Monday, August 12, 2013


It sounds like the worst idea ever: run around in circles for eight hours on a Saturday in August. I didn’t want this to be my first ultra. So of course it was.

Surprised? I sure am.
Something that isn’t a surprise: I wrecked my left foot in the process of running those 34 miles. I can’t put even the slightest weight on that foot right now without feeling a blaze of intense pain. To get around the apartment, I’ve been alternating between hopping one-leggedly, scooting buttly, and crutching ridiculously, because the crutches I borrowed were meant for someone a good 6 inches taller than I am.

Something that’s the biggest surprise of all: it was totally worth it. I enjoyed every minute of those 8 hours, even those minutes—and there were many—when I knew I was going to pay for this.
The race is called Howl at the Moon, even though it happens in the daytime. There’s an explanation. I won’t give it; suffice it to say that the name results in some cool T-shirts and medals featuring a wolf’s head framed by the lunar orb. It takes place on a 3.29-mile trail loop at a nearby state park, and it’s this…Thing that trail ultra runners do. I’ve done it, so I guess that officially makes me a trail ultra runner.

This means more to me than my PhD. I’m not kidding. That diploma’s coming down off the wall; I need the nail to hang up my race medals.
So let me get this straight. Five weeks ago you were in the ICU with a leg full of clots and an arm ready to burst open. You’re still on clot-busting drugs, you still aren’t back to your pre-hospital level of fitness, and the week before the race you were noticing some disconcerting twinges in your left foot—the same sort of twinges that preceded the whole leg-swelling-up-to-tree-trunk-size-due-to-extensive-DVTs business. And so you decide that it’s a good idea to run 34 miles in that condition?

And now you’ve messed up your foot so badly you can’t even walk?

Also correct.
And you probably, like, knew this would happen, right?

Oh yes. I knew very well the foot would get trashed. I knew every step of the way. Every time I finished a loop, I knew if I stopped, I might prevent further damage.
And yet you continued.


I know. Let me try to explain.

The big things in life are always risky. You may risk failure. You may risk your heart. Most of the time you undertake something big and crazy, you think you know the risks and you decide they aren’t that big a deal compared to the potential reward. And then you’re wrong and you get so thoroughly clobbered you can’t imagine getting out of bed to face another day much less trying anything with the slightest hint of risk again.   

I took a risk. I paid the price. I knew I’d pay that price. It was totally worth it.
A few days ago a friend and I met at a favorite downtown café to talk about books we’ve been sharing. In between discussion of plot and character and soul-destroying swords (these are scifi/fantasy books, of course) we chatted about life in general, and he happened to suggest that I take another running trip abroad. Why not plan another marathon in a far-flung locale? I told him I’d love to but haven’t got the money. I thought about it later on and wondered if that was even true. Not the money part—definitely haven’t got that—but whether I really would love to go away like I used to. I wondered if I’ve lost my nerve, my sense of adventure, my willingness to try new things. After a while you start to get burned on trying new things; reality so seldom lives up to expectation, and you realize no matter what exciting new thing  you do or exotic new place you go, you are still you, inescapably, and perhaps that means your patterns are set for life. Wanderlust means perpetual restlessness and dissatisfaction. You can’t run away and you never feel at home.

As near as I can describe, and as grandiose as it sounds, my first ultra was the perfect combination of running away and coming home.
I’d never run this particular trail before. I’d never run this race before. I’d never run for 8 hours straight, and of course I’d never run more than 26.2 miles in my life. New experiences can happen anywhere, not just in the far-flung and exotic, and they allow you to get out of your everyday self, even if only temporarily.

After the first couple of loops, something changed. The course became familiar. I knew when we’d pass the cemetery, potent reminder of being alive. Shortly thereafter we’d pass the memorial sign to the runner who died on that trail, on that spot, doing that race. What a way to go. I knew the long hill would be shady and cool. I knew we’d get to the road where the friendly guy in the green shirt was directing traffic, stopping the crazy old jalopies on their way to the Crazy Old Jalopy convention in another part of the park. I knew we’d run by the steady shriek of cicadas on the woods. The halfway rest stop would be ahead, where they’d have cold boiled red-skinned potatoes that you dipped in kosher salt before eating. They taste amazingly good. I knew Tony would be there, cracking wise and handing out Gatorade (at least until the last loop; then he breaks out the margaritas). I knew we’d run by the green pond before we got to The Hill. Everyone walks The Hill. There would be watermelon and ice at the top of the hill, and then it was just a short bit down the road back into the woods and then, once the trees cleared, there would be the familiar view of tents and canopies where runners’ crew members waited with peanut butter sandwiches, Tylenol, sunscreen, and S-caps. Then it’s past the scorers’ table and on to another loop.
Sometimes familiarity breeds comfort. Sometimes it even breeds bliss.

Yes, I’m paying for that bliss right now. It’s a price I find more than reasonable. I would love to be there again, running in those woods. I know that soon enough I’ll be back where I started, and with that comfort in mind I can continue on.




  1. You are not allowed to dance on the sidewalk till November.

    1. Deal. My dancing shoes have been shelved. My running shoes, however...