Saturday, March 2, 2019

Kindness (A reflection on 25-hours at the Frozen Yeti)

My eyes stared watering with a mile to go. Control yourself. This is not the time to fall and get hurt.  My throat started to tighten, making breathing even more difficult.  You are so close.  No mistakes.  Embrace this.  Be kind to yourself. With emotions rising I ran the last few steps to my finish line at the first TARCtic Frozen Yeti.

It had been more than five years since I had last put a bib on and run an "official" race (I had run TARC's original race, Don't Run Boston, but if you've ever run that, you know it isn't very "official").  For the last couple of years I had not missed racing, aside from a few brief moments of "that race looks cool" or pangs of jealously when friends (or professional runners) would do well somewhere (A digression: I'm always disappointed when I feel jealous of what my friends accomplish in running.  The closest I've come to understanding these moments is that I wish it were me achieving what they were because then I would be "cool" like them.  At the same time, I do genuinely feel happy for them.  One aspect of my life I'm working to improve is this, in that I want to be able to have that feeling of happiness for another be the default reaction to "running news").  It had taken a long time, and a lot of reflection, but I came to realize running for the rest of my life, and using running as a form of meditation, a means to improve every aspect of my life (not just my fitness/speed), was my aim. Racing no longer felt compatible with these goals.  When focused on racing, I wasn't enjoying running, my connection to the activity (and my sense of self) caught up in various performance metrics and results.  (Under 100 miles this week? You're not fit).   I'd be disappointed if I didn't win a race by a big enough margin or if a recent workout had only been a little faster than the last, or when Strava pinged me to say someone had taken a CR (Another digression: I learned you can shut off notifications from Strava!).  I'd have trouble sleeping before a big workout or race.

The night before the Frozen Yeti I slept very soundly.  After being at Hale, the site of the race, throughout the week to mark the course, Friday evening was spent with my family, thanks to Carolyn, Surjeet, Chris, and Chris, who were taking care of all the last minute preparations.  Early in the week the course had been sabotaged, causing a lot of anxiety.  I wasn't certain if it was about the course itself and runners getting lost and not having a great experience, it happening again, after we had fixed it, or my own doubt and worry about trying to run for 30 hours.  A combination of all is likely.

It was the Wednesday or Thursday before the race, when, in moment I will not soon forget, all the doubt and worry about my personal journey subsided, not to return.  Just before it got dark I ran the course in reverse to double check a sign.  After making sure it was set, I turned on my headlamp, following the course back to Hale's main office.  Doubt in my ability to run for 30 hours, likely bolstered by my immediate worries about other signs I'd hoped to check, had caused a dull ache in my stomach. As I looked down the marked trail, for the first time with my headlamp, the beauty  of the course markers reflecting the light, showing the path up a pine-needle (and snow) covered hill, weaving between thin evergreens, the faint moonlight reflected off the ice and snow, a deep sense of peace and calm replaced all doubt, all fear.  I was not going to be running for 30-hours.  I was simply going to be observing the changing nature of Hale, paying attention to each moment to catch the profound beauty of places I knew so well.  This was not a race.  It was moving through a place I love, a place full of beautiful memories, and watching it.  Peace.  As thoughts of "competing" or doubts of my abilities tried to take hold in my mind, they found no purchase.  I still do not fully understand why seeing this beauty, in a place I'd been hundreds of times before, created such a thorough shift in perspective.  But it did.  And it shaped the experience of the run tremendously.  I was at peace and open to each experience for the run, with rare exception.  Two times during the 25 hours and 100 miles that I observed Hale I became "goal oriented."  They were different goals, but I'm sure the first fed the second.

