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August 20, 2008

Leaving the Shore (Headlands 100 Diary)

As you can imagine, I’m taking one or two more posts to wrap up this Headlands 100 business before focusing on other events – one of which, according to my sidebar, is rapidly approaching in less than two weeks. So indulge me with the ultra thing for a little bit longer, and then we’ll move on.

Today’s post is the conclusion of my Monterey Herald training diary, renamed - and perhaps drawn out a bit past its welcome – after the cancellation of Western States at the end of June. I mentioned a while back that I felt guilty for writing a series that ended so anticlimactically; so this column was my chance to write the ending I had in mind all along.

However, once I got started, it proved more challenging than I expected, in that I wasn’t sure what the focus should be. I couldn’t really stuff a 4500-word race report into a 1000-word column - and since I couldn’t realistically ask to run photos of foggy hillsides and steep staircases and wonderful friends and dudes with purple Mohawks, the report wouldn’t have been very fun to do anyway.

So I tried to tackle the question that came up most in conversation throughout this whole series: namely, why do we do it? Remember, this series was targeted at everyday newspaper readers - as opposed to bloggers or magazine readers or local endurance athletes who already know me – and for that crowd, there’s almost no rational explanation for this compulsion of ours. Whether the series were printed in ten parts or a hundred, that simple question would always be the lynchpin binding all the other stories together.

I still don’t know if I answered the question to most people’s satisfaction, but at least I gave it an honest shot.


Journey of 100 Miles: A Western States Headlands 100 Training Diary

Part 10: Leaving the Shore

"The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore."
- Vincent Van Gogh

It’s relatively easy to write about the what, where, and how of a 100-mile trail race. The difficult part is trying to describe the why.

Such as … why does anyone want to do such a thing? What’s the appeal of a sporting event that takes a full day and night to complete - one that grinds your body down and tears your willpower to shreds, all for no tangible reward? What’s the point of this whole sport, anyway?

Truth be told, I was asking a lot of those same questions myself on August 9th, as I stared out into the sea from Rodeo Beach in Marin County, the start area of last weekend’s Headlands 100. Over the course of the next 24 hours, I came up with some reasonable (to me, anyway) answers to the “whys” – but first, let’s get the what, where, and how over with.

The short story is, I finished the race. It took 22 hours and 55 minutes of constant forward motion, up huge climbs and down treacherous descents, through the heat of day and the cold darkness of night, fighting off a handful of problems that threatened to derail me along the way. 40% of the runners who left the start line on Saturday eventually dropped out of the race; fortunately, I wasn’t one of them.

(However, I can’t claim that I came through all in one piece; as of this writing, I’m one toenail short, with another one that appears equally endangered. All things considered, that’s not such a high price to pay for the experience I enjoyed.)

In almost every regard, the race unfolded exactly like I hoped it would. I ran the first 50 miles conservatively, enjoying the beautiful day and the scenery and the company of those around me as much as possible. As the sun went down and the miles wore on, I kept a steady pace, then finished strong, even completing the last 25 miles faster than the previous 25.

My favorite memory will probably be the hours between midnight and daybreak, running through pitch blackness, fighting off fatigue and soreness, with nothing but a flashlight and headlamp to light my way. The miles were lonely and quiet, with only the occasional flickers of other runners’ headlamps in the distance for company.

It reminded me of playing flashlight tag when I was a kid: dashing around bushes and down dark pathways, watching for flickers of light that revealed someone else’s location, while being cautious to conceal my own position in the process. Best of all, this game continued all night long, without anyone’s parents making us come in for the night just when things got exciting.

I suppose that’s as good a point as any to start answering the “why” of ultrarunning – namely, it makes me feel like a kid for a while. It satisfies my sense of adventure, and indulges my inner explorer – not only in discovering the natural beauty of my surroundings, but in pushing towards the limits of my physical ability.

And just as a child experiences countless challenges and difficulties while struggling toward maturity, the most trying miles of an ultramarathon provide opportunities for personal growth. Iron is only forged by fire, and diamonds by pressure; so too is inner strength built by overcoming hardships.

There’s an overwhelming cultural mentality today that difficult tasks should be avoided; that volitional discomfort is an indication of some psychological oddity. Meanwhile, ultramarathons promise exactly the opposite; the expectation is that the race will be strenuous. Your body will get battered, your spirit will get broken, and you’ll question your sanity and emotional stability. (What’s more – you’ll pay somebody a lot of money in race fees for this to happen. If it weren’t for ultrarunning, there’d be a huge boom in masochism support groups. Clearly, we need this sport.) It’s no wonder most people think we’re insane.

