Thursday, July 27, 2017

Twilight

Shoulders and head sunk toward the trail as the first hint of light painted the ridgeline east of Gulf Hagas Mountain.  The combined fatigue of a missed-night’s sleep and the near-continuous effort of the past twenty hours beckoned for one to lay down.  Sleep. Succumb to the siren’s song. This was twilight.  When the light from the brightest day fades to the deepest night. When the darkest night yields the most brilliant day.  At what hour do we stand?


Will Day Dawn?
It's 100 miles to help.
Perhaps because of the name, or it’s reputation as the longest stretch of the Appalachian Trail without a paved road crossing or resupply option, the 100-Mile Wilderness in Maine has captivated my imagination for years.  Months ago, the idea of running the route began getting tossed around by friends.  Thanks to one Mr. Michael McDuffie, it happened, logistics planned brilliantly.  Rob Rives and myself would join him in Monson, ME on Friday, July 20.  A shuttle, courtesy of Phil “Quadzilla” Pepin, who runs the 100 Mile Wilderness Adventures and Outfitters, would bring us two hours north, to Abol Bridge, 14 miles south of the terminus of the AT on the summit of Katahdin, the morning of July 21.  If all went well, we would finish sometime on July 22, or early on July 23.  100-Miles, unsupported, through some of the most remote and gnarliest stretches of trail you can find, with the goal of going under 48 hours.


We began at 7:20 AM.  Spirits were high reading the sign cautioning, “It is 100 miles south to the nearest town at Monson.  There are NO places to obtain supplies or get help until Monson.  Do not attempt unless you have a minimum of 10 days supplies and are fully equipped. This is the longest wilderness section of the entire A.T. and its difficulty should not be underestimated.” We each carried about 9,000 calories.


Goofiness belies the fact that I was scared as hell.
The juxtaposition of this warning, and our buoyant attitudes and excitement over having started this journey poetically express the angst and fear I felt going into this run.  Self-doubt came through in the dire warning of the Maine Appalachian Trail Club. The crux of it?  I had done nothing remotely like this in nearly four years.  Could my mind handle it?  Would my body?


It was the context of this thought that worried me the most. Four years ago, I was good at running really long distances. After a series of setbacks and medical issues, I’ve doubted I can do it any more. I dropped at mile 92 of my last 100-mile attempt in 2013, to spend the night in the ER with rhabdomyolysis.  There are no ERs in the 100-Mile Wilderness.  A busted ankle, a broken leg, a stick in the leg (which has happened to me before, in the Whites), pee that is the color of motor oil, all become bigger problems when you’re running this route.  I did not want anything to befall me for my own sake (and that of McDuffie and Rob), but also for my family, who no doubt would worry about me throughout the entire journey.  I began the day weighed down by a healthy dose of fear.


I also began the trek weighed down by a pack of at least 17lbs (I had weighed it the night before).  When I used to race, the goal was to run as fast as possible, which means carrying as little as possible.  Shorty shorts, a handheld water bottle (maybe two), and that was it.  Much less than 17-18 lbs.  Rob was an excellent teacher though, and talked about limiting the “bouncing” and “bumps” to save your legs for later in the day (and night, and next day).  For the first time ever I actually understood what it means when people tell you to “make the first 30 miles feel really easy” in a 100. We cruised up Rainbow Ledges, floated along the sides of rivers and lakes (if only the one below Rainbow Ledges were named Unicorn Lake . . .).  We caught views of Katahdin.  A beautiful day had emerged from a twilight of self-doubt.

Our first water stop.  At this point, Rob, McDuffie, and myself were running more or less together.  Rob and I, who continued on together, wouldn’t see McDuffie after about mile 13.  Photo: Rob Rives


(Rob on Rainbow Ledges with the view back to Katahdin).
(Rob on Rainbow Ledges looking forward and celebrating the land of our little adventure).

Night.


The first ~50 miles of the 100 Mile Wilderness south bound follow spectacular lakes and gorgeous rivers and streams.  When asked for a single word to describe his experience on the trail, Rob summed it up as “Water,” because it is such a defining characteristic of the landscape throughout the wilderness.  The trail is punctuated by a few short climbs, some rocks, some roots, but is mostly just absolutely enjoyable terrain.  One stretch of pine-needle blanketed single track was running nirvana, and seemed to stretch for miles.  We passed AT thru hikers, and even families with small kids (despite it’s name, and the dire warnings on either ends, there are several points that folk can relatively easily access the “Wilderness.” Still, aside from the one area where a group of pickups were parked, it feels pretty darned remote).  As we ascended what is likely the largest climb in the “front-50” we passed a group of teenaged girls, blasting out a brilliant acapella rendition of My Heart’s A Stereo.  Naturally, we joined in.  Not sure Thoreau would approve, but it lifted the spirit and kept a smile on our faces.


