Thoughts on Running 50 Miles
[On August 17, I ran my first 50 mile race-Kodiak in Big Bear, CA. It was an all-around amazing experience with great volunteers and race coordination. Learn more about the race HERE .]
I signed up for the Kodiak 50-miler as my first foray into the world of ultra running. I picked Kodiak because I know the trails, it's close to home, and (this is a big reason) I was heavily advised to pick an "easier" first 50 and I'm notorious for not taking advice. The race began at 4 a.m., and I finished 11.5 hours later, just before 3:30 p.m.
At mile 2, I tripped and nearly fell. It was dark, after all, and I was running on a rocky trail I'd never traversed. "Not today!" I said aloud before amending my statement, "Well, at least not yet." Someone a dozen yards behind me said, "What's that??" And I smiled, "Just talking to myself," I replied. If I was talking to myself already, the rest of the race was bound to be interesting.
I arrived at the first aid station and topped off my water bottles. I should have been drinking more, but it was dark and chilly and I wasn't thirsty. As I took off to the next aid station, I downed half a bottle and ate 4 Cliff Blocks. Cliff Blocks are essentially giant gummy bears, but they're easy to digest. Later, I would become so nauseous that Cliff Blocks and ginger ale were all I could stomach.
I reached a half marathon in under 2 hours and 15 minutes. In the back of my mind, I knew I was probably running too fast, but the sun was rising, the air was clear, and my legs were fresh. For the first 20 miles, I was deep in thought, enjoying quiet moments to myself along with the comradarie of other runners. Haruki Murakami wrote in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running,
“I just run. I run in a void. Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void. But as you might expect, an occasional thought will slip into this void. People’s minds can’t be a complete blank. The thoughts that occur to me while I’m running are like clouds in the sky. Clouds of all different sizes. They come and they go, while the sky remains the same sky as always. The clouds are mere guests in the sky that pass away and vanish.”
For the first 20 miles, I ran in that void, catching thoughts and letting them go again. I recently wrote a poem, and I recited it countless times to myself. When I finally grew tired of my own thoughts, I listened to podcasts: I listened to
Pete Holmes interview Pete Davidson, then I listened to Rich Roll interview Guru Singh. Both of these podcast were nearly two hours long, and once they were over, the sound of anyone's voice in my ear felt like a cheese grater against my forehead.
By the time I was 7 hours in, my thoughts were limited to a constant inventory of my body-did I have enough water? Was I still nauseous? How were my feet holding up? Conducting this inventory was necessary; by mile 38 I was on the verge of bonking and had two big climbs left to go. I'm not sure what would have helped me avoid this nausea but I credit ginger ale and watermelon with getting me through it.
Runners like to have mantras, just as religious people like to have gods. We point to something bigger than ourselves, repeating our mantras like prayers when we feel most broken. My mantra was simply, "I am strong. I am capable. Nothing can bring me down." It's as good a prayer as any I've ever heard, Hail Mary full of grace being a bit to cagey for my liking.
As I summited the last long climb (the infamous 7 Oaks), I repeated my mantra many times. I passed a handful of runners going up, and told them "You are strong!" in a feeble attempt to rouse their spirits. Less than a mile from the finish, my nose began bleeding, likely from the thin mountain air. I crossed the finish line with blood all over my face, sunburned shoulders, and an intense, immediate desire to never do this again (that desire has since evaporated, and I'm already planning my next race). Above all, I was proud of myself, and marinated in my pride for days until the post-race blues set in. I'm not sure what I was looking for when I signed for this race, but whatever it was, I want to find it again.
Runners everywhere at any level of competition like the feeling of power and invincibility that comes with accomplishing something that previously felt impossible. It is an addicting feeling, and it allows us to forget just how painful the journey to that invincibility was. Pain is one of the most immediate ways to remind ourselves of our humanity, to tap into the reservoir of power and strength we all hold but rarely use. Joy, elation, love, grief, those all do the trick too, but physical pain is accessible. It is all-encompassing and unavoidable and can shadow mental or emotional pain, for a while. Best of all, physical pain is personal-it only affects you, and you alone are forced to grapple with it in any way you can.
When you look in the eyes of an ultra runner after they've finished an exceptionally brutal race, they have changed. They are like the sick patient who slips into death only to be pulled back by a well-meaning physician, "There was a bright light," they say, "And God, I think I just saw God." The patients' eyes grow a bit distant in a way that can't quite be put to words. That same look is, sometimes, in the eyes of a runner. It is a look that is inexplicably fluid and bright and deep. It is a look that dares anyone to challenge us, and good luck doing so.
“Just because there's an end doesn't mean existence has meaning. An end point is simply set up as a temporary marker or perhaps as an indirect metaphor for the fleeting nature of existence.” ~Haruki Murakmi