I was at a birthday dinner recently where the possibility of an after party was being tossed around. I told my friends that I would have to bow out early since I still had to get in my run for the day. This led to talk about the training plan I was following for an upcoming race. One of my buddies just rolled his eyes and said what I was doing was “dumb”. While that is not necessarily uncommon to hear, it still stung a little. I was reminded then of the words of Ann Trason. Widely considered the greatest female ultrarunner of all time, she described running as “romantic” but was quick to point out that her friends “didn’t get it.”
Later that night, while getting my miles in, I still couldn’t quite shake my friend’s comment. I started thinking about how I got into running and why I continue to participate in events that many people consider ludicrous. I’m still not quite sure I know the answer but this is what I have come up with so far – like a large portion of things in my life, it most likely boils down to a series of questionable decisions.
I never really ran growing up, aside from what came incidentally from casual participation in recess and field days. I played soccer and basketball in high school but my lack of natural talent and halfhearted interest kept me out of most of the actual playing time. However, I did enough suicide drills and last man runs during practice to confirm my distaste for running.
The meager running that I did in high school quickly subsided when I entered college. I found myself relieved of the obligatory sports participation that athletic life in my extremely small high school had necessitated and was grateful for as much. I stayed active by playing (and routinely losing) tennis matches with my girlfriend. I rode bikes with her dad on the weekends and I even lifted weights with a coworker now and then. But I surely didn’t run.
Post-college days saw much of the same. I did a lot of hiking before I entered graduate school as my best friend and I walked almost the entire distance between Georgia and New York. It was on the Appalachian Trail that I first stumbled upon the phrase echoed in the title of this post. A wise, old sage by the name of Sourdough sat me down one night and explained that it wasn’t about how far you hiked. What really mattered was how much enjoyment you derived from whatever distance you covered. It made sense to me. I still didn’t run but I was beginning to see the appeal of self propelled locomotion.
It wasn’t until the start of my second year of grad school that I began to run with any sort of rhyme or reason. Several of my classmates were signed up to run the Atlanta Thanksgiving half marathon and seeking any excuse I could find to stay out of the law library, I made the spontaneous decision to join them. Like I said earlier, questionable decisions…
Some of my peers at the time were lifelong runners who took racing seriously. They were following training plans and logging mileage as they built up a base of aerobic conditioning that would leave them in peak physical condition when the big day arrived. Hearing their stories of speedwork and weekly long runs reminded me of the rigors of pre-season soccer training. I wanted none of it.
Luckily for me, one of my friends had completed the Thanksgiving half several times before and felt that running should be fun, not a chore. Bob’s running style was erratic and unorthodox. He ran when he felt like it and didn’t when he didn’t. He was more focused on enjoying the experience than tracking mile splits. I could see a little bit of Sourdough in Bob and that appealed to me.
I thought Bob was cool as a fan and his laid back approach to training suited me so I just started inviting myself on his runs. We had a great time getting ready for that race. We ran late at night, down alleyways, in parking decks and even in the rain while we blasted the Grateful Dead. Running with Bob was the first time I’d ever viewed running as something to be enjoyed, rather than tolerated. I didn’t see Bob on Thanksgiving since we started at different times but just knowing that he was out there somewhere, most likely singing and laughing, buoyed me through the harder miles of that race.
I continued to run after that half marathon but never more than a few miles here and there. I began to keep a training log tracking my runs around that time; something that I continue to do to this day. Most of the time, I just jot down the time and distance. Sometimes, I’ll make notes about things I saw or comments I received (as a general rule, the shorter the shorts, the more frequent and entertaining the passerby dialogue.)
In early 2012, I found myself living on St. Simons Island where I stayed active by riding my bike and going to Crossfit. I still didn’t run much unless the coach made us. Those workouts humbled me as I did my best to fit in at a gym full of firebreathers. I walked in one afternoon and saw a sign-up sheet advertising a 50K race that was going to be held outside of Atlanta in a couple months. At the bottom of that flyer were a few names belonging to some of the guys that I looked up to in that gym. Continuing my lifelong tendency toward bad decisions, I put my name underneath theirs. I conveniently ignored the fact that I’d never run further than 13.1 miles in my life.
I went home that evening and googled “SweetH2O 50K.” I was mortified by what I read. This wasn’t just a 31 mile run. This was a trail race with waist deep stream crossings, a time cutoff and some terrifying uphill section known as the “Powerline.” I felt nauseous. I began brainstorming how I could get my name off that list. Maybe no one had seen it. I could just mark it out with black sharpie. Nobody would be able to read the name. I’d be good to go.