Near the mileage-based halfway point of the run lies one of the many shelters built for hikers. Studying the maps of the trail, this spot had immediately popped out, not only for its location, but its name, Cooper Brook Falls Lean-To.  My oldest son is named Cooper, the last name of my mother-in-law, who passed away in March.  It was a personal goal to reach this point feeling strong (I did), and before sunset (Rob and I turned on our headlamps about 15 or 20 minutes after cruising by this site). "Cooper" was a milestone, for it marked my longest effort in years, and if I somehow managed to get there, I had convinced myself that for the rest of the trip I’d be running “home,” back to my family.  As night fell and darkness enveloped the world around us, my spirit (and very bright headlamp) guided me down the trail, connecting the White Blazes of the AT back to Monson, back to Cooper.  Twilight may have lead to darkness, but Rob and I both were looking forward to the magic of a night traveling through the woods.


Psychological boosts can come from the smallest of things.

Twilight 3: Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night


Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at the close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

- Dylan Thomas


I am drawn to this sort of endeavor as an opportunity to feel “powerful,” my way of “raging” against complacency and routine.  I lead a fairly unremarkable life, but these journeys, these are a big part of how I come to feel remarkable.


Rob atop White Cap Mountain in the middle of the night.

The night was magical. Cloudless. Quiet. We travelled together, our entire world reduced to the bubble of light before us.  Time seemed irrelevant at this point.  This was our reality until the sun came up.  Forever forward.  Up White Cap Mountain, the highest point of the trail, along the “Stairway to Heaven.” Can we get there before 18 hours?  Push.  17:56.  False summit.  17:59!  The Big Dipper sat on top of the mountain with us.  Stars all were within our reach.  The beauty of the cloudless sky, the wind singing over the rocks.  A beauty and brilliance so profound, days later it seems to be a physical presence inside of me.  Down the trail, the cone of the headlamp our world.  A map does not convey the technical terrain.  The going is slow, but we descend West Peak, nearly done with the whole range.  A brief stop for food and to shed a layer.  Rob a mere 15 feet back on the trail, but it seems like 40 feet higher than me.  Quietly through Signey Tappan Campsite, hopeful not to wake the sleeping hikers.  To the saddle of Gulf Hagas Mountain.  The sky is brilliant, dark, and deep.  We have miles to go before we sleep.  Do not let the hour or the dark deter us.  Press ahead, into the coming light.  Rage against the night.


That is a lot of moose poop.  The trail is kind of overgrown here.  This is where a moose is going to crush me.  Rage, rage against the dying of optimism, of hope.  Negative thoughts have no place here.  I am really tired.  Let’s just take a quick breather here for a minute and get some food.


Shoulders and head sunk toward the trail as the first hint of light painted the ridgeline east of Gulf Hagas Mountain.  The combined fatigue of a missed-night’s sleep and the near-continuous effort of the past twenty hours beckoned for one to lay down.  Sleep. Succumb to the siren’s song. This was twilight.  When the light from the brightest day fades to the deepest night. When the darkest night yields the most brilliant day.  At what hour do we stand?


For the first time since beginning the 100 Mile Wilderness adventure, the body and spirit offered protest against their mission.  A deep desire to keep eyes closed and rest consumed all thought, thoughts cloudy with fatigue, muddled by a creeping negativity.  With the dawn came the terrifying realization that this was very far from done.  Why not stop? Right there.  A dark time, and a dark place, but for the profound beauty of the moment.  That faintest brush stroke of a new day, barely illuminated the highest ridge of the mountains. Night held fast to the sky above, in a beautiful, cloudless dark, scattered with the brilliant stars.  This was twilight, a moment caught between the light and the dark.   


Light or Dark?


Daylight, just over an hour away, felt impossibly far away.  So did Rt. 15 in Monson, some 40 miles away.  I had secretly hoped to cover 27-30 miles overnight.  We covered 20.  The trail had gotten much harder, the terrain steeper, more technical.  We’d been awake for 24 hours, running nearly 22.  All I wanted was to sleep, to lay down.  Rob, whose unflappable optimism and good nature impressed me as much as the trail itself, suggested I could nap when he cooked a hot breakfast for himself shortly after sunrise. The promise of lying on my back, eyes closed, head propped on my pack, tugged me, slowly, into the day.  I knew the darkness had won, but sleep was coming.  Just a little further.


