My good friend, Jefferson, accompanied me to Titusville last weekend for my first 100-miler.
The first time we'd ventured out to this part of western Pennsylvania together, we had attended out our first beard competition, had an absolute blast and made a ton of lasting friends in the process. All of which was quite a surprise, as we had arrived in Oil City unsure of what to expect.
This weekend actually felt similar in that regard. The difference this time was that we already had friends waiting for us.
The longest race I'd run previously was a 54 miler. I'd started but failed to finish a 70 mile race earlier in the year, so there were plenty of internal question marks.
Jefferson had paced for me and another friend at the Labor Pains 12-hour event but that course was held on a 5-mile loop that provided nearly constant access to food, drinks and friendly faces. Oil Creek would be less accommodating.
Because this post isn't specifically about the race, I'll jump ahead and say that Jefferson had a few growing pains during the "crewing" portion of the race, but I deliver that news with a grin on my face. He did just fine, but crew chief extraordinaire Jo Agnew, in doing her best to give Jefferson a crash course on crewing, actually managed to cast a spotlight mostly on what he wasn't doing "right" (whatever that means). Hell, he'd never crewed before and I'd never been crewed for before. How smoothly were things gonna go?
Once he could lace up his own shoes and get out on the trail as my pacer, Jefferson shined.
He didn't get to do nearly as much running as he expected to as pain in my feet converted me to more of a power hiker than a runner over the last 30 or so miles, but I set a pretty mean hiking pace (yes, I did say so myself) and he stuck with me, in the process surpassing his previous longest distance by a good half marathon, logging nearly 38 miles.
He was everything I needed him to be which was mostly just a calm, comforting presence, a by-my-side friend who didn't say a single thing to lower my spirits or shake my confidence. I felt pain, for sure, but never enough to pull me completely into a solitary place of suffering and I believe having Jefferson there with me was a huge factor for staying out of that place.
Jefferson never delivered my favorite stolen-from-Deadwood "the world ends when you're dead" reminder, but he didn't need to and it wouldn't have made sense if he did. He didn't quote any Neitzsche either even though it must have been tempting, considering the fact that Friedrich had penned quite a bit of content that might seem relevant in the dark of the night AND had sported a moustache eerily similar to the one that currently resides on Jefferson's upper lip.
No, there weren't any specific quotes offered up in the middle of the night, but, after the fact, Jefferson did hand me an interesting passage from Neitzsche that I'm now going to share with anyone still reading along:
"There is as much wisdom in pain as there is in pleasure: both belong among the factors that contribute the most to the preservation of the species. If pain did not, it would have perished long ago; that is hurts is no argument against it but its essence. In pain I hear the captain's command: "Take in the sails!" The bold seafarer "man" must have mastered the art of doing a thousand things with his sails; otherwise he would be done for in no time, and the ocean would swallow him. We must learn to live with diminished energies, too: As soon as pain gives its safety signal the time has come to diminish them; some great danger or other, a storm is approaching, and we are well advised to "inflate" ourselves as little as possible.
True, there are people who hear precisely the opposite command when great pain approaches: Their expression is never prouder, more warlike, and happier than it is when a storm comes up; indeed, pain itself gives them their greatest moments. This is the heroic type, the great pain bringers of humanity, those few or rare human beings who need the very same apology that pain itself needs--and truly, one should not deny it to them. They contribute immensely to the preservation and enhancement of the species, even if it were only by opposing comfortableness and by not concealing how this sort of happiness nauseates them."
Now I'm not going to go so far as to side with the bit about comfortableness making me nauseous but I do like the idea of facing the storm head on, weathering it and then taking the time to restore those diminished energies after the storm has passed.
And so, having done my part to preserve and enhance the species (who knew?), I'm savoring this recovery week, pondering endurance and...
...wondering who would be a better ultra-runner, Neitzsche or Al Swearengen?
I've spent a good portion of the last year and many minutes this past weekend soaking up sage advice from my good friend, Kelly Agnew. He throws me some curve balls every now and then to keep my ego in check (or something), but mostly he freely shares what wisdom he's compiled during numerous ultramarathons.
I look forward to his race recaps and I guess he gets a kick out of mine too.
After dragging my feet for a few days in the wake of the Oil Creek 100 on Saturday and Sunday, I wasn't surprised to get a text from Kelly demanding to know when I was going to get around to putting up a post about the race, my first ever 100 miler.
And then, upon learning that I wasn't making any headway with my writing, he encouraged me to reflect back on the weekend and write about (and I quote) some "moment when you were close to the face of God...or some shit."
So, uh, here goes.
Having too little experience to have a solid idea of how long it might take me to travel 100 miles on foot, I'd guessed that somewhere between 27-29 hours sounded reasonable. The race has a 32 hour cutoff but for whatever reason that sounded like way too long to be on my feet. You know, cause 29 hours isn't long at all.
I came across the line (a point I'd left at 5 AM on Saturday) just before 9:00 AM on Sunday morning with a time of 27:58:59 feeling like one helluva good guesser.
First, let me say that 28 hours IS a long time. Can't even tell you the last time that I was AWAKE for 28 hours straight, much less striving forward for that long a stretch.
