July 31 2017
Worst case scenarios are possible to beat.
Dean Karnazes, author of Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner and many of the running memoirs that line my bookshelves, is a humble, sincere and wise man. He is also the face and personality of The North Face Endurance Challenge, a series of grueling and, well, challenging events around the world. I have tried my feet at a number of these events and each one has tested my endurance, mettle and sanity. But I keep coming back. It’s also pretty cool to get to brush shoulders with a great ultrarunning phenom.
One of the things that strikes me about Karno, as many of his fans and friends call him, is that he is a normal human being with big dreams and big calves. (That’s where our similarities end!) The night before the Endurance Challenge at Wachusett Mountain in Central Massachusetts, a few of us had the opportunity to listen raptly and stare in awe at this veritable god of long-distance running. He spoke of how he too often had to deal with difficult sections of trail; he also bonked from time to time and had inevitable low points in which he felt like he didn’t have it in him to continue. But we were to never to make any rash decisions without eating and hydrating first, as well as having occasional necessary conversations with ourselves.
In addition to offering words of advice, Karno talked about his own journey as a long-distance runner.
“I always bite off more than I can chew,” he said. I don’t remember why he said it–maybe he was simply referring to the fever of irrationality that often overtakes long-distance runners, or maybe it was the whole pizza he orders and then eats while out on impossibly long runs. In any case, I decided that the race itself was what I personally was biting off.
He promised that the course would be tough and would test every part of us.
I woke up the next morning excited to try my legs and spirit at this race that would definitely feed my constant need to push through my own real and imagined boundaries. I ate very little, my stomach revolting with nerves, and started running the course with my friend and fellow blogger Latoya Snell. The first mile was doable, easy even. We ran at an even pace, slowing for pictures and jokes and enjoying the newness of the experience. Three miles in, it got serious, with increasingly steep inclines and boulders that seemed to laugh at us at every turn in the trail.
The course was filled with interminable rock scrambling, difficult descents and relentless ascents littered with small boulders capable of busting ankles and slippery mud. After I realized that the course would only get more difficult, I became discouraged.
I knew 11 miles in that I would not make the cutoff. At 15 miles in, I knew that I was done.
I crashed and burned at mile 15, having exhausted all available physical, emotional and spiritual fuel. My legs moved slowly despite incessant prodding from my spent mind. My stomach rejected any suggestion of nutrition and my hydration pack was bone dry. I was 3 hilly, technical miles away from the nearest aid station. I turned around and headed back.
During those 3 miles I suddenly became worried.
Oh no. I thought. I’m not ready. I’ve got this huge, humungous, honking goal at the end of the summer and this was supposed to be a test to see if I could handle it. I’ve failed miserably. I. Failed.
That huge, humungous, honking goal is the TransRockies 6-Day Run in Colorado and this trail marathon was to be a “training” run of sorts, a physical check-in to make sure I was on track with my preparations for the big day (or week) of running and hiking across 120 miles of rugged terrain with a total elevation gain of 20,000 feet.
But then I was reminded of Karno’s words: I always bite off more than I can chew.
And then he goes for it.
This! This was why I decided to accept the generous offer from the organizers of TRR to do this overwhelming thing. I knew I was biting off more than I could ostensibly chew. I was also vaguely aware of the extent to which I would have to take my training, and this is precisely why I said yes. It would be a tough road, with unexpected twists and turns and possibly some steep drop offs that I would need to be ready for. It would require many miles and way more distance and strength training than I was used to. But the more I thought about how difficult a challenge it would be, the more my interest was piqued and the readier I was to enter this seductive purgatory of training.
But I’m still a little (or a lot) scared.
There is always the possibility that I will fail, like I did at the Endurance Challenge, and that I will not be able to handle six back-to-back days of mileage and vert. But there is this other possibility, and that is the one that holds all of my optimism and preparation. It’s the possibility that I will complete this momentous task, that my body will be ready to withstand the demands of multiple days of traipsing up and down difficult terrain at altitude. Yep, at altitude.
But remember what having big goals means? It means having a healthy dose of confidence, along with a generous helping of humility in the face of nature and circumstance. It means having a plan and preparing to the very best of your ability, but also allowing for some flexibility when life intervenes. It means having a purpose beyond your goal where you ask yourself, Why do I have this goal, anyway? What will it mean in the long run? How will my life be changed for the better? Will it change?
Some people balk at a person like me attempting long distances on one day. Some chide me for it. A few might even say it’s impossible!
But if I had ever listened to the naysayers, I wouldn’t have even been on that start line at the Endurance Challenge, tackling a race I knew deep in my heart that I wouldn’t finish. But I wanted to try it precisely because it was so hard and scary, and in spite of the fact that there was a high likelihood of me not finishing. I learned so much about myself out there, struggling to simply keep placing one foot in front of the other to continue my progress.
That is exactly what TranRockies holds for me: the mystery of mountains of difficulty and accomplishment, valleys of despair and questioning of self. Ultimately, whether I finish or not (and I plan on doing the former!), I will gain a much deeper sense of who I am. I will continue on the road to discover the great lengths to which my legs, heart and fragile ego will go in an attempt to peel yet another layer of the great epithelial skin of the proverbial onion that is me.