Life Lessons – The San Juan Solstice

Dawn at the top of the first climb up Alpine Gulch.

“…All of life is practice in one form or another.” – Thomas M. Sterner, The Practicing Mind

“What is the difference then between work activities and recreational activities?…the only difference between the two activities is that we have pre-judged them. We make it into work or play by our judgments.” – Thomas M. Sterner, The Practicing Mind

To say that “such and such is a great metaphor for life,” might be one of the most overused cliches when trying to justify the reasons for doing silly things like running 50 miles through the mountains. Never-the-less, it was the parallels between my current situation and my life in general that I contemplated in the pre-dawn murk as I ran along the Engineer Pass road just outside of Lake City in the first couple miles of the San Juan Solstice 50 mile race. My contact lenses would not sit right on my eyeballs, causing my vision to be blurry. Since the 4 a.m. wake-up call I had been fiddling with them, trying to get them to perform the duty they were designed for–correcting my vision without glasses. In frustration I switched to a brand new pair while still in the hotel room and vainly tried over and over again to spin them around on my eye so that the special areas that corrected my astigmatisms would sit in the right place. But the race began without a solution–or clear vision–and a couple miles down the road I was still fidgeting with them, running along the road with my fingers in my eyes. But no luck.

I tried to do the best I could to relax into the situation and not grow frustrated. I realized that perhaps this vision problem was going to be the challenge of the day, the unexpected occurrence which I would have to adapt to and overcome. The experiences of my last race at Transvulcania finally taught me that ultra-running is more about adapting to what you cannot foresee than it is about achieving a fleeting moment of perfection. A good plan and having goals in place for the day are important targets for which to aim, but in the end the brilliance of this game is that you cannot know what may happen until you have stared down the winding trail and felt the curveball being thrown your way. Rather than let a lack of perfection bother me, I now chose to revel in the uncertainty.

Saw this on the wall of a stone hut in Nepal. Seems appropriate!

So as I fought off the frustration in the early morning and accepted that my vision might not be perfect for a little while, I understood that choosing my attitude to the problem was going to be the key to overcoming this challenge. Just like in real life. And yet in real life I remind myself of this little fact all the time, but somehow struggle to match my attitude to my desires. Yet here I was in this invented and self-inflicted challenge which has no tangible purpose, and had no choice but to choose my attitude for my own benefit, or else just accept defeat, which I wasn’t going to do. It struck me in that moment how bizarre it was that I need these ludicrous challenges to teach me these lessons in an experiential manner. So it seems that ultra-running does serve a specific purpose after all, beyond just being a metaphor for life. I resolved to try harder to apply what I learn while running to my everyday problems.

Soon we left the road and wandered up a steep and narrow gorge with a raging cascade–Alpine Creek–tumbling down the middle. With little room between the creek and the steep rock walls on either side, we were forced to ford the icy waters seven times, back and forth, as we made our way higher up the gulch. All of these episodes were tricky with the recent snowmelt up to our waists. I heard numerous stories later in the day of people who lost their footing and took a full bath. By the last crossing my feet and legs were so numb that I couldn’t feel them as I stumbled on up the trail, which was a weird feeling of disconnection.

The top of Alpine Gulch.

My plan for the day was to ignore the other runners, instead focusing exclusively on my own efforts, choosing a pace from the beginning that would be sustainable all the way to the end. Usually I get caught up in the race right from the start and spend too much energy too early, leaving me exhausted way before the finish line, and having to endure lots of pain and walking and frustration knowing that I had blown the pacing. Today I wanted to have discipline and patience, run along in a conservative mindset, and then if there was still any life in my legs and any reason to push it, I would race after mile 40. So I took it easy all the way up the first climb, moving along amongst a large pack of about 15 runners, and generally feeling fresh and happy. And blind.

