Thursday, September 27, 2012

Looking Into the Abyss

From the perspective of (almost) one week post-race, I can see that the whole thing was vastly different than the OP-50. I'm not talking about the difficulty of the course, I'm talking about the way I felt about it.

When I reached the finish line at the OP-50, I was filled with horror and was truly appalled that such an event existed and that I had voluntarily participated in it. I remembered the dread I felt out there on the course at Mile 33 and the sheer misery and the knowledge that the misery was going to last for hours and hours and hours yet. When I said at the finish line, "Never again", I meant it with all my heart.

After the OP-50 I couldn't even think about trails for months without that feeling of dread settling over me. I didn't get back on them until Pikes Peak forced me to get serious about them. And somewhere in the process of training for Pikes Peak, I remembered the neat part about doing stuff that is really challenging. That is that looking into the abyss -- i.e., facing something that is so scary and impossible-seeming that you just want to lie down and quit -- gives you a new perspective that you can't just go out and get in run-of-the-mill daily life. It took me a couple months to figure it out, but I finally did, to the point that when I signed up for Flagstaff on a whim I really didn't worry about it at all or spend much time analyzing whether it was a mistake or not. I was excited about it. Really excited! I wanted to see what horrible things would happen to me out there and what I would think about them. I could care less about my time other than wanting to finish within the time cutoff.

I got this strange energy in the days leading up to the race. It's like the things in my everyday life got smaller and race day got bigger and brighter. My feeling on the start line was a mix of a wild, giddy kind of happiness and plain curiosity -- what the heck was going to happen?

It was surprisingly, disappointingly unremarkable for the first 35 miles. I felt pretty good, no hallucinating, no stomach problems, no body parts threatening to fall off, no shitting myself, these were all good things! In fact when I left the Schultz aid station at, I don't know, Mile 31 or 32, I was feeling almost disappointed because I felt so normal. I was slow-running just like I would any trail, any day. Then, suddenly, around Mile 35, in the middle of a steep, nasty climb, ultra brain took over and the feelings of weirdness started.

I stand by my statement that ultra brain is a lot like LSD brain. Hikers walking by look really funny, like they have their heads on sideways or something. I noticed the quality of the afternoon sunlight and think about how, yup, time is passing and I've been out here in the forest the whole damn day. I see things like trees breathing. I start to cry and plead with the trail to please get easier. Then I come around a corner and see it goes up even steeper and start swearing at it.

Then I finally drag myself into an aid station and fall on the ground with no energy left at all and it is incomprehensible that I can walk ten more steps, let alone 13 more miles. But after enough food and soda I start to come alive again, sort of. But I still don't want to leave the aid station. I start thinking about dropping. Who cares anyway. I made almost 40 miles, isn't that enough? Then I picture writing my blog explaining why I dropped -- wasn't trained, shouldn't have attempted it -- and know that my only real excuse for dropping is "I don't feel like continuing" and that is unacceptable. So I get up and trudge out. I keep stopping and looking over my shoulder at the ever-more-distant aid station, waiting for someone to come along and tell me to quit, I guess, but no one does. It's just me and the sunset and the rocks and the aspens.

After Mile 40 is when the serious weirdness starts. This is the good part. It was scary in OP-50 because I didn't know what to expect. Now I do. I start to look forward to it, like, what will I see next that is weird? All the Japanese hikers, that giant gnarly tree down at the bottom (can I just say, Whomping Willow?), the endless stream of conversation coming out of my mouth directed at my invisible hiking partner, all that. Then comes the part that's just lame. The 2000' climb up the mountain, feet dragging like I'm pulling them out of quicksand with every step. Then the beauty of the sleeping bag and the heater. Eyes closed, asleep in five seconds or less. Volunteers won't let me sleep. Get up! You've got five more miles, all downhill. I make half-hearted noises about not wanting to finish but I know I am going to.

So grateful for company on those last five miles through the Blair Witch-y looking forest. The finish line is almost deserted. A couple race people in hoodies and jeans looking frozen. No fire, no hot soup, no cheering crowds. Who cares. It was awesome. I looked into the abyss and did not become paralyzed with dread. I made myself keep moving when everything in me wanted to stop. What a thrill that is! Someone tell me where you can get that kind of thrill in daily life. I'll sign up, no doubt.

The only scary thing is wondering whether I'll need a bigger high some day. A marathon is not really a challenge anymore. Even Pikes Peak. Even the Pikes Peak Double. What happens if you just keep raising the bar? Is this how people end up doing 100's? Running Badwater? Help!

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