Golf, as the saying goes, is a good walk spoiled. I've only even tried to play golf once in my life, so as to the truth of that statement, I'm no expert. I do know something about spoiling good walks, though. I run ultra-marathons for fun.
Ultra-marathons don't always spoil walks, but when they do, they spoil spectacular walks spectacularly. My attraction to these races is born, in no small part, from a love of wilderness. Routes that would take a week to hike can be run before the sun goes down. Trail races aren't just about logging miles, they're about logging experiences: wildlife encounters, forest breezes, meadow scents, and breathtaking views. Oh the views. One month of trail running, done right, affords a lifetime of postcard-worthy trail porn. But that's just the trick: doing it right. Running at race speed down a twisting, rocky trail that clings to the side of a canyon can send more than your gaze down into the chasm below. More times than I can count, I have thought to myself: "I bet that would be an amazing view, if only I wasn't too terrified to look at it." Sure, I force myself to stop every now and then and enjoy the scenery. Sometimes I'll even take a quick picture, adding the task retrieving a sweaty, plastic camera from an impossibly small velcro and elastic-mesh pocket located approximately six inches above my left kidney to the list of death-defying distractions threatening to turn me into a human sacrifice to the canyon-gods. But as any photographer can tell you, the best pictures always present themselves the moment you put your camera away. And as any ultra-runner can tell you, finishing is ultimately about keeping moving. Eventually, inescapably, the siren call of the landscape loses out to the pressure of the race that brought you to it. Ultra running is a spectacular walk squandered.
And that's on a good day. That's if everything goes right. When it doesn't, that's when running's true spoiling power is on display. Anyone who has ever taken a shot at this sort of thing has experienced the kind of suffering I'm talking about. The human body is a complex machine, and complex machines are equally capable of wondrous elegance and staggering, abject unraveling. The more ways something works, the more ways it fails. But here's the thing: bodies also tend to have their own peculiar weaknesses, and so while anyone who has ever pushed their body too hard running (or elsewise) has certainly experienced such failure, most of us have only experienced it in one or two of its myriad varieties. One need know nothing about running to understand what I'm getting at. All you need to know is how many ways the human body has of breaking down. Running for six, twelve, or thirty hours at a time doesn't so much add new routes to bodily meltdown to the list, so much as it accelerates the process behind all of them and amplifies their effects. Ever had trouble with a sore knee? Prepare to be harassed by it. Maybe you've had issues with your stomach before? Now try being thoroughly betrayed by it. Dehydration? How does being stalked, maimed, and left to die sound?
Before I lose you, let me just say that I'm aware this all sounds excessively dramatic. It is, to be sure. But the guy who's sitting down typing this sentence is not the same as the guy who feels that pain, and for that guy, that's just how it feels. Knowing that in a couple of weeks some other guy will sit in a chair, dust off the keyboard, and put it all in perspective does nothing to dissuade of the truth of his experience. He suffers, and he doesn't know why, or how to make it stop. That's because the full-body, snot-soaked, muscle-aching, salt-crusted, been-running-so-long-I-can't-remember-when-I-wasn't-running exhaustion I'm talking about doesn't just amplify physical processes, but emotional ones as well. Ever cried because a leaf landed one the ground in pleasantly gentle way? Ever laughed out loud because you've never seen a squirrel with such a dark tail? Ever panicked because you could remember whether the last gel you ate was Espresso or Montana Huckleberry flavored. This guy has.
So by now you're probably guessing that this race didn't go so well for me.
That's true, and it's a bummer. I had high hopes for this race--low expectations, because I try not to be a fool, but really high hopes. Why? For one thing, I picked this race first and foremost because of the location. The course runs along and beside portions of the Tahoe Rim Trail (obviously) on the eastern (Nevada) side of Lake Tahoe. As the place where first came into contact with mountain wilderness, this part of the Sierra Nevada will always be charged with deep, emotional meaning for me. Kant wrote that "beautiful things show us that we belong in the world," and nowhere do I feel the truth of this claim more palpably than in the sweeping granite meadows that sweep down from all sides onto the dry, piney shores of Tahoe. If I have a home in high mountain country this is it, and will always be. If I belong, this is where. But the probability of that "if" may have just taken a serious hit.