My contacts still refused to cooperate. At the first aid station I took some time to change them once again, putting in a backup pair I had with me for emergencies. No luck, they stayed blurry. A couple weeks ago I accidentally ran over my glasses and had to get a new pair. In the process I got a new prescription, but had decided not to get new contacts as well, because they are expensive and I was well stocked. High on the alpine ridge I came to the conclusion that a few weeks using the new prescription had probably caused my eyes to change enough that my old contacts were no longer adequate. If only I had my glasses with me! But I didn’t. I debated taking my contacts out, wondering if my vision would be better with them in or out, but decided it was too risky to throw them out. So I carried on, resigned that this would indeed be an all day challenge–blurry running. I could see well enough to not trip on rocks, and to stay on the trail. I could tell that I was in an aspen forest, or on a mountain ridgeline, but unfortunately on one of the most beautiful 50 mile courses in this land, I lost all the detail and couldn’t really relish the views.

At the top of that first climb, as the sun rose behind a merciful cloud layer which kept the temperatures low all day, perfect for running, we ran along a rocky ridge with no trail above 13,000 feet. Running my own pace I slowly worked my way past the rest of the runners and by the time we were heading downhill I was alone in the front of the group, with nobody visible ahead of me. By the bottom of that huge descent I thought that perhaps I was in first place, but the nice folks at the aid station told me that nope, I was in 4th, and was already 15 minutes behind the lead pack!

unrelated image of snow and clouds from Engineer Pass on the drive home.

I resolved to stick to my plan and not try to catch up to those guys. I would run at what I thought was the right pace for me, and if I managed to catch any of them, great. But if not, then fine too, I just didn’t want to blow up before the end. So for the next 30 miles or so I ran on alone, nobody visible in front of me, nobody visible behind me. I ran for about 15 miles along the continental divide, way above tree-line, across country, through mud, over snow-fields, down crazy rocky talus slopes, over mountains, around mountains, and eventually down through aspen forests. Every time I would reach one of the widely spaced out aid stations and ask how far ahead the next guy was, they would tell me ten minutes every time. So for about six hours I remained ten minutes behind third place.

playing around on the way home, Wetterhorn and Uncompaghre peaks in the background.

By mile 40 I was sort of wishing the race was over. I was still ten minutes behind, with no sight of anyone behind me giving close chase. I didn’t let my pace down, knowing that the faster I went the sooner I would be done, but had resigned myself that I probably would not be catching third place. I settled into a contented and dreamy mindset. But then at the top of a long climb I turned around while stretching out a quad muscle which was threatening to cramp and saw (how?) a fellow about a minute behind me, just on the other side of the meadow. I was in shock, and had to reason with myself about whether I wanted to push hard enough to not get caught. But the point is to address the challenges, and the challenge now was to push hard until the end. So I decided to pick it up, put all the effort I had into the last seven miles to the finish, and if the guy was moving faster than me and passed me, then that’s the way it was going to be. The last hour was a charge, full-on as fast as I could go, and it felt good to finish that way. As I bombed downhill I kept imagining that I could hear footsteps behind me, but there was nobody there when I turned around. On the road through Lake City in the last mile to the finish I kept turning around to see where he was, hoping I wouldn’t have to sprint to the finish, but luckily there was still nobody there. In the end I was relieved to finish in the same place I had run for the last 40 miles of the race–4th–about 14 minutes behind third and only three minutes ahead of my ghostly pursuer. As it turns out the young fellow had not seen me ahead of him when I turned around, and so didn’t know he was so close and could have chased me down.

Upon crossing the finish line, I immediately removed my contacts and threw them away onto the ground. Turns out my vision was much clearer without them even in at all! And so it goes! I was very pleased with my result, to have accomplished all of my goals for the day and to have had a fun time with a smile on my face throughout. My 9:31 finishing time was a personal record for this distance, on the hardest 50 mile course I have yet run. Mostly I was just happy to have succeeded in choosing the right attitude in the face of an unpleasant challenge, and achieving everything I set out to accomplish despite having it be harder than I expected. So until the next contrived learning adventure, back to regular life – the longest ultra-marathon of them all!

One Love!

testing new shoes in the snow of the san juans. ONE LOVE!