We ran slowly, as the trail flattened out, gradually descending along Gulf Hagas Brook.  The light in the woods shifted and I started running faster, easier.  Soon, headlamps were turned off and, as if some benevolent sorcerer had cast a spell, the desire for sleep, the compounding fatigue, the niggles of pain felt throughout the night, all disappeared.  It was a new day. We only had 40 miles to go!  We might be able to finish this right around 30 hours.  


Above Screw Auger Falls, breakfast was made, Rob with his hot food, me with peanut M&M’s. Feet were meticulously washed and the blisters that had developed early in the run, immaculately and painstakingly “fixed.”  This sort of luxury had never been taken in any of my previous runs, but with the new day, the beautiful setting, it was a joy to know that I was doing something proactive to help make the final push.  Day had breathed renewed life into the body and I imagined finishing around 2 or 3 PM.  Feet fixed, breakfast eaten, we slowly started the homestretch of the journey, letting our bodies warmup after an extended break.  Within five minutes we were jogging slowly, chatting for the first time in hours, clicking the miles off.  


The West Branch of the Pleasant River (along with several others) must be forded on this journey.  It happened about 10 minutes after we left our breakfast/foot clinic location.  My beautiful tape job for naught. We were able to laugh at the absurdity of it.  Spirits were high, feet were wet, but we continued on, my bandages no match for 50 yards of river.  Alas, there were less than 40 miles to go.

(Crossing the West Branch of the Pleasant River. It was very slippery.  Had perfectly patched feet for 10 minutes before.  They felt really good during that time . . . Photo: Rob Rives).

Twilight to the deepest, darkest night: “These mountains are fucking relentless.”


The Barren-Chairback Range. Where souls go to die.  Approximately 11 miles in length, with climbs that seem impossibly steep and terrain that is maddeningly slow to traverse.  Up Chairback Mountain we still had reserves of humor to ascend the absolute ridiculousness of the talus field.  Rob joked, “It could only end this way,” the mountains placing an absolute exclamation mark on our journey.  Third Mountain offered a brief respite from the absurd.  The view of our previous night stretched before us in perfect sunshine.

(Sometimes, there is beauty in suffering.  The hard-earned view from Third Mountain, looking back to our journey the previous night).  
The descent from Fourth Mountain and the ascent of Barren Mountain were the dawning of the darkest night for me (although it was a cloudless day).  As Rob commented, “These mountains are fucking relentless,” the front of my left ankle, for all the flexion, stopped working correctlyl, and was visibly swollen through the sock.  Every step hurt. Every downhill was becoming a struggle.  The top of Barren marked 18 miles to go.  Sleep demons had me in their clutches.  It may as well have been another 100 to go.  My head spun with fatigue.  The world spun when I closed my eyes.  We had likely been moving at less than 2 MPH for much of the last several hours. At that rate, we wouldn’t finish until . . . the math was getting fuzzy.  The 2,000 foot descent of Barren was excruciating.  

“Are we there yet?” “No.” Battered on the descent off Barren Mountain.
The top of an unexpectedly steep climb of nearly 1,000 feet, shortly after descending Barren Mountain, is where I threw my pity party.  I was in pain.  We had 14 miles to go.  It was impossible. Rob was out of water and after making sure I’d be okay (my head was spinning with fatigue again - not a bonk sort of spin, just a, “Lie down and go to sleep!” sort of spin), continued down the trail to the next water spot, where I’d meet him.  


I am not proud of how I carried myself these next few miles.  For the first time ever, I was screaming and cursing out loud on the trail.  “I JUST WANT TO BE DONE!” was yelled at least twice.  Every step was accompanied by a grunt of pain, of anger and frustration.  I was disappointed in myself.  Was there a way to bail?  I was so close, but I didn’t want to continue.  I feared the death march, I feared taking another 14 hours to finish this. The pain and fatigue were all consuming.  Rob and I were both hallucinating at this point (which, considering my general state, was actually the one enjoyable piece of this time).  Beach umbrellas along rivers, kiosks, trail signs, animals, and people in the woods.  As I ran the mile to the water stop, I saw Rob, at least twice, sitting on the side of the trail, waving his trekking poles.  He wasn't actually there. At one point I asked (the real) Rob if he could see the Christmas ornament in one tree. “No man, that’s not there.”


