100 milers are like a vacuum-packed ziplock. Once the gun goes off you enter the bubble. Empty gas tanks, unanswered emails, dirty laundry, and the electric bill…they begin to fade in the protected confines of the race. The noise grows quiet and your to-do list becomes succinct. Food, feet, what hurts, big hill, chafe, check the watch, next aid station. A rolodex of tasks propelling you toward the finish. And then, after enough hours, when you are deep in the rhythm, you realize that all the little jobs have gelled together into one simple purpose: move forward.
And there we find it…the peace we crave so deeply. The monkey mind is gone, the clutter is washed away, our path is clear. Rarely do we realize it in the moment, but later we find ourselves desperately wanting to re-create that feeling. Intention, clarity, purpose – and vivid ALIVENESS. I believe what creates the adrenaline fueled finish of a 100miler is the simple, intense rush of actually feeling alive.
But first we have to enter the ziplock and seal the world tightly away. As I stood on the wooden bridge that forms the start line of the Fat Dog 120 I wondered how the next two days would unfold for me. With my current crazed life I hadn’t managed to arrange a crew or pacer and frankly even the race had turned into just another item to ‘get done’ on my list, but now I was finally here and trying to tap into the ‘don’t-take-life-too-seriously’ Canadian crowd that made up most of the racers. A faint smell of pot enhanced the easy vibe. However I wasn’t entirely fooled by the mellow mood. Plenty of neon compression gear, last minute fidgeting with packs, and a few nervous jokes reminded me that we were getting ready to start a long jaunt, in fact the longest I’d ever run – 120miles. How would it go?
That question, I think, is the less philosophical, more sex appeal side of a 100miler. The great unknown that drives our excitement. Will I get to home base? That’s the biggie, but we also wonder about performance. Will my stomach hold? My feet? My quads? Will I make the cut-offs? P.R.? It’s an unwritten script that we have waited for months to improv on. It’s prolonged foreplay to the finish line.
So I stood there, preparing to disappear into the forest-space-time-continuum, giving last hugs to my mom, my aunt, and saving a few extra big ones for my son, Colin. With our arms wrapped around each other I suddenly felt him growing sad and bent down to look in his eyes.
“What’s the matter kiddo?”
His little face contorted, looking up, around, away, anywhere, before he gave in and looked directly at me.
“It’s just that you’re always leaving me. And now you are leaving again.” His eyes quickly dropped to the ground and my stomach followed. “This is the like the 12th time. You and Dad are always leaving me.”
How hard it is to re-type that moment. How hard it is to admit to the world that my son felt that way.
I try to do it all – don’t we all? To run the distance, to be the mom my son needs, to grow the business, to pay the bills. Most of the time I somehow manage to manage it. But Colin unearthed a prickly sliver that had been nagging at me. This summer I’ve been scattered; over-worked, over-played, over-committed, and I’ve neglected to carve out that deep mothering time that Colin and I crave. I didn’t want to admit it.
“Buddy, I never leave you. Dad never leaves you. You are always with one of us! Yes, sometimes I go away for just a little bit, but I am always here. I never leave you.”
It sounded like bullshit even to my ears. Yes, it was all technically true. But sometimes the truth is crap. I was, in fact, leaving him with Grandma again to go run around the woods for two days. And my flexible, independent, resilient kid was letting me know that I’d pushed it too far. Time to hang up the adventure cape and simply be Mom for a bit.
We looked at each other, closely, intently, and I promised him that I just had to go on one more long walk, about 42 hours, maybe sooner, and then I’d be done. Just one more long walk. He nodded OK and we held onto each other for as long as I could before the gun went off. And then it was time for me to leave, again.
And so I tried to enter the beautiful bubble of the race…to find serenity in the climbs, grace in the night, but Colin’s voice followed me. “You’re always leaving me.” Those soft little words prevented my ziplock from properly sealing.
I crossed rivers, ran through fields of heather, met new friends, and graciously accepted handmade food made from far flung aid stations….but it all felt like a game, a silly diversion. It reminded me of running in Nepal this spring where the villagers would constantly gawk and ask, “Why are you running?” I would laugh and reply, “For fun!” An answer that was accurate for both of us. For them, running was indeed a fun game for kids, a play time luxury. After all, grown-ups had wood to collect, Dahl Bat to cook, tea to drink. Now I saw it through their eyes. These races are a lovely escape, a Western way of finding higher ground – like a painful, time consuming, spa retreat. But this time, the game didn’t hold my attention. I wanted something only available in the real world…the living, breathing 7 year old at the finish line.
