Finding energy to write recently is a bit like scavenging iron filings from the dirt to first construct a pen from. The demands of my graduate studies have been pulling hard on me; free time is more like the space between commitments. In those moments, I want to run, hike, spend time with my kids, or do anything other than… sitting down to write! Maintaining this journal has become somewhat of an old habit though, regardless of how infrequently I can get to it. Simply reflecting on this introduction, it seems quite ridiculous that I ever assigned such importance to the least relevant of life events, the first DNF I received at a race in as long as I’ve been running.
Those three little letters stand for “Did Not Fail”, and are the reward someone receives when they start a race but don’t finish it. Of course, those letters actually stand for something else, “Do Not Fixate”, as in: don’t get hung up on not completing a race, it couldn’t matter less. There is always another day, there is always time to put in more training, to eat and sleep better, and to figure out what a sustainable pace looks like. It’s commonly understood that DNF also stands for “DO Notice Feelings”. For instance, taking in what it means to have the ability and privilege to traverse great distances across the natural places we love is important. In other words, receiving a DNF is quite a gift.
I’m losing interest in writing race reports as my mindset returns to the places from where it came from… the Forest, the Mountains, the Desert. Places where finish times don’t matter nor are social media selfies relevant. So, I’ll keep this short… Bandera is a radical course if you like technical, runnable courses. It only looks easy on paper. With an understanding of how trail surfaces contribute to course difficulty, among other things, it’s clear to see what makes this course tough. Bandera is a challenging course, I like it a lot.
The trails twist and turn, they’re rocky as hell, and on race day this year, anything not covered in rocks was covered in mud pretending to be peanut butter. I arrived at the 50k mark 5 hours 12 minutes, right on pace, but my feet were a mess due to a bad choice in using some old shoes (several years old, a VERY bad idea) combined with progressively worsening problems I’ve been having with a few toes. It was just way too early in the day to be experiencing foot problems. In order to finish, I’d need to sacrifice my toes, or call it a day.
I decided that I’d gotten what I came for and I had zero motivation to finish with wrecked toes (yet again) by going out for another lap. I handed my chip in to the RD as the crowd surrounding the race headquarters still cheered for me. “You don’t want to drop!” he said, “You’re doing great!! No way, I’m putting your chip in my pocket. You can change your mind in an hour or two and go back out.” I didn’t.
Do Notice Feelings
For a moment I felt shame. That feeling disappeared quickly. I have dragged myself through much worse, but it became an irrelevant point to ruminate on. The fact was, I had been having a great time aside from my toes getting their revenge on me. I noticed the fun that I had running like a billygoat over the rocks, fruitlessly trying to avoid sotol plants, and chatting with other runners. I got to have the experience I love to have. Proving something wasn’t on the agenda, and instead of doing that, I went and took a nap, then woke up to watch the frontrunners come in before catching a ride out of the Texas backcountry.
What is enough will change.
The above is a quote from Sakyong Mipham, however, anyone could have have said it. There’s a universal truth in those words. What is “enough” does change. Even from run-to-run, I notice it changes for me. Some days 7 miles barely feels like scratching the surface and I need to get out for another 7 or 8, other days that’s plenty. A 50k is a really nice sweet spot where I can have fun and also run fast (relative to myself). This idea that only finishing is “enough” no longer resonates within me. The ideal that is built into us as ultrarunners – to never quit – no matter what, no matter how much physical suffering or mental anguish one is experiencing is a double-edged sword that we inadvertently wound ourselves with, over, and over again.
Perhaps at some point in our lives, we needed to hold onto that ideal, but I no longer believe it demonstrates strength. It could just as easily demonstrate our weakness. Maybe we hold onto it out of fear of facing the truth, or maybe because we haven’t yet come to realize, or to put it more accurately, to believe in our inherent strength. Therefore, we need to first prove our strength to ourselves, defending our fragile sense of it with that sword. Ultradistance runners have the uncanny ability to be at once both incredibly strong, and incredibly vulnerable. It is a duality that I am fascinated with.
We open ourselves to an experience that is like a massive wave, whose pure-white crest touches the sky and whose trough is deep and filled with cold shadow. We want to receive its power, but doing so requires nothing less than full commitment. When we hold back because of fear, the wave crushes us with contradiction and pain. We deny the truth, that is, while we are calm and quiet, the power of the wave is contained inside of us. In the rare moments when we trust and accept our quiet strength, we surge upward like the wave, with unstoppable power.
On a cold January day in Bandera Texas, I realized and accepted a truth… there was nothing to prove, and no good reason to push forward for another 6 hours on feet that would become yet more mashed on the rocky trails… just to finish a race, the least important of tasks. It was enough to stop chasing an idea, and simply enjoy the day I had experienced. In that decision, I found a quiet and calm strength that I no longer needed convincing of.
My education is my ultra now, and the trails are my pleasure. This is a long path with an end that’s hard to see sometimes. The hills ahead to push up and over are quite steep, and the days ahead long, though I am ever more determined to be unstoppable. I’m surging upward, with the power of the wave, no matter what it takes to build the future I see when I close my eyes.
“Pleasure, which is fundamentally the intensified awareness of reality, springs from a passionate openness to the world and love of it.” – Hannah Arendt (from: Men in Dark Times)