The Age Old Question
“When do you leave for Texas?” Christy the trainer asked me as we were racking weight plates at the gym after class. “Do you even get stressed out or nervous for your races?”
“No,” I laughed, “I love it so much that it doesn’t really phase me anymore.”
I was a month out from Running the Rose 108k and I felt strong and well-trained. I had been diligent about my long runs and dedicated to cross-training.
Then January happened. I did not run. I did not want to run. Minnesota winters can be brutal, and this year (now four months later) it is still a season of polar vortexes, blizzards, and darkness. I unexpectedly started battling old skeletons I thought I had buried. We all have them: insecurities, habits, cycles we think we’ve escaped from that occasionally come knocking at the door again months and years later. Then I caught influenza.
I isolated myself from everyone and everything, overwhelmed and filled with self-contempt. I read a book once that claimed there are two types of contempt: self-centered and other-centered. Others-centered contempt denigrates others, self-contempt swallows shame whole. I could not sleep.
I DNF’d a snowy trail marathon, quit the following week’s long run and walked four miles back to my car alone and defeated, and slunk out of the gym a week later after struggling to get to mile two on the treadmill. The joy of running was a vague memory, like a dream with overwhelming emotions that you cannot quite remember. I boarded the flight to Dallas feeling exhausted and weak.
People often say, “Ultras are more mental than physical,” but between you and me, I’ve never believed it. It just doesn’t compute in my brain that your body can undergo that much stress without being conditioned. Then again, I did not feel like racing because my head was not in the right place.
I reluctantly set out my race gear in the hotel room and told my husband I was probably not going to finish the race the next day. “Once you get out there you’ll remember it,” he encouraged me, “This is your thing. Consider January a really long taper.” I did not reply. I stared at my bib number on the desk; my heart felt bolted to the floor. It was probably a psychosomatic response, but even my legs ached.
Early the next morning, Brent left to warm up the van and I dressed for the race. I stood in front of the mirror. I did not know how hiding on a couch for nearly a month would effect my running, but I was as ready as I could be. I steeled my mind and a smile flickered at the woman in the mirror.
There is a saying starve the ego, feed the soul. I remembered, embarrassedly, my confident claims at the gym. I was nervous to race. With one last glance back, I heard the hotel door click shut behind me.
While not as exciting nor adventurous as point-to-point courses, loop courses are easy to manipulate and logistically ideal. I had six loops to complete, eleven miles each. I love loops. I run the first half to warm up and find my steady place, then I start knocking them down. An ultra never begins until the second half for me.
I lined up in the front pack. I did not feel prepared, but I was going to run hard. I wanted to trample the skeletons into dust. I wanted to run until I could think clearly again. Then I wanted to run until I couldn’t think at all. I followed the lead female out of the gate and stayed behind her. I made the mistake only once of front-running immediately, and I learned the hard way that I don’t enjoy the pressure of leading an entire race.
Note the only Minnesotan: bare legs.
She was the prey, I was the predator. I stayed just far enough back to be in her rearview, but I kept her in sight and pushed her pace. I was going to run her down. I was not running my race, not yet. I wasn’t ready.
This game grew immediately lonely and boring. Within a mile or two I caught up to Shelly from Louisiana and we became friends instantly. I stopped and helped her with her pack, we arrived at, ate, and left the aid stations as partners. We shared footsteps and life for a few hours. Eventually she was ready to take an extended walk break to eat, and since I eat while I run, we agreed that I’d continue on and she’d catch up shortly.
As soon as I was alone on the trail, I felt sanctified by the woods. I was feeding my soul. As I continued running, I was able to release more and more of the internal barricade I had constructed. I was able to loosen my hold on the anger that I directed toward myself little by little, mile by mile. I began to run with more spirit, and I was running well. The cage door creaked open.
The course weaves around in such a way that you often see people and cross paths going opposite directions. I was forty miles in. I saw a girl walking and I stopped to ask if she was ok. She was stiff, pale, and had blotchy bags under her eyes. Salt crusted around her hairline and she stared ahead, eyes milky and glazed over. “I’m ok,” she sighed, “I just like racing so much more than I like training so I didn’t do any long runs for this.”
I ran away dumbfounded. I thought training was most of the fun of ultras. I’ve witnessed countless spectacular sunrises and sunsets, formed irreplaceable running friendships, reveled in the agony of sore quads trying to stand up from my office chair, cherished the secret superpower I feel after a long run. Secondly, what enjoyment? She declared that she loves racing, but she was clearly suffering.
So, are ultras mental or physical?
Every loop I knocked down bolstered my resolve. It briefly rained, and I ran harder. I had not run in a month, but I was leading the race – for females – strategically. I remembered my emotions only one day prior: feelings of inadequacy and doubt. The self-contempt that had driven me to seclusion.
I fell on the only rocky section of the entire trail (twice) and landed on the same knee. It stung, but I laughed at my clumsiness. I looked down and saw blood trickling. I knew it was just a scrape and continued on. Ultras are a great proving grounds, and a great opportunity, to practice observing a moment and letting it go, like a leaf in a stream.
There is no absolute answer: ultras are neither 100% physical, nor 100% mental. This race reminded me, however, that I grossly underestimated the emotional and spiritual resilience you must demonstrate to over come physical and environmental odds when life gets tough. It also reminded me that it is possible.
Brene Brown is one of my favorite inspirational authors, and a quote of hers rang in my head that day:
Part of toeing a start line is owning the race from the start, even if you know you’ll be dead last. There is no happiness standing outside of yourself, filled with contempt, and striving to be enough. There is no joy in running hard without a strong mentality.
There is also no fulfillment in avoiding the training and shortcutting the strengthening process. It is only through practice and exercise that we excel at anything: mindfulness, our work, art, performance. Anything we seek to achieve requires discipline. The more legwork we put in, the stronger and better we become.
It’s simple. But I had forgotten. I had focused too closely on the mileage on my calendar, and forgotten to trust the fortitude of running.
A final thought:
Fortitude: courage in pain or adversity.