved to do 100 miles for Leonard Peltier, it just has a better sound to it. At this point though I was only ready for 50, so 50 I did. I took off for the last loop just before dusk, and with dusk came the rain. And then came the darkness. It's only then that it got to be a bit difficult. Not right away. But during the last two miles or so, maybe less, I couldn't see anymore. The headlight worked but in front of my eyes was only a grayish blur. It was as if my glasses had fogged up, but I wasn't wearing them. After a while I gave up on trying to SEE or even to understand what was going on - I was probably simply tired - and only strived to stay on the path while moving forward. How did the 200 mile runners deal with this kind of thing for two nights?

And then I saw the lights ahead, and heard the cheers at the trailhead, and knew the race was done. I would have liked to arrive with that inner poise and outward elegance I had mustered in my last marathon, but I admit those last two miles or so had left me a bit shaken. Not only that - they had slowed me down more than I knew, since I found out I had missed the cut-off time by 8 minutes.

I don't mind that (from the 21 people who finished the 50 mile race) I am the last one. But I wish I could have made it in 12 hours. I was also curious if they would give me the finisher belt buckle - in some races they don't if you don't make the cut-off time. I hadn't asked what would happen in this race, because I had decided I would make it in 12 hours. And I hadn't.

The cabin was warm, full of people and laughter and the smell of warm food. No one seemed to have made a decision about my belt buckle, and Tom Bunk, legendary in the world of ultra-runners and the soul behind the whole event, asked me to wait for a little while until they sorted it out.

When I say I was curious, that is exactly what I mean. I was curious. I wasn't anxious. Don't get me wrong - I wanted the buckle. But if I wouldn't get it, that was fine too. I had something else on my mind. I wanted another half a mile.

Even with that extra little loop at the beginning, the race course didn't add up to precisely 50 miles. The actual distance was 49.61. For all practical purposes, the race director had assured me in the morning, this was a 50 mile race, and no race course is exact anyhow. And no one cares. I understood that. Normally I wouldn't care either.

But this race was different. You cannot tell the universe you are going to do 50 miles for Leonard Peltier, and then stop at 99%. I am not sure what one has to do so the gods remember him, but I know that 99% of anything won't cut it.

Between the trail and the road, I decided for the road. It was flat and straight and easy to run, no matter what I see or couldn't see. I took off my bib number. This last half a mile was separate from the race, it was outside the mundane. I didn't have to shake off, as I did in Portland, the feeling that I had already done enough. The race was done, but the 50 miles were not.

My mind empty of thoughts, limping on the left side, I ran another half a mile in the darkness, going north, my boy-friend driving slowly behind me, the emergency lights on. I know it was a little insane. And it was easy. No cars passed us, either way. When I was done he pulled right in front of me, leaned forward, opened the passenger door. Once I was in the car, traffic streamed by in both directions.

I got the belt buckle for the first 49.61 miles. But it is that last half a mile I treasure most.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

the day we flew in

We had a little mishap on the way, and had to take a detour to fix it. After all the driving around a couple of warning lights went on in the rental car (the cheapest we could find), and we spend some time trying to get rid of those, with partial success. The low pressure light never went out, no matter what we did (or didn't do) with the tires. After a while we decided to quit worrying, it seemed the tire pressure monitor itself was defective; the tires looked fine to us.

Between this and that, when we arrived at the trailhead for packet pickup it was dark. I could still figure out the race wouldn't be on a mountain - the landscape was hilly, but there wasn't anything like a mountain in sight. The course doubles as a ski-trail in winter, and this is where I got confused - when I read about skiing I imagined a mountain, in my mind that's where skiing takes place.

It was raining, and I had to think of the roughly twenty people who had started running the 200 and 150-mile races that morning and were now facing the long, wet night. My little 50-mile quest was low-key by comparison. There was also a 100-mile race, and a 50K (31.25 miles), we would start the next morning.

The trailhead had a big enough parking lot, a couple of tents as shelter from the rain, a camp fire where a small crew was keeping warm, and a lit-up cabin. This is where runners would check in after every loop. We entered, I said hello. No one was smiling. A man who seemed to be in charge got up. Stepping to the registration table he asked which race I was running.

"I'm doing 50 miles."

"Miles?" His voice carried an inflexion of surprise, as if he expected me to say I was doing the 50K. Then he got busy looking my name up on the list.

Do I give the impression I am someone who won't do 50 miles?

This was the evening before the race, and I wasn't wearing running clothes. Okay, so I look like a city girl. Hey, I am a city girl. Maybe my jacket was too pretty. Maybe I just imagined all this, and he was actually concerned about something else, one of the runners out there on the trail perhaps, so he absent-mindedly repeated the last word he heard, to center himself so he could address the business at hand.

People ask this all the time, astounded: you run 50 miles? Even about marathons: you run 26 miles? I am sure it happens to every runner. It happened to me before as well, but always somewhere in the indoor world, in places of consumption and leisure. Never at packet pick-up.

Maybe I was reading too much into the incident; it meant nothing. And it's actually not always a bad thing, when people doubt you a little bit. It's a great motivator. It makes you more determined to prove what you can do.

Later, finally in the warm hotel room, I shrugged it off. I was already determined. I already had my own inner motivation. Next evening, after 50 miles, I would come toward that cabin, on that path we had glimpsed in the darkness, I would come on that path from the north, running or crawling, whatever it took, I would come in after 50 miles.