“Go toward your fears.” – Dean Potter
“The essence of warriorship, or the essence of human bravery, is refusing to give up on anyone or anything.” – Chogyam Trungpa, Shambhala
After twenty miles of technical, rocky trail running at the Jemez Mountain 50 mile race in Los Alamos, New Mexico, this past Memorial Day weekend, I realized that this race was probably not going to end the way that I wanted it to. Although at that time I still felt relatively good, I was obviously slowing down. This fact wasn’t observed by marking split times on my watch, but instead by the steady stream of runners passing me one-by-one and slowly pulling away into the distance. For the first four hours I had run fast and strong near the front of the pack, but with my position continually declining and over 30 miles of running left to go, I could see that this race had all the makings of a classic death-march.
A “Death-March” in an ultra-running race is the very unpleasant effect of having not correctly paced yourself for the distance you are trying to cover, and thus reaching a point of physical degeneration that is exquisitely painful and can seem to persist just about forever. It is a condition from which there is no recovery, until you choose to quit moving and sit down, that is. Running long distances inevitably causes muscular damage, and running faster causes the damage to happen sooner. Muscles break down and begin to tighten up. Tight muscles cause limited mobility, ruining proper running form. A heap of accumulated miles induces pain – in the joints, in the connective tissue, and in the muscles themselves if they start to cramp. Add the pain and the limited mobility together and you get an ever-decreasing running speed, until running stops being an option and you are simply walking. But even at a walk the pain doesn’t leave, it persists as strongly as ever, and the amount of time you must endure to the finish only increases as your pace gets slower and slower. Staring down a trail that is twenty miles long, that will take a seeming eternity to finish, with jolts of pain at every step and smarter runners jogging past making you look silly… This is the Death-March.
The Holy Grail of ultra-running, at least for me at this moment in time, is treading the perfect tight-rope between finishing a race in the best possible time and not going too fast and thus ending up in a death-march. Toe this line perfectly for a whole day of running and the resulting accomplishment is so addictive that you may forever be in search of that feeling once again. Err a little bit on the slow side and you will surely finish with a smile on your face, possibly in less pain and with more energy than usual, but likely with a slightly empty feeling of knowing that you could have done better, that you didn’t push quite hard enough. But push a little too fast in your aim for that perfect day and the inevitable result is a “blow-up.” Choosing to push on through the blow-up usually leads to the death-march.
The most difficult part about running the perfect ultra race is that you don’t typically know that you’ve screwed up until it’s too late. A 50-mile pace for the average runner is so much slower than you are capable of running that it’s really hard to know whether you are going “slow enough.” You can endlessly repeat the mantra “go easy, it’s a long race” in your head all morning long as your highly trained and super-rested body easily floats through the early miles, but if at mile 20 or 30 or even 40 your body begins its over-the-line downward spiral, only then do you realize that those early miles were not run easy enough and that you are in trouble. It is no wonder that the elite ultra runners typically also have many DNF’s on their record. Forced to maintain the early pace to have any shot at a victory, inevitably many hit the wall along the way and then must choose between dropping and saving their energy and body (and dignity?), or succumbing to the mental trials of the death-march.
Unfortunately I once tasted that sweet (or cursed?) nectar of the perfectly run ultra race, which probably plays a large role in the Jemez Mountain 50 mile being my third consecutive death-march ultra experience. Despite the unpleasant feeling, I was determined to ride it out and finish, mostly because I dropped from the last race where I had to march. At the IMTUF 100 last fall I started the march at mile 67 and persisted in it for seven hours and 20 miles before I threw in the towel anyway and regrettably DNF’d my first attempt at 100 miles. At bare minimum I needed to get back onto a finishing streak.
But as I hobbled along, trying my very best to jog on the 10-mile long downhill which finishes the race, but often needing to walk anyway, I couldn’t help but contemplate how much fun I was NOT having. I really love trail running and I’m not kidding when I say that every time I go running I enjoy myself. Except for during death-marches, like I was experiencing right then, so I couldn’t help but ask myself many times, “Why am I doing this? Why do I keep doing this? Shouldn’t I learn from this and not do these ultras anymore? If this is the only time I don’t enjoy running then why am I drawn to it?” These are the mental trials of the death-march.
The best reason that I could come up with was that there must be some sort of transcendence hidden in these experiences somewhere. I don’t know what the secret is, or how I will eventually get there, but I am confident that I have not finished the process for me that is ultra-running, and that persistence will indeed lead to reward. Just like the only way to finish an ultra is to not give up, the only way to eventually transcend ultra-running in general is to not quit doing it right now. Eventually the process will have completed itself. Eventually I will have learned what I need to. And if I was a betting man, I would bet that there will be more pain along the way.
Contemplating the pain and what it has to teach me, all while experiencing that pain, reminded me of the recent words I read by Dean Potter, recently deceased in a BASE jumping accident. I have always found Dean to be inspiring beyond belief, and his personal creed was “go towards your fears.” He apparently had a recurring dream as a child where he was falling to his death, and it made him very afraid of falling. But instead of shying away from the experience of falling, he embraced it to become the world’s greatest free-soloist rock climber and BASE jumper. Transcendence for Dean was a matter of directly facing his fear.
Now, I wouldn’t say that I am afraid of the pain that comes from ultra-running, or pain in general, but like most of us I will admit to having a strong aversion to it. Maybe that is the definition of fear. And even though I can’t understand why, I simultaneously seem to have a very strong attraction to it. I’m not sure I will ever answer the why to all of this, but I can take the inspiration given to me by Dean and face this aversion until I have overcome it. I don’t know exactly what it will take, but it very well might take simply reveling in the death-march instead of hating it. I have to admit I didn’t get anywhere close to that point during the Jemez Mountain 50. But, I’m willing to bet that I will have another chance.
And sometimes transcendence is simply finishing what you start. After crossing the finish line and sitting down, it’s amazing how quickly all the unpleasantness you were just experiencing melts away. The folks in Los Alamos served up the tastiest post-race food I have ever eaten, and the all day party atmosphere was an absolute blast. It was great to have so many friends to cheer for, and awesome to see the whole Silverton crew – Cody, Anthony, and Ivy – cross the finish line. Of course, before we departed there was already talk of the next races, and so the process continues…