Finding energy to write recently is a bit like scavenging iron filings from the dirt, only to build a tool whose purpose is still undefined. 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.
That’s a quote from Sakyong Mipham, however, anyone could have well have said it. It could also be viewed as a universal truth I suppose. What is “enough” does change. Even 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, because we hadn’t yet come to realize, or to put it more accurately to believe in our inherent strength. Therefore, we needed 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, with a towering, beautiful crest and also a trough whose depth is filled with shadow and cold. We want to receive its power, but doing so requires nothing less than full commitment. Instead, we often become afraid and pull back in denial of what is an authentic truth – that we all possess strength; even when we are quiet and calm, the wave is inside of us. When we hold back because of fear, we create contradiction and suffering and we become crushed by it. In the rare moments when we trust and accept, we surge upward with the wave’s 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… 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 steep, and the days ahead long, though I am ever more determined to be unstoppable. I’m surging upward, with the strength of the wave, no matter what it takes to build the future I dream of.
“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)