Running Season Dwindles in Fading Autumn Light

Reflecting on the crux of running season coming to a close, despite my wish to hold on until snow covers the ground, brings a mix of appreciation for all that’s happened and slight frustration over missed opportunities. I was able to run more miles than ever before in previous years and to set personal records in all race distances I attempted. Disappointment comes from a recent feeling of having more left in the tank, a wish for one more wicked race to end the season with fireworks. However, I’ve got nothing planned at this point. Any final races will have to be rather spontaneous and attempted without proper training.

I’ve alternated over the last few weeks between feeling relieved to not have to train for specific events anymore and somewhat depressed from lacking one more proving ground on which to pour out my running heart and soul. Being able to run more freely and explore the area has been enjoyable, but without many trails to rip in the immediate area near home, my love for trail running has been only teased, if not slightly thwarted.

I hear the calling of far off wilderness trails punctuated with mountains, valleys, crags, twists and turns. As of yet this is a call I cannot fully answer. I’ve absolutely realized trail running is what I love most. I’m cool with road running and racing on occasion, but if I don’t get some regular trail runs in my routine I gradually start to feel physically and emotionally beat down. Trail running is truly a rejuvenating endeavor, one which I have to find ways to continue and intensify.

This is why, for the first time in a public forum, I am now announcing that next year I plan to run a 50K as my initial steps into the world of ultramarathons. The distance doesn’t worry me since it’ll only be about 5 miles more than the marathon’s 26.2, a distance I gladly took on twice this year. What will be most challenging is the terrain that most ultras take place on— thoroughly challenging trails, often in the middle of nowhere, with all sorts of elevation change and uneven footing.

Ultras could possibly be a natural fit since another realization was solidly reiterated this year— I am not an elite runner, I am not running to win any races. I’m on the verge of being competitive in my age group in many races, but even that doesn’t excite me all that much compared to a solid run with friends in the woods or a race on trails. Therefore, maybe running long and at a moderate pace is what I’m after. I owe it to myself to give more serious trail running a real go.

My two favorite races of the year were the Walker North Country Marathon, which featured big chunks through the Chippewa National Forest, and the Big Woods Half Marathon, which was almost entirely in Nerstrand-Big Woods State Park. If I consider each as a trail marathon and a trail half marathon, then they were both personal records. The only other trail marathon I’ve done was the Equinox Marathon, which almost completely defeated and soured me on marathon running when I took on the course back in ’07 and ’08. I had never attempted a half-marathon on trails before and Big Woods was an exhilarating good time! With that race I was only about 5 minutes off my current PR for any half marathon. In Walker, where I went out too fast and pushed way too hard through the trails, I nearly bonked and struggled to finish, but the first 17-miles featured some of the most stimulating and satisfying running I’ve experienced in my entire life. I wouldn’t change the experience for anything; I learned a ton about my propensity to outpace my limits for a long race and about my love of long runs in the wilderness.

Let’s look at some numbers:

Total miles run so far this year: 1138
Highest monthly mileage: 174 (May)
Highest weekly mileage: 51 (5/24 to 5/30)

Races:

  • Earth Day Half Marathon (4/17): 1:40:11 (avg. pace: 7:39 mpm) (PR!)
  • SCSU on the Move 5K (4/29): 20:24 (avg. pace: 6:34 mpm) (PR!)
  • Ripley Rock ‘n Run 10K (5/22): 43:45 (avg. pace: 7:04 mpm) (PR!)
  • Lake Placid Marathon (6/13): 3:58:14 (avg. pace: 9:05 mpm) (PR!)
  • Sheels 5K (7/17): 21:52 (avg. pace: 7:00 mpm) (very hot morning)
  • Walker North Country Marathon (9/18): 4:26:42 (avg. pace: 10:05 mpm)
  • Big Woods Half Marathon (10/16): 1:45:01 (avg. pace: 8:00 mpm)

In the end I’m content with all I’ve endured through running and racing this year. I’m especially glad to have made some new running friends, for having connected with the local running club, the St. Cloud River Runners, and for having joined the community of awesome runners on dailymile. Most of all I’m eager to continue and more thoroughly engage myself with all that running has become for me— challenging, rewarding, exhausting, invigorating, thought-provoking, mind-numbing, humbling, inspiring, and most of all: wildly gratifying!