But, frankly, I feel like I got a little shortchanged on calamity.
Considering the mayhem that has frequently followed me around race courses, I'm perplexed as to what went wrong at Oil Creek. Er, um, went right, that is.
I did not vomit. My bowels didn't loosen. My gimpy arches didn't give even in the rain that held through most of the night. Nary a cramp. No chafing. Not a single bee sting.
Nothing but wickedly sore feet and some fatigued legs. I can't imagine that those are anything but par for the course. In other words, I walked away with nothing to write about.
In fact, now that I think about it, one of the ways I've cheated myself is by meeting and getting to know men and women who've tackled these types of adventures before. Some with frequency; with regularity. Ho hum and such.
They've been there, done that, you know the cliches. The throwing up, the diarrhea, exhaustion, cramping, injuries and even hallucinations are all part of the drill for that set and just simply going a long way ain't much. Maybe I shouldn't have read so many race reports. I could've turned the sound down low when folks started sharing their tales of suffering and endurance. Then perhaps I could look back on the weekend and feel like I'd really accomplished something.
Instead, I kinda feel like maybe all I did was go from the guy who'd never done a 100 to the guy who has just done one and only managed a mediocre time in spite of having no real issues along the way.
Sure, I turned an ankle and took one good fall on my right hip, but really...?
The face of God? Not even close.
I did see a possum, but he seemed not divine. I've heard God works in mysterious ways, but that's not mysterious, just really, really weird.
Wasn't him, I'm sure of it.
THAT would've been a good story, though. God in the form of a possum gives me a talking to as I stumble across an old railroad bridge at mile 76. Wasn't him though. It was just a possum in the form of a possum wondering who or what in the hell I was and what in the hell I was doing trip-trapping across his bridge at whatever in the hell time in the morning it was.
That selfish rodent could have at least done me a favor and given me a quick leg gnaw for later storytelling purposes. Apply a few battle scars to thicken the plot.
The face of God?
I did spend several minutes during the first few frigid hours of the race trying to untangle my iced over beard from the drinking hose of my hydration pack. A nuisance? You betcha. A hardship? A monumental obstacle?
Hell, it never even crossed my mind to seek the face of God. I've read and heard so many tales of loneliness on long races but, truth be told, I spent all but 6 or 7 miles in the company of friends. I loved every shared moment. Each conversation, the laughter and even the long stretches of comfortable quiet with Jefferson in the wee, wet, slippery hours of the late night and early morning.
I certainly wasn't lonely.
If God had peeked down (up? over?) looking for someone to grace with his presence, he'd a passed right be me, seeing that I was in good company and hardly in need.
So, I walked away without having required any divine intervention. Not one single instance of heavenly interaction.
Did what I set out to do and should be relieved that I've got my health on the back end. I should be overjoyed that I met my goal and that a good bit of the reason that it wasn't more calamitous is because I applied the lessons that I learned in tougher races and harder times.
And, if I'm being honest, I guess I am.
But, NEXT time. Next time, it's all gonna go wrong.
And when God shows his face, I'm going to wipe the vomit from my beard, grin a beleaguered but honest grin and say, "THERE you are, possum!"
The fluttering butterflies in my stomach feel more like flailing winged walruses.
That may not be fair.
No walrus has been given an opportunity to show its flying skills. Not as far as I, Google or Wikipedia have been able to confirm. At least not with its own wings.
But should one of those fine (I'm assuming) swimmers wake up with built-in flying apparatus, it likely, I suspect, would go crashing off the sides of ice shelves and rock faces in a fashion similar to the way my nerves are battering against the insides of my stomach.
Just another two nights of (semi)sleep before my inaugural one hundred miles of "can-you-do-this, you scrawny little bastard?" and I, guiltily charged, have no idea.
I'm not completely unprepared.
I've got two functioning legs (currently) with feet properly connected to the ends of them (currently), an archived trail of long runs over the last few weeks and month, a fresh pair of shoes (with a back up), a more than capable crew and a cast of supportive friends, ample food and hydration and blind enthusiasm.
And, I've got an HBO-delivered mantra that I turn to with frequency and that I expect will play in my head like the cliched gerbil in its wheel all day long on Saturday and into Sunday.
Leon, why ain't you up and running again?
Dude, my left #$%*@*&! arch has called it quits.
Pain or damage don't end the world. Or despair or #$%*@*&! beatings.
So, why ain't you up and running again?
This is ridiculous. I've been out here for hours, the sun's been down forever and I'm still six miles out from my drop bag and a headlamp. This is NEVER going to end.
The world ends when you're dead.
Now, why ain't you up and running again?
I puked my guts out and am having a helluva time keeping anything down, man, even water!
Forty more miles to the finish and...until then you got more punishment in store.
LEON, why in the HELL ain't you up and running again?
These hills are endless...I'm freezing...There's just no way I can keep my eyes open another minute longer...I've pooped 20 times in the last 12 hours and I think I may have just, yep, I definitely just did crap my pants!
Stand it like a man and give some back.