The other thing that was not there was my focus.  The twilight of pain and fear and anger had consumed me, leading to the night of pain and negativity.  I knew this. To leave the suffering as fast as possible I needed to change.  It was frustrating to think about our pace and the pain, so instead focus shifted to every exhale, using the energy and force from that to strengthen the ankle.  Within minutes of beginning this, a strange pattern, where I’d inhale, and then take a protracted exhale, while making a sound like, “SSSCCCCCHHHHHHHHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEWWWWWWWWWW” (It sounds almost like “Shoe”, with a very hard emphasis on the last syllable) began. It was, at best, bizarre, and I am grateful Rob said nothing, because the pain in the ankle didn’t bother me anymore.  If I’d stopped the pattern, the pain returned.  So, for the last four or five hours of our journey, I put myself into what was probably the deepest meditative trance of my life, doing this breathing pattern with nearly every step.  I was able to run (apparently right by a giant waterfall without noticing) without anger, with an acceptance of the pain.  I could feel the ankle and knew it wasn’t well, but the pain was gone.  


These last hours, these last miles, existed for me in a state of perpetual twilight.  Positive and negative emotions, good and bad, did not fully exist, but were ever present, ready to fill the ambiguity of my consciousness.  At one point, running a brilliant stretch of single-track, I had the strange sensation that my body was part of the world around it, moving as part of the larger whole. It was not good or bad.  It just was.  I was not working to “conquer” the 100-Mile Wilderness, but was focused on the most basic act of moving.  As we got closer, and I felt the pull of the “finish,” those excited emotions were held at bay, focusing only on inhale.  Exhale.  As we crossed Leaman Brook, I briefly pointed at the sign telling us U.S. 15, and the finish, were 3 miles away, and ran. We ran in silence, save my strange breathing.  Inhale. Exhale. “SSSCCCCHHHHHEEEEEEWWWWWWW.” I caught a glimpse of the MATC warning sign saying you must be prepared for 10 days of travel from where we had just come, and we ran to it together.  50 yards later, we reached the parking lot. 35:32. Done.   

Done. Basically.  We still had 50 yards to go, but this was a good photo op.  Photo: Rob Rives.


As we sat in the parking lot, incoherently calling loved ones to say we had survived, texting McDuffie to see where he was (we had not seen him since mile 13 or so, and he would not finish for another 24 hours), a truck pulled up.  “You two need a lift?  You look like you’re sorta melting into the rocks there.” “Poet,” the owner of Shaw’s Hiker Hostel, had happened to see us from the road and kindly drove us to his place where we were plied with hot food and cold drinks, and made to feel like rock stars as we recounted what had just transpired the last 36 hours to a number of AT thru-hikers.   I have not spent much time in trail towns, but after finishing this burly run, to know there are such incredible people out there willing to support people reaching for seemingly quixotic dreams, well, it is a mighty fine chance to feel good about the world.  The twilight of this run yielded a beautiful day (and a brilliant night’s rest!).  


------


I had never undertaken something of this magnitude before: an unsupported 100-mile run through a wilderness setting.  Four years ago, I believed was the “twilight” of my running career, my ability to achieve audacious things stymied by physical limitations.  More than any other run or race, the 100-Mile Wilderness seems transformative.  Not only did it force me to master long-feared demons, but to confront and control immediate emotions and physical pain.  Rob was a brilliant mentor, and for that, I have few words.  Many other friends have helped me, this year in particular, feel strong and capable of even attempting something like this, from urban adventure runs, to the Tully Trail, to the Hut Traverse, to Joe’s Jaunts (and jaunts with Joe), to strength training, I would not have achieved this goal without the help of so many people.


The recounting of the experience is deeply personal, so I cannot speak for either Rob or McDuffie and their experiences.  I can say, that this is the proudest, and probably most difficult, athletic achievement of my life and that I got to share it with two of the most remarkable human beings I know.  I spent the entire journey with Rob, including two long car rides, and witnessed his possession of an unending store of optimism and grace.  He is the sort of person who will bring incredible good into this world, and make people smile while doing it. He stuck with me through a very dark time, and I will be forever grateful at having shared this adventure (and the car ride both ways), with such a remarkable person.  And McDuffie.  Next year’s edition of Meriam-Webster will feature his picture (with flamin’ red, borderline illegal, booty shorts) next to the word perseverance (and coincidentally, that same picture will be used to define pornographic, hot pants, and indecent).  He is unlike any other, and I would not have had the courage to do this if he had not made it happen. I am incredibly lucky to count him as a friend.  