Thanks to all who supported and encouraged my running throughout the year!

running & burning

When the conniving arms of a frazzled life reach this way—
grabbing with filthy fingers, tearing in all directions,
the urge to run wild and far flows with palpable fervor.
Wickedly poking and prodding a once-prized peace of mind,
legs twitch anticipating a sustained, rhythmic pounding,
chest heaves knowing the furnace of our running salvation
waits to be stoked and enkindled toward glowing horizons.
At last, with the doorjamb left behind, so goes all worries,
if just for one solitary moment as barriers
approached with steady gaze and determined stride diminish.
Passing straight through to reach a rarefied momentum,
all we are runs beside all we’ve been and strive to become,
once combusted, miles forging a clarified hereafter.

anxiously waiting atop the hundred-foot pole

I don’t know how to train months on end for a big event, like a marathon, and keep entirely calm in the final days leading up to the big race. Even though I’ve been telling myself the goal this time around is to run hard and to appreciate whatever comes my way throughout the race, I can’t help but be nearly blown over by eager anticipation. Mostly it’s excitement, positive and rousing, but of course there’s also been nervousness and doubts popping up along the way. Long endurance events require even longer periods of hard training. Hours upon hours of focused movement certainly have interesting effects on the psyche. In my weaker moments I keep retreating back to the fact that, even with all the training under my belt, there’s no guarantee a race as long as a marathon will go well. Much can happen on race day and from such thoughts most of my uneasiness arises. Without long runs over the last several days to settle my mind, I’ve been flooded with all sorts of scattered energy. A better person might channel the nearly boundless energy into positive action and of course there’s plenty of work to be done around here. My life, on the other hand, has been little more than fits and starts lately. Single-minded attention is difficult when my body craves, more than anything else, to RUN!

So what of it?!?

Nothing. All this matters little in the end— all part of the nearly unavoidable consequence of being a runner who choses to challenge himself in long races on occasion. Life will go on in its extraordinary way with or without my participation and acknowledgment.

And also it is a matter of life and death! I cannot in good conscience devote so much of my life to running and training for marathons and not take it seriously. The man I am now is in great part due to what I’ve endured and learned through running, especially training and completing long, hard runs including three previous marathons. If I’m not going to go out and give it my all then I might as well stay home and watch television— something pathetic like QVC. And by giving it my all, I don’t mean striving obstinately to reach some sort of unrealistic time goal and getting injured along the way.

The all I want to give is my entire being. I want to manifest myself fully out there and completely engage with the course and the varied circumstances I’ll surely encounter over those 26.2 miles. There’ll be much to experience and numerous opportunities to awaken to something new, something deeper than I’ve realized before while running. I want to launch headlong into the course with trust in my training and abilities and with the courage to head joyfully into the unknown. Let it all be covered with a sweet coating of gratitude to all in my life who have helped make it possible to run this marathon. I am ready and glad for the opportunity to run!

I’m reminded of an old Zen koan (teaching story), case 46 from the Mumonkan. It goes like this:

Proceed On from the Top of the Pole

Sekiso Osho asked, “How can you proceed on further from the top of a hundred-foot pole?” Another eminent teacher of old said, “You, who sit on the top of a hundred-foot pole, although you have entered the Way you are not yet genuine. Proceed on from the top of the pole, and you will show your whole body in the ten directions.”

Mumon’s Comment: If you go on further and turn your body about, no place is left where you are not the master. But even so, tell me, how will you go on further from the top of a hundred-foot pole? Eh?

Mumon’s Verse:
He darkens the third eye of insight
And clings to the first mark on the scale.
Even though he may sacrifice his life,
He is only a blind man leading the blind.

Running a marathon can be a lot like stepping off the hundred-foot pole, I think. At least now in my running life I have not reached the point where marathoning fits easily into my comfort zone. There will surely be points where I do encounter previously unknown, or at least not well-known, aspects of my being. And there may be a point where I find myself standing on the edge of a great precipice, running further may bring me somewhere I’ve never really been before.

Let’s see what happens!

running to the wild, sweaty edge of the unknown

I run for joy— yes. I run for better health— of course. I run to challenge myself— certainly. I run to get a break from the monotony of life— absolutely. In the end, I keep running for reasons that aren’t easy to explain in everyday conversation.

