Friday, August 14, 2015

How I Howled

Last Saturday I ran my 10th ultramarathon in 2 years, within which was my 24th marathon in 6.5 years. Runners are second only to baseball fans in terms of love of stats. I described this race in my previous blog post, and I was most emphatic about the fact that this ultramarathon—and really, ultra running in general—is fun. People who don’t run don’t believe this for a second, which is understandable since it obviously isn’t their idea of fun, but even some hardcore runners I’ve told this to have looked at me with skepticism bordering on hostility. Running ultras isn’t fun; it’s hard, grueling, intense and extreme; it weeds out the weak and cowardly; it proves to yourself and the world that you are awesome and then some.

Yeah, that’s crap. But before I tell you why it’s crap, I have a confession to make: there were moments during Saturday’s run that were definitely not fun. Not at all.

Some of my running friends who were doing this race for the first time were freaked out of their minds about it, and as a result they trained like tributes for the arena. Me? I trained, sort of, if by “training” you mean “running kind of like how I always run, a few shorter faster runs during the week and a long run of some kind on the weekend.” That’s what I’ve always done for Howl, and it has always worked, because I’ve always met my goal—because my goal has always been to enjoy it. That said, I realized in the late stages of the race that had I trained a little more thoroughly, I might not be suffering quite so much as I was then. It was starting to get hot. My legs were getting tired. My eyes stung from sweat and sunscreen, and my body was becoming increasingly displeased with my treatment of it.

I kept going, of course, since that’s the name of the game in running (and since you generally don’t have much choice, as there are no races I know of that allow you to run around your car so you can stop and go home whenever you like). Pretty soon I happened upon one of my running friends, doing her first ultra ever. She had stopped at an aid station to rehydrate, and when I asked if it would be OK for me to run the rest of this loop with her, she gratefully accepted the offer. She acted like I was the one doing her a favor, encouraging her, keeping her going, but the truth is I needed all that to keep me going. “You’re doing great!” I cheered, meaning it for her, hoping but doubtful it might also be true for me.

And then the race got fun again. I ran the last few loops with several different running buddies, and once more the ultra became a party. There was singing and dancing. There were daiquiris. There were prolonged moments when we tried to make our addled brains do math, which doesn’t tend to happen at many parties but when the race organizers perversely make the loops 3.29 miles and one of your buddies has a goal of doing over 40 miles in 8 hours, math must be done. In the end, I didn’t run my “best” or “worst” Howl in terms of mileage, but the experience was hugely satisfying, in part because I didn’t get injured (always a good thing), in part because my running buddies did amazingly well (go figure, serious training really does pay off), and in part because of what I said before: ultras are fun.

Still don’t believe me? Look at it this way: Running an ultramarathon is something you choose to do. You prepare for it, you do it, it’s tough, and then it ends, and if all goes well you feel victorious, glorious, and badass, and if it doesn’t go well you are disappointed, you kick yourself, and then you choose another race at which you may redeem yourself. Compare this to the other tough things in life that can happen to you, where you don’t get to prepare, it doesn’t end, you never get to feel good about it and you never get any redemption. And I’m not even talking about the huge things in life but also some smaller, quieter things that are still a lot harder than any ultra because there is no finish line; to be successful you need to keep doing these things until the end of your life. Decency, kindness, and humility aren’t exciting, sexy concepts like toughness, strength, and bravery, but if you’re a runner and you really want a challenge, instead of looking behind you at who you’ve beaten, look ahead at who beat you—and be happy for them, really, genuinely happy, not Miss-America-Pageant-Runner-Up happy where you smile and hug her all the while imagining flesh-eating bacteria attacking her face. Be happy for them and yourself and everyone doing this because you can do this, you can have this experience, because more than being a goal toward awesomeness, running is something to experience and even, quite possibly, to enjoy.

In fact, the most satisfying moment of Howl came a day later, when I was told those sweet, sweet words from the friend I ran a little of the race with: You were right.


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