The whole time we were running, I had to hold my fear and doubt at bay, and be singularly focused on making it to Monson.  The night I left to meet Rob, my younger son, Jacoby, had a temperature of 103.6.  I was ready to call the whole thing off, if I’m honest, a bit relieved I wouldn’t actually have to do it.  But Liz, and even Jacoby, pushed me to go.   As Jacoby said, “Dad, it’s just fever.  I’ll be fine.” I love his attitude, but I was scared as I drove to Vermont to meet Rob.  Scared for my son, scared at what I would be doing. My family, without being asked and with me just doing it, sacrifices a lot for me to have the time and focus to work toward these goals.  It consumes a lot of my time, energy and emotion. I don’t know how I can share my gratitude for that.  As I ran, I was terrified that I would get hurt and not be able to get out, that I would ruin their lives along with mine. It was the unsure twilight between going gentle into that good night by shying away from doing the things you’ve dreamed about for fear, or actually doing it, taking the chance, and giving it a run. On this trip, twilight proved the harbinger of a beautiful day.  I look forward to the next adventure.  

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Mercury In Retrograde

Just let me get the races started, then I'm going to tell you a story that will make your (yeti) balls shrink to the size of raisins.

All week in my head I had been paraphrasing Spike from Knotting Hill, rehearsing the telling a self-indulgent tale of woe that would illicit great sympathy and nods of awe from an enthralled audience.  I had promised Alyssa Adreani, co-captain of the Start/Finish aid station at the TARC100, the first telling of the epic, at 6:05 AM on Saturday, October 10, just five minutes after the TARC 100K commenced.  I was eager to share, in part catharsis for the absolute absurdity of the previous five days, in part because Alyssa is (by nature and trade) an incredibly compassionate person, and I knew she'd appreciate the tale, and in part because I simply wanted people to hear how crazy my week had been.  The 100K started.  6:05 passed.  My story did not commence.


- - -

Thirty-six hours before, on Thursday afternoon, I had been in my classroom, hurriedly packing and cleaning, as I would be out the next day to prepare for the TARC100.  Getting home for my son's soccer practice was my last grasp at "normal" before the race-day whir of directing a 100K and 100-miler began.  As I stacked the next-day's papers in place and zippered my bag to exit, Ed McCabe, a great friend and partner from the Boston Rowing Center, entered.  Ed and I can spend hours discussing education, outdoor experiential learning, and life in general. This was the first conversation we've ever had that I've had to cut short, and I explained what, at that point, had been the previous 3 days as an excuse for not having the time to talk.  Ed, in his old, sea-dog sort of way, looked at me with his piercing, ocean eyes, and said, "Look brother: dont' worry.  I don't know what you think about astrology and all that shit, but let me leave you with two words: Retrograde Mercury." He went on to explain the idea, which I will summarize as such: Mercury in retrograde is an astrological phenomenon that makes shit bad.  Everything. Not one to believe in such snake oil for 99.9% of my life, the absolute farce of the previous days left me open to any sort of vaguely-plausible explanation.  Mercury in retrograde. There it was.  The best I could do. "And the best part, my friend?" Ed ended his explanation. "It's all over tomorrow." That was something I could embrace.  Mercury in effing retrograde and it effing ends Friday night before the race.


- - -

Immediately following the yeti howl marking the 100K start, I felt a bit of weight lifted from my shoulders.  As an RD, the bulk of the work was now turned over to the team, and I knew they were incredible (I will never be able to capture exactly how impressed by and grateful for everyone who helped make this race happen I am (I have tried multiple times already). Knowing how incredible most of them were going in, high expectations were shattered. Countless times). So, with runners several hours away, I was truly looking forward to sitting down and recounting the drama of the last week to Alyssa and the assembled audience of the start/finish crew.  I was actually smiling in anticipation.  As I met up with Alyssa, ready to weave the tale, my attention was stolen, "JOSH! We've got one last runner for the 100K!  He showed up late!  Can he still start?" Well, of course! A quick selfie with said runner, and he was off, into the dawning day, chasing those in front of him. And then we had to show the crews who would be trailing the runners all day how to get to the various support points. Story time was further delayed. 