Early morning after the first night I neared the Cascade aid station, around mile 70, which was to be my one and only chance to see my family. My tired brain tried to compute when I had told my Mom to be there. I knew I was arriving early or late, but couldn’t remember which. Still, I was sure they would be there. I looked forward to sitting down and taking a solid 20minute rest break with Colin. Up down up down up down for the 5 miles of hills before I finally saw the aid station sign. I ran down the driveway with renewed energy scanning the parking lot for their red car or Colin’s smiling face. Nada. Scanning, scanning, still nothing. I entered the main hub and my friend Stacey, there to crew her boyfriend, came forward hooting and hollering for my arrival. She saw my heavy face and quickly went quiet. I realized, coldly, that my family wasn’t going to be there. We had gotten the timing off and I would miss them. I sat down in the camp chair, put my head in my hands, and started crying. She tried to hug me, but I pushed her back. “Do you want me to leave?” she asked. I shook my head no. So she sat there, close, but not actually touching me, not saying anything, just letting me cry.
And then after about 2 minutes, I shook it off and got back to work. Tend blisters, pack more calories, quick hug, go. The task was still in front of me and nothing was to be gained by sitting in a camp chair on the side of a road in rural Canada.
My feet felt like pin-stuck voodoo dolls as I hobbled off into the woods. I waited for them to go numb again and considered the 50miles in front of me. A disconcertingly large number when you’ve already run 70, but I was resigned. It was then I realized that not only was my meditative state eluding me on this race, but my great sexy question had died as well. Would I finish? Of course. Was there ever really a doubt? It was a foregone conclusion that I acted coy about to provide a narrative arc to my own story. If my feet were hamburger, if my stomach went south – none of it mattered. Even the mileage was just another toy for my brain to tinker with. 20 miles, 200 more miles – it didn’t really matter. One foot in front of another, until it is done.
10 miles of cushy forest single track, 20 miles of mosquito infested bog, and finally the last 20 miles of relentless climbing. I smiled, chatted, ran, hiked, but never invested myself. I was simply an observer, watching a race of people around me, each with their own sagas. Emotional highs and lows, surges of adrenaline, stories in the making. I moved among them, but never truly with them.
Finally, I turned off the main track onto the final 2 miles leading to the finish line. I would be coming in exactly when I had predicted, around 42 hours. I knew there was little-to-no chance that my mom and Colin would be there as it was 4am, but still I picked up the pace just in case. They called out my name as I crossed the line and one of the volunteers came over with a message. “Your mom and son just left”, he said. “They waited forever, but finally went back to the hotel to get some sleep. They’ll be back in the morning.” I stared at him blankly, pretending to understand. I had missed them by just 45 minutes. It was the most empty, neutral, underwhelming race finish I could have ever imagined, devoid of any excitement after all the pain I had just gone through. What exactly was the point?
Cold and stiffness crept into my body quickly and I found a spot to lay down by a space heater and sleep on the grass. Hours passed and the last finishers came in as well as the speedier front runners returning back to the park, looking showered and fresh. Still I waited, in my hardened, salt crusted and dirt caked clothes, with broken glass for feet. For me, the race clock had not yet stopped. I laughed and listened to stories, but looked constantly over at the parking lot for the arrival of the red car.
When the awards ceremony started, I placed myself on the outskirts of the gathering, much like I had for the entire race, and gave up all attempt of pretending to care. I stared at that parking lot with focus until I finally willed them to arrive. Using my trekking poles to stand up, I waited, still, for Colin to come to me. My boy, so like me, wanting to run with abandon, but also feeling sad and shy, locked eyes with me and walked solemnly over. Finally giving into joy he ran and threw his arms around my waist, burrowing his head into the soft fleshy part of my belly. That tender spot where mamas carry their babies for nine sweet months before life and co-parenting schedules, to-do lists and races start pulling us apart. We stood, pretzeled together, each getting our fill. My race timer finally stopped.
They say we learn something about ourselves in every race. It may be a self-indulgent hobby, but it’s also a microcosm of real life, wrapped up with a tidy start and finish, providing sitcom like take-a-ways. We pretend the question is one dimensional like ‘how fast can I go’ or ‘can I finish’, but deep down we know we know the real conversation is ‘how will I respond to the pressure’, ‘how much pain can I tolerate’ and ultimately ‘what am I really made of’. What we want to know is, when everything else is stripped away, when we are raw and humbled, what kind of person is left standing there? We hope desperately that the answers will be kind. Each time we enter the race-vortex a different outcome presents itself and we gain yet another glimpse into our hidden insides.
I didn’t think I learned anything at Fat Dog 120. I never floated above my worldly concerns or had a single moment of Zen. It was simply a race.
But of course I did. Painfully I reminded myself that everything, everything else is glitter and frill, which quickly becomes cheap and unnecessary when I haven’t first tended to what is truly important. I learned that I am the kind of woman that will walk, quietly, determined for as long as I need to get back to my little boy and hold him tight.