Most of the daylight Saturday was spent alone.  Taking care of myself.  Eating when there was hunger.  Drinking when there was thirst.  Taking the time to change shoes or socks because feet were wet.  Observing each loop and watching the sun traverse the sky.  If I found myself with others I was happy, but mostly I wanted to be alone, to be with the woods of Hale.  I hugged my friend McDuffie at the the aid station following the first of three "mini-loops", learning he had been injured on the ice of the first few miles, his run cut short.  I shared the second of these "mini-loops" with Dylan, struck by the ease we moved on trails we have run many, many times, Dylan just weeks removed from his first 50-mile race, unconcerned with what lay before us.  I had not seen my other friend Will, who with McDuffie, I had spent many hours and miles training with, often at Hale, since the first mile or so.  As the sun went down the goal to "catch" Will materialize, buoyed by the promise of camaraderie. Heading out onto the middle of the three mini-loops, turning into the woods, headlamp reflecting on the snow, I found him.

Will and I hiked and ran together through the dark hours, made more peaceful, more fulfilling for the company. I wasn't wearing a watch and my phone was off, so I don't know how long this lasted.  We talked on a range of topics, but one has stuck with me, even weeks later. The one that, if I were to summarize my entire experience in a single word, would provide the answer: kindness.

Seven years, to the day, prior to the Frozen Yeti I had run every step of my first 100-miler (save about 50 feet on a very muddy hill around mile 99).  As I trained for this, and subsequent, races I would chide myself if I ever walked or hiked. This is disappointing. Yet, as Will and I walked for long stretches through the quiet, dark woods, there was peace. My goal was not competitive, but personal.  The experience of being with this person in this place, was the experience I was having. The conversation, the companionship, the sense of peace and joy, is something I will remember far beyond memories of pace or performance, something that has colored the memories of this run in deeper and more vibrant hues than most.  As we discussed kindness we came to realize it meant, in no small part, being kind to one's self, not judging or quantifying what was happening at the moment, instead accepting what one doing as neither good or bad, but simply as what one was doing.  I continue to have difficulty articulating what I learned that night, but I felt, and continue to feel, the lessons deeply and it provides a place to which I strive to bring my daily life.  To be open and accepting of what is, not what I hope is or could be.

As Will and I spent these hours and miles together two runners from Quebec, friends of each other, both named Sylvain, passed.  When Will and I finally parted ways, probably two hours before sunrise, my mind had shifted again, ready to be alone to experience the last hours of darkness.  An urge to compete, something my friend Eric Ahern had wondered would happen, had also emerged.  I wanted to catch the runners ahead of me, and after a night spent walking and running, my body relished moving swiftly through the woods.

Since that first 100-miler seven years before I've imagined feeling strong at the end of a 100-miler.  It has never happened and I'd resigned myself that this was the reality of the distance, even if the top runners didn't seem to feel that way.  By 80 miles I always felt beaten, physically and mentally.  On this day though, my body, and mind, felt fresh.  For months Will and I had been discussing a passage from the Tao Te Ching:

Grasp for it, and it cannot be caught.

When I fancied myself a competitive runner I would "grasp" for that mythical, perfect race or performance.  Some I judged better than others, but, save the one time I finished behind Sam Jurek at Stone Cat 50, in all I knew I could (or should) improve, could (or should) have been better in some way.  This run was I different.  Even with the desire to compete, to be in a place, a place I happen to love, remained my true ambition.  There was no grasping to achieve any particular thing, but an openness to what was.  Heading out alone, what "was" was to run, to "hunt" the Quebecois.  I did not judge this as "bad," as a return to my "old self," but accepted it as what was the reality of the moment.  Movement felt easy.  My mind did not feel shackled by hours and miles of effort.  My body and spirit felt fresh.  I ran.  I ran with joy.  I ran with awareness of each moment.  It felt incredible.  I reminded myself, This too shall pass, understanding this feeling of freshness, of strength, of "good," could, and likely would, at some point, give way to fatigue and struggle.  I was open to this reality, prepared to meet that, and to continue, without judgement.  How my body felt, running those last 20 miles was not "good," but just was.

