It’s been awhile since I wrote a ‘conversation with a boy’ post. More than a year in fact. Probably because it’s been awhile since I had one with my dear friend Ryan. In the past, these conversations revolved around girls he was dating, or attempting to date, the ultimate failure that emerged, and my analysis on why things weren’t working out for him. Since Ryan and I are both in relationships now, it would have been awhile longer had I not emailed him yesterday for some advice on another matter entirely: ultra marathoning. Deep down though, this post is still about a girl. And the relationship in question is the one I have with myself.
Me: Duder, I have decided to cross the border over into Crazytown. I need your help. Which 50 miler should be my first? And…how long should I expect the training to take me?
Let it be known that not three months earlier I responded to a text from Ryan informing me that he was running one with the completely supportive message: I think anything over a marathon is unnecessary.
So, why should he help me now? Because I am still a female and I have knowledge about the x chromosome that he so values. But mostly because sometimes it’s just nice to have company along those long stretches of trail when you’re tired, hungry, snagged another root with your toe, and mentally pummeled by the switchbacks that make it feel like you are never going to reach the top. It’s nice to know someone is there encouraging you when the road ahead gets really tough.
In college, I ran middle and long distances. But I was better at injuring myself than finishing in the top seven, better at cross training than building mileage. I spent more hours throbbing in the ice bath, attached to electrodes in the trainer’s room, running in the pool, or spinning on the bike, than I did on the track. I first heard about ultramarathons during this time. I thought they were races for people who never got hurt, for people whose brains that weren’t quite wired properly.
My perception only worsened after graduating and I heard about stunts performed by runners like Dean Karnazes – best known for running 50 marathons in 50 days in 2006. His effort culminated with the NYC Marathon. He finished in 3:30. A lot of people can do that, I thought. I have. And that’s not exactly a time I would brag about. Because I didn’t win. And neither did he. So I continued dismissing ultra marathons, thinking, why don’t you people just run faster?
Two years ago when Ryan invited me to see Karnazes give a talk I declined. I didn’t want to support his showboat tactics. Deep down, I didn’t really think Karnazes was a real runner. Or whatever that means. To me, he was a guy who looked decent in a pair of running shorts, was driven beyond the limits of what most find tolerable, and was lucky that he didn’t injure himself on his race to the next headline. Maybe that’s unfair. Or snarky. Or even a tad bit jealous– especially for someone who can be classified as a mediocre runner at best. Especially from someone who has never been able to stay healthy.
So, why am I going to start training for an ultra? What has changed over the last two months? Not enough actually. In short, I need to work on myself. And the best way for me to do that is in motion. Because running gives you time to think. To recognize how you respond to physical limitations. And push through them. For me, it’s a better way to know myself. When I am pushing too hard. When I am not pushing hard enough.
Ryan: What is it about yourself that is in such disrepair that you have to run 50 miles to fix it?
I liked his question. When I examine my life – things are good. I have a job that occasionally makes a difference in people’s lives and allows me to always be in the black with my finances. I am surrounded by people I love. But what have I achieved? I don’t consider success the numbers on my bank statement. Although the more I look at it, I am thinking of limiting it to the number of stamps on my passport. And when that comes into play: automatic fail. Recently someone asked me: what do you want right now?
He meant something tangible, something you can put a price tag on. But I was stumped. I could use a new messenger bag for my bike. I need some new sports bras. I want to go to Italy. A minute later I finally answered: “ I want to get ESPN at my house.”
That brief exchange got me thinking, what are my real goals? Who doesn’t want to travel more? Who doesn’t want a fulfilling job that enables them to buy their own little plot of earth? Who doesn’t want to be happy? That’s fine to want those things. But if you don’t ever stop and map out how to get there, you probably won’t. Unless you have a built in GPS pushing you towards some blinking dot on your internal mapping system. Mine must be broken.
I believe it’s important to constantly be building towards something. Like mileage. Otherwise you are just standing still. Never getting faster. Never really improving. Just hanging out in the middle of the pack. And I hate that. And I guess that’s what I’ve spent the past three years doing. Not wasting energy, not making any moves. Although I’m not even sure what I’ve been doing is even running to finish, I’m just trying to not get lost on the course.
What I’ve been missing is some straight up competition in my life. With myself. You can compete with the person next to you all you want– but you will always lose. There will always be someone faster, stronger, prettier, smarter, richer, wiser, more generous, more accomplished, who doesn’t forget to vote on election day, who knows exactly what they want in life. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try to work on improving myself.
So when Ryan asked, what had changed, I had an answer.
Me: I’ve been a runner for nearly 20 years now. It’s the only thing that brings me comfort and makes me happy and makes the voices in my head quiet. I will always run. But long races are what I do when I when I need to prove to myself that I am still tough. I want to have something I am working towards. Perhaps an ultra is it.
I think what I was saying was, in the past, when marathoning, I’ve always known I could finish. I’ve always been able to pull a decent time with moderate training. But have I ever actually started with a real strategy? Have I ever followed a training regimen? Or plotted out my future? Have I ever really pushed myself? I think you kind of know the answer. So, I am going to start competing again. I signed up for the Big Sur Trail Marathon today to warm up.
Me: I’m seeing that times are about 4 hours for top female finishers. I aim to go under that. Fingers crossed.
Ryan: Most important! In trail running, you should throw out your notion of a fast time. That is the culture of the road runner. Trail people are more about the completion of the task rather than the speed. I know you’re a speedster, but don’t go getting hurt on your first trail race and then swearing them off for another 2 years…or for life! You’ll have to teach yourself to pace for the long haul too if you’re going to do a 50 miler.
Me: I guess that is what has always bothered me about ultras – the notion that you can’t be fast. I will try to just enjoy the race. But I still want to kick ass.
Maybe training for an ultra will help me with my life planning. I hope it teaches me to consider the path ahead, figure out a tactic for getting me to end without pissing my goals away, and a methodology for doing the next one better. The next one faster. The next one healthy. And as you can see, I have a lot of work to do.