Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Running to a Hundred, part 3

The audiobook I chose to listen to late in my quest for a 100-mile ultra was Jane Austen’s Persuasion. It’s fun to imagine the withering smile and polite disdain Ms. Austen might give in response to this statement, were she able to understand it – and, in truth, most people in this century would fail to understand it. An ultra runner and sometime-novelist herself might think this the ultimate compliment – Yours is the work I chose to experience whilst enduring these long hours of suffering – but nobody else would.

I had decided on the Austen novel because I wanted something light and fun, and because about 90% of what I listen to while running long distances is, in fact, 19th century literature, which can’t be all that unusual a thing to do, surely. I needed it to be something I’d read before, so I’d know for sure I’d enjoy it, something with beautifully wrought sentences that entranced and enthralled, but also with intelligence and humor and a happy ending. It’s not the least bit spoilery to note that every Austen novel ends with the heroine marrying a great man whose love and admiration for her is equal to hers for him. We all know the script, so we know this ending comes only after a whole lot of struggle (over tea) and conflict (plus dancing), and more than once the heroine resigns herself to never seeing her true love again, usually at the very moment she realizes he is, in fact, her true love. There’s also a lot of hypocrisy, snobbery, passive aggressive manipulation, and considerable discussion of people’s countenances. They didn’t have social media back then so they had to scroll through faces the old-fashioned way. 

But in Persuasion, Austen’s last completed novel before her death, the shadow of being too late, of missing your one chance at happiness, looms large, both in the book and, possibly, in reality. Its heroine is pushing 30, its author’s health in decline. Anne Elliot is described as having once been a beauty but now, lacking the bloom of youth, haggard. She had once been deeply in love and engaged to marry, but (cue title) had been persuaded to break the engagement by family and friends who considered the gentleman unsuitable, meaning neither titled nor rich. Tantalizingly, the few bits of Austen’s correspondence that survived (her protective sister Cassandra destroyed almost all of it after Jane’s death) suggest that Jane herself had once (maybe?) found someone as wonderful as Frederick Wentworth and (perhaps?) had wanted to marry him. Unlike Anne, however, Jane didn’t marry him. She never married anyone.

We can tell ourselves this might have been by choice. Austen’s books were hugely popular even in her own time; with such success, acclaim, and adulation, did she even need a husband? It’s a ridiculous question – human needs are varied and complex – yet it’s just too heartbreaking to believe the woman who penned six of the most popular love stories ever had missed the chance at her own happily-ever-after. Nothing aches like opportunity lost.

These were probably not the most helpful thoughts I could’ve had while trudging through the wee hours of the night, feet bubbling with blisters, pain like riptide pulling me under. I had known the nighttime part of the run would be tough, but I hadn’t expected my brain to spiral down panicky thoughts of Is it too late? Am I too late? I’m not going to make it, am I. But the idea of Austen writing a book in which love comes almost too late haunted me. She had to know there was no almost left for her.

Friends who had done very long races before had told me the sun coming up in the morning after an all-night run is the most glorious thing ever. It was, but not in the way I thought it would be. As soon as it got light, I knew with absolute clarity that I was not going to complete the hundred. At about 23 and a half hours, I’d gone 80.6 miles, and I was done. 

What regrets can you live with? Truthfully, all of them. Even the worst choices can be rationalized away, smothered under a blanket of denial. But regrets are another variation on the oft-memed Shroedinger’s cat: you can both wish things had happened differently and yet know they couldn’t have. I wanted so badly to keep moving. I wanted so desperately to stop. I stopped, and I’m OK with that, even though I still wish I were stronger, tougher, that things had worked out better. There is absolutely no connection between ultramarathons and Jane Austen, but I do hope Austen was OK, too, with whatever that she had in her mysterious, complex, too-brief life. 

Thursday, August 3, 2023

Running to a Hundred, Part 2


K and I are going out to the Pacific Northwest next week for a brief trip to see my family, celebrate K’s birthday (it’s a big one), and visit North Cascades National Park. North Cascades was the second least-visited National Park in the U.S. last year, a fact as surprising as it is delightful. I suppose after people have done Olympic and Rainier, they figure they’ve seen the essential PNW and stop there. Fine with me; it’s August and everyone is in summer desperation mode. Miles-long standstill traffic at a bear-sighting in Yellowstone or scores-deep crowds between you and the South Rim – hard pass. Hit ‘em where they ain’t.