I showed up at the box (Crossfit gyms are called boxes because cults like to confuse outsiders) the next morning before anyone else. I even brought my black marker. I walked up just as the head firebreather got out of his truck. “Don Jon!! You signed up for the ultra. Hell yeah!!” My spirits sank. I pushed the sharpie deeper into my pocket. “Yeah man, I’m stoked.” The pit in my stomach got bigger. I was on the hook.
A few days later, I sent an email to one of those grad school buddies with the training plan I had scoffed at years before. Surely there would be some sort of ultra training regime I could follow. I don’t remember his exact response but it basically questioned my sanity for attempting such a thing; especially considering I’d never even ran a marathon. To this day, despite completing over half a dozen ultras, I’ve never participated in the traditional 26.2 mile race so many runners consider the holy grail.
To make a long story not so long, I did find a training plan, halfway stuck with it and finished the 2012 SweetH2O 50K and promptly swore I would never do another one.
If it weren’t for an unexpected turn of events in South America, that might have been where this story ended.
But, on a warm, summer day, in a moment of flustered confusion, my backpack was stolen while I waited on a train in Buenos Aires. The contents of that pack are largely inconsequential today. Other than an Ipad, a hat and my travel journal, I couldn’t tell you what items it contained. The journal was the hardest pill to swallow. It detailed every trip I had taken since college. More than half a decade later, it still pains me to think about those memories that are presumably gone forever. My name, address and offer of reward if found were written on the inside front flap. I sometimes fantasize that one day it will show up in my mailbox, but I don’t get my hopes up.
You may wonder why I remember the hat. That precious yellow hat. You see, it was the finisher award from SweetH2O. Everybody that paid the race fee and showed up that day received a t-shirt. But only those who crossed under that finish banner got the hat. As I sat in the train station, kicking myself for being so careless, it occurred to me – “I have to go back.” I couldn’t replace that travel journal but I could certainly get another hat.
And so it went. The next April, I toed the line again at Sweetwater Creek State Park where I met one of those St. Simons’ cult members who apparently hadn’t gotten enough the first time. He still had his hat. I wondered why he even bothered. I ran the race substantially faster than I had the year before (or maybe I just spent less time at aid stations), received my replacement hat and again promised myself that I was done. No more of this nonsense. No more “dumb” decisions. Maybe I would take up golf.
Since then, I’ve done more races than I care to count. Twice, I’ve watched New Year’s fireworks in the midst of a 24 hour race. I’ve skirted alligators on a racecourse in Florida, been in the porta-potty when the starting gun went off for a night race in Macon and watched the first rays of morning sunlight illuminate the unspeakable beauty of Antelope Canyon in Arizona. I’ve even been a part of the largest 10K in the world. I’ve been privileged to run in some amazing places with some incredible people.
But, as any ultrarunner will tell you, there comes a time in almost every long run when a subtle shift occurs and the focus changes from the physical and the external to the internal workings of the mind. You stop thinking about your burning lungs and cramping quads and start probing the deeper recesses, searching for answers to questions like “why” and “can’t it just be over?” It can be a painful adjustment but that is where the real magic happens. My running odyssey has followed a similar path.
Much more important to me than the places I’ve gone running are the places that running has taken me. Over the years and through thousands of miles, I’ve found sources of strength and resilience deep inside that I never knew existed. I’ve felt the exhilaration of seeing my name in the 1st place finisher column. I’ve also finished DFL long after my friends had packed up and headed for home. I’ve been moved to tears by the simple act of crossing a finish line that mere hours before I was convinced I would never see. On another level, I never feel closer to my Creator than I do all alone, deep in some forgotten woods, miles from my car and the nearest human. In my mind, it is no coincidence that certain Native American tribes consider running a form of prayer.
Running has truly been a transformative force in my life. I believe it has made me a better son, friend and uncle. It has given me the opportunity to share the thrill of racing with individuals who otherwise may never have had the experience. Running has taught me to entertain pain and suffering; for they possess powerful insights for those who are willing to invite them in. Most of all, I am grateful that it has given me the ability to know myself, my strengths and my weaknesses on a level that I never before truly appreciated. I now believe I know what John Muir was talking about when he said “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out ’til sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
In a couple of weeks, one of those St. Simons’ firebreathers and myself will attempt our first 100 miler. I’ll have at most 30 hours to ponder why I choose to do such “dumb” things. Maybe I’ll come up with a better answer than what I have so far. But, if I don’t, I think I’ll be okay with just chalking it up to bad decisions.
Thanks for stopping by and happy trails,
The Juandering Advocate