I think my path into the race also played a big part in my over-inflated ambitions. Like many ultras these days, the TRT ultras have more applicants than spaces, an issue that they deal with through a simple lottery. I applied in the fall of last year, knowing that I wanted to try my first mountain 50 this summer, but also expecting not to get in. I know this isn't really how chance works, but I figured I wouldn't get in on my first try, so I ought to start applying now if I eventually wanted to get in. It's not that I didn't feel ready in terms of training--I definitely did--I just didn't feel like I'd earned it. A moment ago I said something about "ultras these days," as if I remember a time when things were different, and I definitely do not. I got into this in the middle of a wave of popularity for ultra-running, and that definitely makes me self-conscious of my impact on a culture that is filled with tremendous people who have given generously, and thanklessly, for years, so that newcomers can enjoy things--years of hard-earned wisdom, well-managed but low-key races, functional gear, and amazing friendships both on and off the trails--that should never be taken for granted. That's what I mean when I say I hadn't earned it. I knew that if I got in, it would be at the expense of someone who has been at this longer, someone who has missed out on the lottery before, someone who has helped more people to find their love of trail running. And that just wasn't supposed to happen.
So imagine my surprise when--moments after ringing in the new year dancing to some song from the '90s that I wish the DJ had just left there--I got an email informing me that I was registered for the 2014 Tahoe Rim Trail 50-miler. Seven months is about three months longer than I'd ever trained for anything before, and though I had other races on the calendar in the intervening months, Tahoe was always lurking in the back of my mind, making everything else into a training run in disguise.
The other races went well. Really well, by my standards. In January, I somehow managed to win the only race of any distance I've ever won in my life at the Swampstomper 50K in Memphis. And when I say "only race of any distance," I mean it. I've never won a 100-yard dash. Not even a game of steal the bacon. Three weeks later I ran my first road marathon in New Orleans, qualifying pretty comfortably for Boston, which was my main goal. And just three weeks after that was the Sylamore 50K in Arkansas. Despite falling and hitting my head on an icy fire road less than a mile into that race, I managed to hold it together and hang on for fourth overall. At that point I still had never raced anything longer than a 50K, so I signed up for the Ouachita 50M in April. My only goal there was to finish without ruining an otherwise beautiful day. I did that, and got second overall. That sounds a lot less impressive when I point out that the winner beat me by an hour, but I still felt pretty good about that one. June means Dipsea, and I was excited to test my fitness against last year on a short but challenging course. I ran the uphill sections smarter and faster than my first time, and was feeling pretty good reaching the halfway point over three minutes ahead of last year, but then fell victim to bottlenecking and inexperience in the downhill sections, where choosing the right turn can shave valuable seconds off your time. I ended up running slightly slower than my first try, but still feeling like I was in better shape. By mid-summer, I was feeling good. Maybe too good. My hopes were inflating fast, even while I kept reminding myself to keep them in check. Nothing I had run before would compare to 50 miles at elevation.
Sometimes it's just not your day. Sometimes you do everything right--the endless hours of training, the research about the course, the weather, the aid stations, the packing up of gear, the nutrition plan, the emergency plan, the pacing--and then you're reminded that so much more depends on the things you don't control than on the ones you do. And that's when you spoil an otherwise good walk. Or, in my case, spoil it spectacularly.
In fairness, though, that's probably a bit of an exaggeration. In my defense, though, trail running naturally lends itself to exaggeration; when the very essence of what motivates you is the lure of running that route just a few seconds faster, or going one mile further, one more loop, climbing another hundred feet higher, it's only to be expected that such a tendency will spill over from the activity into the conversation about that activity. Accomplishments get embellished. Times get rounded down. Trails get rockier, hills steeper, and creeks wider, swifter, in the stories that are told about them. I have yet to discover the ultra that isn't made to sound more intimidating in the pre-race chatter than it turns out to be in the flesh, and that's fine. It keeps you from getting over-confident, and it's part of the fun. So when I learned that the official slogan of the TRT Endurance Runs is "A taste of heaven--a glimpse of hell," I smiled at their gamesmanship, rather than cringing at the warning. Trail runners are good at exaggerating. As it turns out, I may have just found my first ultra with a penchant for understatement.
Stay tuned for part 2, in which I actually talk about, you know, the race.