I'm assuming that isn't meant as a suggestion to shit a 21st time on (or just to one side of) the course, but a reminder to fight back, to keep going.
To give some back by just simply not giving in.
Rest and recover tomorrow...and the next day...and, if need be, the next few weeks.
I've got no firm finishing time goals, so much as I really just want to not only make that finish line but also come away from the event--if not more enthused about running than ever then at least--still wanting to run.
If I find that I never want to go a full 100 miles at one time again, no harm done.
If I end up on the shelf for an extended period of time or, worse yet, suffer a complete loss of motivation because of the race THEN I will be disappointed...though I'll take time on the shelf for physical reasons over just plain listlessness.
Taking a long, long time to get to the finish line and suffering (perhaps immensely) along the way, but GETTING to that finish line? That sounds like a win to me.
Should any of you have any desire to follow along (either out of concern, curiosity or in expectation of confirming and celebrating my failure), you can check in on the webcast of the 100-miler at the following link, keeping in mind that updates will be infrequent and, as with any of these types of races, logistical complications can lead to erratic or incorrect posts:
I ran with friends this morning at Pumping Station, getting my first helping of humility long before the sun came up as unexpected heat and humidity (it is October, isn't it?!?) had me feeling like I was trying to run uphill underwater.
I guess in some sense I was, as it rained the entire time we were running and a good bit of that time we were climbing. When we did finally make it to downhill, the rain had turned the track to a muddy, crumbly mess and ultimately led to me trudging along gingerly rather than actually running in an attempt to steer clear of any undue harm to my aw-poor-little-baby arches ahead of next week's Oil Creek 100.
It really was a good workout and a fun time out with friends, but I ended up feeling a bit deflated by my performance. Wah.
But, I perked up a bit when I popped into a local pizzeria to pick up some lunch and the friendly Sicilian owner wagged his finger at me playfully and said, "YOU! I saw you...I saw you in the newspaper."
A short piece about my TransRockies experience had run in a small neighborhood publication and I was admittedly tickled that he had seen it.
He was grinning from ear to ear and I couldn't help but do the same.
"So, did you do it?" he asked. "You did it? You're going to do it?"
"I already did it. It was great."
"Ah-hah! So you DID it!"
Still grinning and nodding his head, the man fell silent.
After a moment, he began again. "So. Uh. What did you do? I, um, I didn't read it."
My mind keeps turning over rock and dirt. Tumbling and polishing words (though imperfectly) in failed attempts to connect the dots between movement, the call of the (yes, I'm gonna say it) wild and the allure of, if not solitude, then at least remove from the cacophony of the trappings of our modern day.
To eyes grown accustomed to the rows, compartments, parking spaces of civilization, there is madness in the backcountry. Hithers and thithers fail to make apparent THE way to go...as if there always must be A way to go. Even the can't-miss-it guide of well worn singletrack must seem a deception to the uninitiated in its determination to round all bends and dance dizzying zigzags when straighter routes seem available. Not just imagination but also experience is required to see "lines" whether it's trail to be run or rock to be climbed though those most gifted with creativity or blessed with time spent exploring likely take that ability for granted. I'm guessing, of course, as I'm only moderately creative and woefully short on days and nights beneath the open sky.
But even without those gifts, I sense there is order to the chaos.
To stay on track and keep my short story from growing any longer than need be, I turn to the words of a man who possessed an innate ability to see the natural world as it truly is (was) and who came as close as one ever could to translating its language into our own. Not only did he have vision, he also spent every possible moment outdoors and worked tirelessly toward preservation. I shudder to think at how he'd feel about what's been done with all we had.
If I'm not careful, I'll get off track again, and drift back to my searching for words that Mr. John Muir was already kind enough to assemble.
"Every boulder is prepared and measured and put in its place more thoughtfully than are the stones of temples. If for a moment you are inclined to regard these taluses as mere draggling, chaotic dumps, climb to the tip of one of them, tie your mountain shoes firmly over the instep, and with braced nerves run down without any haggling, puttering hesitation, boldly jump from boulder to boulder with ever increasing speed. You will then find your feet playing a tune, and quickly discover the music and poetry of rock piles--a fine lesson, and all nature's wildness will tell the same story."
What do I know? But that sounds about right to me.
I do other things besides parenting, running (and writing), but nothing else as enthusiastically. I work and sleep quite a bit and believe I'm fairly talented at both. In fact, like it or not, my abilities to parent and (certainly) to run probably lag far behind my capacity to fill my job description and put head to pillow at the end of the day. However, I still only attend to those activities because they enable me to take care of my children and get out and run.
I've also been known to enjoy (in no particular order) a long, long walk in the woods or along an open ridgeline, a good book, the miracle of bees, the mystery of birds, a cold beer, competitive facial hair growing (yes, you read that correctly), live music, recorded music, roaming the country, kayaking, dribbling a basketball and catching a kickball among other things.
I believe that once you've become a parent, it's all too easy to begin taking your partner for granted even if said partner sticks around. My wife has most definitely stuck around and is most definitely not taken for granted. Of all the things mentioned above that I enjoy, I enjoy most of them all the more when shared with Lindsay.