Sunday, March 24, 2013

Mud, sweat, and beers

Like many runners who race, I have a gazillion medals. Most of them are some variation of a metallic disc on a colorful ribbon, and there’s been a trend toward larger and heavier discs to the point where they basically hang a hubcap around your neck at the finish line. My favorite race medal is nothing like that, and I got it even though I didn’t actually run the race. I ran the race course and completed the full 10-mile distance, and the medal was the same one given to all runners who finished, but that wasn’t why I got it. I got it for standing, not running. I volunteered to work one of the aid stations at a 10- and 30-mile trail race, you see. After my shift, I had enough time to run a loop of the trail on my own, just for fun, and when I got back to the start/finish area, the woman who had been handing out finishers’ medals to the race runners presented one of the extras to me with a smile.

They also serve who stand and dispense Hammer Gels.
A lot of people thanked me for volunteering, and while I appreciated their praise, it felt oddly unearned. Truth is I love volunteering at races. It’s fun screaming your head off to cheer for the runners after you refill their water bottles and dispense the s-caps. It’s fun to see them smile through their exhaustion when you do so. The five hours of volunteer work at the aid station was easy. The two hours spent running the trail was hard—very hard. I’d never run hills like that before in my life; heck, the reason I took up running in the first place was because this area is a topographic wasteland of flatness. Well, except for this one trail around this lake. Those lousy ice-age glaciers just couldn’t resist leaving something for us to remember them by, could they.

Until now I have never understood how certain hard-core runners crave beer after a long run. The very idea made me nauseous, and there could hardly be anything less appealing after several hours of strenuous sweating. Well, after ten miles of mud, hills, and muddy hills, I have never wanted a beer so badly in my life. When I got back to the start/finish, I got one. It was without a doubt the finest bottle of beer ever crafted anywhere in the world at any point in time.
As I sat in the brilliant sunshine enjoying my perfect beer, feeling pleased with everything and everyone and especially pleased with myself, I started thinking about the trail ultra I’ve got coming up in a few months. It will be my first ultra, and the elevation change will be a good 50% greater than that of the trail I had just run.

This was tough. That will be tougher. I am scared.
The medal I got for the race I sort of ran is a simple tear-drop-shaped pendant of clay on a string. This humble prize is, as I said at the start of this post, my favorite race medal so far.  It reminds me why I do what I do. When you become a distance runner, it’s hard not to get caught up in your own hype. You start believing you really are badass because you run these ridiculous distances in crazy terrain. The thing is, I get to choose to do these scary, tough things, and since it is my choice, the medal I get for doing them isn’t really about bravery or strength. Likewise, the reward I get for volunteering isn’t about sacrifice and virtue. I do these things because I believe they can be done and they should be done—and yes, because I enjoy doing them. Also because there just might be beer afterward.



  1. You captured the concept of "beertopia" very nicely in this post. I also never knew it was possible to desperately crave beer after heavy, cardiovascular exercise...and then suddenly I realized it was why I had been running the whole time. The veil had been lifted. Sadly(happily), sometimes the faintly shimmering image of a Hamm's tall-boy is the only thing that stops me from sitting down in the middle of the trail and taking a nap.

    1. You know it. That one hill? I wanted to curl up in the mud like a tired little piglet. But then I And I found the strength to carry on.