There’s also a race I’m doing out there, by the way, which I’ll get to later in this post. For now, I’ll leave it at that, which is all I told my family about it. They don’t understand my running obsession, so I’ve stopped giving details. Can anyone really understand someone else’s obsession if they don’t share it? What’s more, when my mother’s in the picture, I’ve pretty much stopped talking about my life at all. There’s not much point. Presented with new information, she gets confused, she doesn’t understand, and she quickly forgets. Lately this happens even presented with old information – my name, her name, her marital status, the past 40 years of her life.

Mom’s thoughts run in circles these days. She asks a question, my father or sister or I answer, and then, because the topic is still in her mind, a few minutes later she’ll ask the same thing. And yet, as is common, she remembers with absolute clarity things that happened in her childhood, over 80 years ago, during a war nearly everyone else alive only knows about from history books. As well, she remembers – has never forgotten – music. Mom likes to say that she learned English listening to old musicals. Like a multilingual Eliza Doolittle, she’ll suddenly break into “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain!” (and will sing it, of course, again). That’s one of her favorites these days, though her top favorite right now doesn’t come from a musical but rather a Hitchcock film. It’s “Qué será, será,” the song Doris Day belted out in The Man Who Knew Too Much. My mother adored Doris Day; in my childhood Mom thought she was consoling me for my less-than-flawless complexion by saying, “Doris Day has freckles too!” It did not console. Doris Day was no Barbie.


When I was just a little girl
I asked my mother, what will I be?
Will I be pretty? Will I be rich?
Here's what she said to me…


“So how long have you been running?”

I mathed it out. “About 15 years.”

Compared to many of my running friends, that’s not exceptional, but it’s a lifetime to the person who asked, as her dropped jaw and wide eyes attested. She hadn’t yet been breathing air for 15 years.

A position had opened up for coaching the younger runners on the cross-country team where I teach high school, and I figured why not. That is, other than the fact that I have zero actual cross-country experience, either running it as a student or coaching it as an adult. The other coaches, my husband, and all my running friends assured me that didn’t matter. I know running, and I know motivation. What more was there?

That said, running is different when you’re 54 and not 14, not that anyone there would know it. In a baseball hat and sunglasses hiding silver streaks and crow’s feet, I likely don’t look my age to the casual observer, and even after I tell the inquisitive young athlete I wasn’t a runner in high school, it would still probably surprise her to know the 15-year clock didn’t start until I was in my late 30s. If she’s impressed by my 15-year career, she’d be stunned stupid to find out I’m close to her grandma’s age.

But right now that doesn’t matter. I’m doing a five-mile trail run with her and a few others on a balmy Saturday morning and she’s asking me everything I know about the sport. This group is mostly the back-of-the-packers, newer to running and visibly intimidated by the varsity group, tall and statuesque and so very assured about everything they do.

I turn them away from such comparisons and instead wax heartfelt and rapturous about the joys of running. “Plus,” I add for the benefit of encouraging a healthy competitive spirit, “Running is full of surprises. The person you would never pick out as being fast – a lot of times that person is an absolute beast out there. It’s a funny thing about runners: they often look quite ordinary.”

“Yes! That’s true! In fact, umm …” my youthful protege hesitated, glancing at me, “I don’t mean this as disrespect, but that’s what I thought about you when I first saw you. I had no idea you were running a hundred miles!”

I laughed. I didn’t take it as disrespect at all. For 53 years of my life, I had no idea myself. Fought very hard against it, in fact, the way runners do when a crazy idea gets hold of them. After a 5K, twice that is impossible. After 10K, a half marathon can’t happen. After a half, no way am I doing a full. After a full, no way will I do another. After several, ultras are out of the question. After 50K, 50 miles, 100K, nope, nope, nope, that’s it, no more, the end. And so here we are again, less than two weeks away from something I never even thought was a thing, much less a thing I’d do.