But here’s the good part: our gain for suffering through all of this is something akin to enlightenment. We understand that our bodies and minds are capable of far more than most people ever realize - that the primary limiting factors in life’s journeys are the extent to which our minds can dream, and to which we’re willing to work to achieve them.

These truths we discover about ourselves are what keep us coming back for more. In that regard, ultrarunners are the fishermen leaving the shore: we’re fully aware that the storms might be terrible – but the rewards we harvest by venturing into the sea are always worth the hardship.

Now, I’m the first person to admit that ultrarunning is a crazy sport. It’s time consuming and physically draining and profoundly trivial in comparison to most other things in life. While I take pleasure in this activity, I’m probably not the healthiest of role models for someone to emulate. In light of that, you might wonder why I’ve been writing about the whole thing so much.

I guess the best way I can explain it is to say that I enjoy watching documentaries about expeditions to Mount Everest. I like seeing open heart surgeries on television. I love to watch rock climbers scale the face of El Capitan with nothing more than the gear on their bodies.

None of this implies that I have any desire to be a mountaineer or heart surgeon or rock climber. In fact, I’m 100% certain that I’ll never do any of those things. But it’s inspiring to know that they’re possible – it gives me a sense of the amazing things that everyday people are capable of.

And trust me: guys don’t come more everyday than me. I’m a regular dude with faults and weaknesses who usually has a hard time putting matching clothes together. I don’t have any special abilities; just big dreams, and a determination to work diligently towards accomplishing them.

In the final analysis, perhaps that’s the lesson you can take from this series: It’s OK if you don’t want to be an ultrarunner - but perhaps you can try to be a hard-working dreamer sometime. If you’re able to figure that part out, most other things will probably fall into place.

Finally, on the subject of leaving the shore – it’s time for me to sail into the sunset for a while. I’m done with trail racing for the year, and I’m taking some down time before considering race plans for 2009. The option of entering the Western States Endurance Run next summer is out there, but I’ve got a bit of time to decide for sure. For now, I’ve got some sore feet to tend to, and a weary body to pamper for a few months.

Thanks to all who shared this Journey of 100 Miles with me. It was a wonderful run.


stronger 8/20/08, 1:36 PM  

You answered it. Now, did it get ahead of Phelps this time??

David 8/20/08, 4:29 PM  

I think you made the right points that the great un-run can appreciate.

Backofpack 8/20/08, 4:35 PM  

Good finish to the series Donald. Even though you are talking about ultras, for some, the same can be said of marathons. The struggle through, the overcoming of obstacles, knowing you are capable of giving more than you thought. I think that the crucible of the marathon is where ultra runners are born...

robtherunner 8/20/08, 4:39 PM  

Nice read, Donald! I'm just going to print this out so when people ask me that question I can hand it to them ;)

mindy 8/20/08, 5:00 PM  

Donald - what a beautiful piece. I love the idea of the fisherman leaving the shore. I hope people are inspired to dream big after reading this, I know I am.

jen 8/22/08, 10:38 AM  

Hi Donald, Great final entry. I just got caught up and read your race report and this final entry and I am so proud. What an accomplishment. Congratulations on your first 100 miler under 24 hours (WOW) and thank you for sharing your writing and photos with us. Enjoy your break and best of luck in your next pursuit.

keith 8/22/08, 6:12 PM  

Hot damn, man! Fine race report and a fine race! I only hope that when the day comes to do my first 100 that it all pulls together so artfully.

Well done!

rick 8/25/08, 5:41 PM  

That was nice. It's hard to put into words the answer to that question. I also find that some of my answers have changed the further I get into this sport. One reason that has never changed for me, you hit it on the head, self-discovery.

Downhillnut 9/16/08, 7:33 AM  

Congratulations on finishing a 100 mile trail race! Wow, that is such a long ways.

As to honing in on "why", great job. It's hard to explain stuff like that to folks who don't do this.

Heck, I'm not an ultrarunner, but I have trouble explaining to my non-running loved ones (only one runner in my family tree besides me, and he's a "step") why sometimes I get the urge to train for a course that's just a little further, just a little harder. Sometimes a lot harder.

Your reasons ring true with me.

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