Way beyond simple joy is a wild sense of being alive and the throbbing vitality that comes from a good, hard run. Physical exertion gets the heart pumping and blood flowing. Running out in the open air is much more elemental and satisfying on a basic level, at least for me, than anything that can be created in a gym. Muscles twitch, breath heaves, heart thumps, sweat drips and my entire being surges forward over the terrain— be it asphalt, or preferably, a constantly shifting and undulating trail. In the wilderness trees fly by and focus is required so as to not make a wrong step and end up flat on my face.

There’s something deeply satisfying about running hard enough to make the lungs burn and the muscles twinge with pain when moving past one’s comfort zone. Running in the red is not sustainable, but if I don’t push to the edge now and then I don’t feel like I’m trying. Intensity is something I crave in running on occasion. I believe runs shouldn’t always be too controlled or measured with conservative heart rates and paces. We’ve got to tear after it now and then to know where that edge is, taste it— lick the sweat, and then settle back into a more manageable groove. Smart runners know when to rip it up and when to go easy. I’m still learning to achieve balance in training.

Racing brings me to the edge of control every time if I give it my all, but I most like chasing after the abyss when running solo—solo, but not alone. It’s way more than just me when I’m out there running my face off! None of us truly runs alone, just as nobody lives in a vacuum. If we’re trying to be alone, then perhaps something is off-kilter leading us to feel or want to feel this way. Fellow runners, we’re covering the miles together! That’s why we have wonderful support available from running clubs, community races, and dailymile!

My running is about much more than pushing limits and seeking anything pleasurable. There’s a wisdom of running that is beyond good and bad. The most valuable runs show their worth not in any physical sensation, but in what they teach us about life on a deeper level. Every time I run, if I’m paying attention, I’m continually getting schooled in impermanence. Life is exemplified by change. Running is change accelerated and magnified.

Continually passing scenery is accompanied by gradually changing physical feedback, thoughts and emotions. Most runs, especially the longer efforts, feature temporary feelings ranging from elation to doubt and drudgery. It’s all there, spiraling around the simple movements of the run itself. Fortunately I learned long ago that chasing only joy is a shallow pursuit and one that would likely result in me giving up running.

Running and the endurance developed also teach us about suffering. Through marathoning I’ve learned oodles about my capacity to endure difficulty. Being able to run long encourages me to persevere in other avenues of life when I’d otherwise want to throw in the towel. I’ve reminded myself time and again that I can keep going farther than I once thought I could.

What I’m after in running more than anything else is an embrace, through focused movement, of life in its most primal, vigorous sense. Life’s obligations and responsibilities will not stop my inner wildman, not as long as I can head out the door and RUN! I’m coming to think running is and will continue to flesh out all these lofty ideals, perhaps for much of the rest of my life. Or at least I’d like running to go on as long as I am able, as long as my body holds up and allows me to get outside and put one foot in front of the other at some pace faster than walking.

For running to be a lasting practice over many years, I’m learning patience is a huge key— one I easily forget. Patience and endurance are inextricably linked. It’s much too easy to get caught up in the desire to be something other than what I am now, to be faster or able to run farther than I’m currently able. What is that?

It’s shit, that’s what! It’s the ego taking a dump on whatever good sense I ever had, taking me away from life in its present reality. When I too often run harder than currently prepared for, I wear down and end up injured. Instead I hope to embrace what I am in this moment with a patient welcoming of the shift running is gradually bringing about in my very being.

And so I am going to keep on running. Yes, I am going to keep on running!

Let’s run our faces off! WOOHOO!

Running & Racing

Shortly after beginning running I would race to test my limits and see what I’m made of. Through racing over the last few years, especially in the tough ones, I’ve learned my limits are ever-changing and what I’m made of is dynamic, intangible, and somehow connected to the great beyond. Now I run and challenge myself through racing to continually check my limits and to remind myself of our capacity to suffer and deal effectively with hardship, which is much greater than I acknowledge in everyday life. I can run a marathon and probably longer, so what!? I can tolerate life’s ups and downs, even those that are much more serious than anything I’ve ever encountered through running. What’s the point in intentionally putting oneself in unnecessarily difficult situations? Well, I think I need reminding of life’s vastness and how it’s all about so much more than my never-ending desire to be comfortable. Screw excessive comfort and lethargy. Screw ’em both with a long, hard run!