Those very runners and crews are the ones who thoroughly changed the narrative I am telling now.  Leading to race day, the narrative had been defined by chaos.  By a series of events, each more absurd and implausible than the next.  If one of these had happened to me in a decade, it would have been par for the course of my life. To have all of this happen in just a matter of days?  I came to expect bad things to happen.  Yet, as the race clock continued to tick away the minutes and hours, so the day chipped away this narrative of negativity.  As the sun rose, it illuminated a new narrative, one encompassing of the entire human experience: lose and suffering, of those whose imagined race was stolen away, by a bad fall, a turned ankle, or an uncooperative psyche; joy, in the smiles and wry comments from those on course, from those volunteers who could act as goofy and preposterous as we all secretly wish we could but conventional social norms prevent us from being; to passion and grit, on the faces of runners half a day and more into the race; love, emanating from the volunteers to the runners, from the crews to the runners, and from the runners in return; and triumph, as each finisher crossed an arbitrary line, redefining what is known to be possible and impossible.

Every chance I found to tell my previous tale was interrupted.  There were more pressing needs to attend, happier moments to recognize and celebrate, more delicious food to "sample" and serve, other, more important tales to tell and hear.  As night fell on Saturday, a campfire was lit and an intrepid band of souls hunkered down for the hours until the sun would rise again. In my mind, I saw countless generations of humans sharing in this act.  Perhaps our ancestors had not been running 100K or 100-miles, but they had gathered, they had told stories, and they had celebrated the greatness of others before and amongst them. Through the night we stood vigil, waiting for those out on the run, those out on the "hunt" (for what exactly, only they could really know).  When they returned, we cheered, we comforted, we sent them back to the fray, to again await their safe return.  For the first time in the three years of the TARC100 I did not feel a deep fatigue during this night-long ritual.  Fatigue, and the accompanying despair it can often bring, were absent, replaced by a deep sense of gratitude for all those I was sharing this experience with: for each volunteer, sacrificing their time and energy (and sleep!) to help others and doing so with such grace and passion. It was beyond inspiring.  To every runner, who made me appreciate the great focus and determination it takes to raise the bar for yourself. And to the families and friends of each runner, who I know sacrifice much more than we often acknowledge, to allow us to chase these invisible barriers and boundaries, and then are there to make sure it happens.  I've heard that a race is a celebration of everything that came before it.  On this night, I truly learned what this means.  

- - -

In the very earliest hours of Sunday, shortly after the 24-hour mark of the TARC100, I finally had a chance to tell Alyssa the tale that would shrink her yeti balls to the size of raisins.  Even as I told it (and, to be certain, I told it with some relish), in the back of my mind, the story of my "suffering" over the past week, had lost its luster.  What I had seen and experienced over the previous 24-hours, in the 100-mile stare of runners, in the tears shed by competitors and their families, in the celebrations, and the positive energy that flowed around the course, made me want to tell a different narrative.  It made me want to tell this story, the one about how a group of people can take something of significant personal value (running a race) and turn it into a manifesto on humanity.  Turn it into a statement that, despite the pain, the suffering, the negativity that too often pervade our society and world, we are, even in very dark moments, able to move forward to what will be an outcome worth celebrating.  

Perhaps my prose has become hyperbolic or cliched, but, lest my sincerity be doubted, a mere 32-hours before the end of the TARC100, I had gone through what had been, quite possibly, the single most absurd week of my life.  By the end of the race, none of that mattered, and, despite (or, perhaps, because of) having only had two hours of sleep in the previous fifty-six, I was acutely aware of that fact.  I was genuinely happy and grateful for all I had seen transpire.  I was genuinely in awe of every person who had been involved, in every capacity, to make this race happen.  

As I gathered the very last load of gear to return to my house Sunday afternoon, I found myself alone for the first time all weekend.  The beach at the start/finish area had been cleaned and I stood in the dimming sun, staring out across the pond, to the changing foliage reflecting off the water's surface.  My eyes teared up, as I thought about what so many people had just done.  About what so many people had just shared over the previous day and a half.  I had been privileged enough to share a small part of each of those journeys.  All traces of our tragedies and triumphs had been erased, and that I found to be the most beautiful part of all: To the rest of the world, what was done at the TARC100 will be of little immediate consequence.  But for me, and I hope for most that shared in the journey, it will serve as a reminder of the need to strive to do great things.  Not for ourselves, but for those around us.  For those that support us, and for those who will one day need our support to "cross that line," however they define it.  It is in those actions, outside the confines of a race, that we will make such things as the TARC100 of great consequence to rest of the world.

