This past weekend I returned to Wisconsin for the Kettle 100 to run as part of a relay team. If you hear “relay” and think of people running part of a lap around a track and handing off a baton, this being repeated until all four runners on the team are finished, you’re sort of close, except in this case the track isn’t an oval; it’s two out-and-backs. Oh, and the “track” is actually in the woods, up and down hills and over meadows. And it’s a hundred miles long. Other than that, pretty close.
There were four teams from my trail running group, one all male, one all female under 40, one female masters team, and one mixed. I was on the mixed team; I technically qualified for a female masters team but I wanted to be with a group that just wanted to have fun and didn’t care how long it took to finish. The female masters team also said they just wanted to have fun, but “fun” is a deceptive word. It implies that you care more for the experience than the outcome, but let’s be honest: for any activity that involves athleticism, be it playing a ballgame or running a race, it’s almost certainly going to be more fun if you do it well. And when it comes to running, the four women on the masters team do very, very well.
How well? Of the two women doing the 31-mile legs, one was fairly new to trail ultra running and the other was battling an injury; of the two doing the 19-mile leg, both had struggled with recent injuries as well. And despite this—despite the fact that one of the four was clearly not simply recovering from her injury but right in the middle of it and ran over an hour slower than last year—the group still managed to set a new course record for masters female teams by forty minutes. That is doing it well, to say the least, and the happy smiles and excited discussions they had after the race was over confirmed that they also had a hell of a lot of fun out there.
The women in the female masters team are all in their 40s, divorced, three with children, all incredibly fit and strong and independent. They’ve all run crazy numbers of races crazily fast, they’ve all qualified for the Boston Marathon, they’ve all been hugely successful in their running. At this point it would be too easy to turn this into a piece filled with gushy-but-gungho praise for their toughness, their awesomeness, their sheer badassery. The praise would be deserved—and purposeful; after all, it wasn’t that long ago (certainly within my lifetime) that it would be unheard of to know even one woman who was single, in her 40s and ran ultramarathons, much less for most of your female friends in that age group to fit that description. But since you read this blog, you know that nothing I ruminate about here is ever going to be a recitation of inspirational platitudes—even though there are times that seems desirable. One of those times was Saturday night, when the last of the female master runners came sprinting to the finish line and the four ladies received their first-place plaque from the race director and then excitedly huddled together to exchange stories about their experiences.
One of the women in the under-40 team, Staci-Ann (whom I wrote about two years ago in my post about Kettle), was talking to some of the others about the winners of the overall 100-mile race, who actually beat all of our teams’ finish times running solo (get your head around that if you can). We sputtered our awe at these elite runners, and the masters women, overhearing our discussion, added their admiration as well.
“You are all elite as far as I’m concerned!” Staci-Ann exclaimed to the four. “I mean, you all did Boston!”
Hearing Staci-Ann gush about their Boston status is a little like hearing a Pulitzer Prize winner gush about a Nobel laureate. Staci-Ann is uniformly admired by all her running peers for being a consistently solid runner, someone who can just keep going until she’s finished the distance she set out to do, whatever that distance may be. If you told her this, though, she’d insist that you are the one who’s the solid runner, you are the superstar, even if you aren’t. I can’t tell you how angry this makes me. I know how that sounds—for goodness sake, she’s praising you, and you gotta be a mean nasty bitch about it? Well, yeah, I do.
I have always wished I could maintain an attitude like hers or like many of the other people I know who aren’t bothered by nagging insecurities and petty envy. But I can’t lie to myself: I am in fact very insecure and I can be quite petty. Watching the female masters four, I wondered, wistfully, what it would be like to be able to run at that level, to be able to sit there in the “elite” circle and talk about their experiences knowing that they’d just accomplished something pretty damned amazing. Yeah, I know, running double-digit mileage on tough terrain is pretty damned amazing for anyone at any age, I know, I know, I know. But let’s be honest: there’s doing a tough thing at all, and there’s doing a tough thing incredibly well, and there is a difference. This doesn’t mean that the former is a pointless endeavor; it just means that there are some experiences I’ll probably never have no matter how badly I want them or try to get them. And because I’m curious about other experiences, I’ll always wonder what it will be like.
This, I realize, is not a bad thing. The world would be a small and boring place for me if all I cared about was my own self-satisfaction. I’m never going to be a jockey or a horse, but I can still be enthralled when one pretty pony gets the Triple Crown. Likewise I am never going to do the Rice Lake leg in three hours and change or the Scuppernong leg in less than six, even though two each of my female running buddies, who are all within a few years of my age, were able to do just that. It’s a little more complicated in this case, of course, since I’ve ridden a horse maybe twice in my life and may never do so again in my lifetime, but I am right now a masters female who runs long distances—just a whole lot slower than my buddies.
Thing is, there is the experience of struggling through something difficult, and there is the experience of seeing someone else struggle through the same something difficult a whole lot faster, and each experience will engender its own mix of emotions, from frustration and relief to awe and envy. Why deny myself any of that? Why pick and choose only those feelings that are simple and easy to handle? I want it all, baby, and if being on earth four-plus decades has taught me anything (anything that I’ve managed to retain), it’s that you can have it all so long as you remember that “all” means just that, everything. You can believe you’re amazing and you can believe you suck. You can believe in happily-ever-after and you can discover that maybe you don’t want your ever-after to be so dependent on someone else. You can create yourself as a certain person, you can question the creation, and then you can alter the creation completely. You can love the run and you can hate the run. All things are possible even if some of them aren’t always desirable, but hey, you’ve been around a while, you can deal with it.