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


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 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.