I left the race in time to coach the last half of my son's last soccer game that weekend.  I could barely keep my eyes open, but seeing those kids run and play and giving them high-fives as they came off the field reminded me of all the runners I saw cross that line.  It had just been hours before, but felt worlds away.  And still, it was intimately familiar.  

Driving home from the game, fighting the sleep demons that were now firmly rooted inside my head, I started to laugh (probably a little deliriously): Effing Mercury. In effing retrograde. 

This had been a 100-mile journey that had brought me to an entirely new world.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Bulletproof

There are times in life when we feel bulletproof.  Earlier this spring I ran 32 miles and only took about four sips of water the whole time. I once finished the last eight miles of a double Presidential Traverse with a stick in my quad, which I shook off as a "mere flesh wound" (Monty Python accent and all).  A bit of it remained there for four months. No worries. I was tough.  Rugged. Last night was not one of those glorious moments.

The sense of being rather "soft" had begun days before.  Feeling haggard and off since my abbreviated Long Trail epic ten days before, I had not ventured into the mountains since, despite having chunks of time when I could, both in Vermont and New Hampshire.  I was trying to listen to my body, which, sounding oddly like Toby Keith, was telling me: "I ain't as good as I once was." I started feeling a bit bad for myself - this once finely tuned body, that could run for hours and miles, wrecked by a couple days in the mountains, and not one of them longer than twenty miles.  And so it was I began a short cruise of the neighborhood yesterday evening, my first night home after three weeks in the mountains.  It began beautifully: a perfect temperature, the mid-August light that particular shade of gold, faintly hinting at the end of summer.  And beautiful bird song.

Funny, that bird's singing matches exactly when I breath.

I paid a little closer attention.  I held my breath.  There was no bird song. I exhaled. I inhaled.  I sounded like a bird.  For the first time in my life, I was wheezing.

I like to think that as I grow older (and, clearly, softer), what I'm losing in "macho-runner" cred, I'm gaining in "intelligent person/father/husband" being.  Not enjoying my respiratory system sounding like an aviary, I went to my doctor.  He called me soon after to tell me the chest x-ray showed I have pneumonia and no running for at least two weeks.

I thought only really old people get pneumonia? And, as one of my friends noted, "How'd you manage that?  It's the middle of the summer!"  Yep, I ain't as good as I once was.

Alas, despite the physical shortcomings I feel I'm all too often experiencing now, it's helped me learn that I can't become so attached to those "good" feelings - those times when everything seems to be going right, when, frankly, I feel bulletproof.  The reality is I am never bulletproof, but simply am. It is learning to ride the "good" with the "bad," and, ultimately, just embracing the ride, not judging any condition as "good" or "bad" and simply accepting the reality, that will make a life whole, will make a life complete.  I'd forgotten that a bit as I was returning to running health.  Maybe next time I won't.  And maybe next time I won't end up sounding like a bird.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Now. Here. This.


There it was. That certain, nagging, ineffable, questioning.  That sense of frustration because this wasn’t going the way I had imagined, the way I wanted.  Why am I doing this? This is not running.  This is not what I wanted.  What if I get hurt?



I was less than a mile from the summit of Hunger Mountain, following the Skyline Trail in Waterbury and Stowe, Vermont. For nearly twenty years I have hiked and run this mountain, but only once, years before, had I ventured any distance along the Skyline Trail, following the spine of the Worcester Range.  Then it was only about one hundred yards before the thought “this is a bad idea” popped into my head and turned me around.

On this day, many years after that first, tentative foray beyond the standard up/down on Hunger, I had decided to complete a fairly logical (and aesthetic) loop: summit Hunger from the parking lot (~2 miles, ~2,200 feet of gain), run the Skyline Trail to the Stowe Pinnacle via Hogback Mountain, 3.6 miles from Hunger’s summit, descend the Pinnacle, and run the ~3 miles of dirt roads back to the car.   It seemed like an ideal morning run/adventure, one that I could do and get home quickly enough to take care of my two boys and mother, who just one week before had had a total knee replacement.  Responsibility at home was real, but the mountains beckoned.  I wanted to be a good father, a good son.  But my ego really wanted to feel like a tough mountain runner.

  
If I slip on these rocks or roots . . . I should be moving so much faster than this . . . Why am I doing this?