The decision to participate in the Frozen Yeti came one evening, a few weeks before the Winter Solstice, as I washed the dishes at my kitchen sink, looking out at the last whisper of light in the evening sky.  I still have "ambition" and ego in my running life, most notably a desire to run the Long Trail in Vermont this summer.  As I rinsed the frying pan, I realized this race was an opportunity to practice what I hope to achieve running that trail, a chance to practice being present.  A chance to practice running as meditation.  In that moment I became committed to the 30-hour run.

Starting this reflection, I looked back in my journal.  I have not done well at maintaining it and my last entry had been two months prior, not long after I'd committed to run Frozen Yeti.  It included this passage, written after running 60+ miles, in two, 30+ mile runs, over a 20-hour period.  The first run had been with Will and McDuffie, the second with Dylan and Annie, nearly all people I would share the experience at the Frozen Yeti with.  I wrote this before dawn, shortly after waking up:

. . . My right knee feels like the plica is irritated.  My old worries/fears about "losing" running have returned . . . However, even writing this it seems silly to be worried.  I know this will get better ---> maybe not for another overnight run [this] Friday, but that is okay.  Maybe not for the Frozen Yeti, but I would still be there.  It is an overuse injury, so I must not over use it for a while."

Ultimately, fear of "losing" something is what lead me out of racing.  I had begun to see myself as someone who "won" races and I feared losing that sense of self.  Competing obviously still must mean something to me (I was chasing the Sylvains after all!), but it no longer defines my relationship with running, and therefore myself.  Running has brought incredible moments and people into my life.  I will likely not compete much (if any) in the future so as not to sacrifice these two things.  For some, competition may be a center piece for building relationships and shaping experiences.  I have learned it is not for me.  I do not see a clear why to compete anymore, but understand why I want running to be a means of bringing presence and awareness into all parts of my life.  These may not be mutually exclusive, but for now my path appears to lay with the latter.

The last mile of the Frozen Yeti began with me seeing Dylan, Eric, Sydney and the rest of Team Hale at the Trading Post, a site that had been my classroom the previous year, a year that had been shared with the people there now.  I left with a sense of lightness, running up the steep hill behind the building, an incredible sense of gratitude, like I've never felt before, growing inside.  A profound sense of love and appreciation for Dylan, who I'd run up this hill with so many times before.  For Will, who helped me be kind to myself overnight and now as the day passed.  My eyes were watering with emotion by the time I got to Blueberry Cabin at the top.  My throat, already hoarse from effort and lack of sleep, grew tighter as the emotion swelled.  Control yourself.  This is not the time to fall and get hurt. I ran this last mile in awe of my body, which, for the first time, seemed to grow stronger, more confident over these last 20 miles.  Grasp for it, and it cannot be caught. As I took the right-hand turn onto the last stretch of trail, an incredible sense of gratitude for Liz, the person I have shared my life with for nearly 22 years, like I've never felt before, for simply being her, for supporting the journey running has taken me on, overtook every part of me.  The feeling grew, to include my sons, my whole family, including those we've lost in the last two years, then Carolyn and Surjeet, who had organized the race and supported my decision to run it.  The last quarter mile filled me with a deep love and appreciation for the entire TARC community.  It remains difficult to describe these emotions because they were just there, without direct thought, but clearly present and conscious, forming my experience of these last moments.  In the weeks since, I have returned to this last mile and these deep emotions often.  While there were still nearly five hours left to run for the race, it was clear to me as I made it back to the Lodge, that I was done.  I had come into the Frozen Yeti to be present.  To be open, without judgement, to what I would find.  25 hours and 100 miles in, I found this sense of gratitude and love, for myself and those around me.  I chose to stop here because my body was tired.  I chose to stop here because my spirit was content.  I had finished and was ready to step back.

Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill
Keep sharpening your knife
and it will blunt
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench
Care about people's approval
and you will be their prisoner

Do your work, then step back
The only path to serenity.

- Tao Te Ching, Chapter 9

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