When I grew up and fell in love
I asked my sweetheart, what lies ahead?
Will we have rainbows day after day?
Here’s what my sweetheart said…


During the taper – often about two weeks before a race – a lot of things happen in the runner’s brain to make up for the lack of megamiles. You think you’re injured. You think you’re coming down with something. Everything you eat is making you bloaty and flabby, and you question every aspect of your training plan. Only in this case, I was RIGHT to question my training, because I felt really, really good. How can that BE? I’m TRAINING to run A HUNDRED MILES. You don’t feel GOOD doing that, and if you do, you’re doing it very, very WRONG.

K disagreed. He thought I’d done quite well prepping physically; the question was whether I was sufficiently prepared mentally. This is something he’s always observed about me, and for good reason: he’s right. My brain gives me much more trouble than my legs, and running, as I blithely tell the XC athletes, is very much mental. Also do as I say, not as I do.

There’s an added mental-fortitude aspect to this particular race I’m doing, in that it’s not actually 100 miles but rather 32 hours. Participants have that amount of time to run as many 2.6-mile loops around a lake in the mountains as they can. Many of the runners are aiming for their first hundred, as it’s a relatively easy course and the short loops mean aid is readily available.

Even other nutty ultra runners often disdain fixed-time loop races, for the same reason non-runners do: it sounds excruciatingly boring. And yet, I argue, there is a comfort to familiarity that makes doing something this insane a little more feasible, at least to me and like-minded lunatics. Plus, realistically, what is there to see on any trail, loop or otherwise, in the middle of the night, when the mind is most likely to shut down?

“The problem,” said a friend of mine with several hundreds under her belt, “is there’s the temptation to stop whenever you finish a loop. If you’re 50 miles from the start on an out-and-back course, you might as well keep going because you don’t have much choice.”

My mind, however, doesn’t work like that. I’m more likely to stop if the road ahead is long and daunting and I have far to go before I can rest. If I know I can rest in just a few short miles, I know I can do that again, over and over. At least, I think I can do that. At least, sometimes I think that. Oh hell.


Now I have children of my own
They ask their mother, what will I be?
Will I be handsome? Will I be rich?
I tell them tenderly…


During our run that Saturday, one of the varsity runners passed my group, grimacing with the heat and his efforts but still smiling as we cheered him on. “How’s it going?” I called to him.

He groaned. “I feel like death.”

“Well, you know, if you don’t feel like death, you aren’t pushing hard enough!”

The kid beamed at me, pleased: it feels good to know that your suffering is a testament to your strength and perseverance. Funny thing is I’m not sure I always believe that myself. Frequently I observe that suffering is mostly just a whole lot of pain and misery. It isn’t noble, it doesn’t build character, it doesn’t go towards a greater purpose. When my mother plunges from jaunty renditions of showtunes into an abyss of darkness and rage, what lesson can I learn from it? What inspiration can I draw?

But I don’t think about that now. We’re running now. We’re breathing and moving and our hearts are beating and even though we end up where we’ve started, like a song that comes back to its chorus, there’s joy in the return.

“This is so different from cross country in my middle school!” the inquisitive girl exclaimed. “The coach was awful. She made us run laps around the track all the time. That’s the only thing we did. And if we stopped to walk, she kicked us out of practice for the rest of the day.”

I was justly appalled. “That’s horrible! Running should not feel like punishment!” And with respect to Danny Rojas and Ted Lasso, I added, “Running is life!”

Perhaps that was laying it on too thick, but it did go over well. Smiles all around, and a shyly added, “I hope I can be like you and run as an adult. I wonder if I’ll be able to do that.”

I didn’t break out into song, no matter how tempted I might have been. “It’s possible,” I said. “I’m hoping the experience you have now will help make it possible.”

Which is not quite the same thing as “Qué será, será,” but funny thing about that famous song: the title is meaningless. It’s a mistranslation. Grammatically, it doesn’t work; musically, who cares – it’s catchy and singable, and apparently very memorable.

Qué será, será
Whatever will be, will be
The future's not ours to see
Qué será, será
What will be, will be