Progress on the Skyline Trail began to feel maddeningly slow.  While looking down at the trail I could see all the scars on my legs from painful falls on terrain much more benign than this.  One step squished through mud up to my knee, coating my left leg and shoe in thick, wet earth.  Two images kept alternating through my conscious imagination: catching a toe on a rock and smashing my (beautiful) face on the rocks or slipping on a wet rock and fracturing my arm.  I remember thinking, repeatedly, “I’d have a broken wing for the rest of the summer.” The idea of pain and suffering further slowed my progress.  Fear and doubt. Insidious companions for a mountain run.  I looked at nothing except the immediate trail in front of me, obsessively focused on each rock, each root, unconsciously tensing my body against that imminent fall.  I was a mere three miles from my car.  But that last mile had taken me over twenty minutes. And it was mostly flat.  And downhill.  I wondered what it would feel like to be run over by a moose . . . or break an ankle.


I’ve felt it creep into my mind countless times – that sense of anger and frustration with a pace slower than desired.  I was mad at myself for moving so slowly.  I wasn't that picture of self-reliant wonder-runner I wanted to be this morning.  I was disappointed in myself.  Now. Here. This.  Doubt made me question my abilities.  Am I really a “good” runner?  What does that even mean?  Now. Here. This.  Fear made me overly cautious: I walked like Bambi on the ice across rocks and roots at another time I would have floated over.  Now. Here. This. Anxiety made me imagine the logistics involved in a rescue from this area.  It would be hours before anyone could reach me, and it was unlikely anyone else would be using this trail today.  I just wanted to be done.  Why was I doing this?  All I saw was the trail under my feet.  Nothing else.

Now. Here. This.

I came across this mantra courtesy of a good friend and TARCer, Alyssa Adreani.  She had pointed me to a Podcast featuring Father Greg Boyle, and among the many insightful philosophies and ideas he spoke of, these three words have stuck with me.  I could do nothing to quell my fears other than being present on that trail, in that moment, doing what I was doing.  I was scared.  That was the reality.  And that was okay.  I was also moving.  In a place I had never been, despite being minutes from my childhood home.  And that was okay too.  Now. Here. This.


I had never seen the summit of Hunger like this.  It was jaw-droppingly beautiful. Early in the morning, it was deserted.  Usually I spend less than a minute there, but today, it was closer to ten.  I sat, bathing in the beauty.  And weighing the prudence of continuing on my selected route.  

The valleys below were blanketed in a thick fog, which from below had made the day dark and ominous, but from the summit, looked like a comfortable blanket, wrapping the bucolic scenes I knew lay beneath, in a blissful summer repose.  Even as the day’s heat built, there were still clear views across to the Greens and Whites.  I caught my shadow stretching toward Camel’s Hump, the mountain where I grew up, not far away.  I snapped a photo and sent it to my mother, hoping the scene would inspire her for another day of PT and recovery.  Not much more than a year before I was facing a similar road to recovery that she is now on.  Now. Here. This.


As I began to shift my fear of injury into a focus on fluid movement, on paying attention to each step, on being open to the entire experience I was having, it was impossible to miss the wild beauty of the Skyline Trail.  Sinewy single track.  At times an achingly beautiful path, that, given it’s proximity to town, feels remote, wild.  Undulating up and down hills, between short, nearly carpeted stretches and vaguely impassible parts.  That sense of isolation, of remoteness fed the fears, but heightened the adventure.  My ultimate goal was to return safely to my family, but my primary goal was to be present to each sound, scent, and sight.  Now. Here. This.  The wisps of fog, rising from the valleys, creating an ethereal robe through the skeletal trees.  To the greens that displayed before me with an almost unnatural glow and sharpness, glossy from the previous night’s storm and the day’s creeping humidity. 


Now. HEAR. This. Turning left toward the Stowe Pinnacle, there was a different feeling, a different sound, to the trail.  The ridge had been ensconced in the woods, often packed tight on both sides with stout evergreens, but the first steps on the Pinnacle Trail were different.  There hadn’t seemed to be any sound on the ridge beyond my breathing, but here, the bigger trees seemed to swallow the sounds I had clearly been hearing.  The air felt heavier, the light just a shade darker.  It was strange, but palpable.  

"View on top of Stowe Pinnacle at 8:20.  Probably about an hour from now I’ll be back.  Hope the boys are okay."


It’s fascinating that, even while feeling remotely isolated in a wild place, I can text the above message and image to my family, sharing the experience (and, honestly, assuaging some of my fear that my wrecked body would be left, unfound, on the trail).  I was heading home.  The adventure over.  But not without it having left an indelible mark on my spirit and psyche.  All from a mere ten miles, practically in the backyard.  Now. Here. This.