Fifty miles of gratitude (and some pain)

IMG_0628 (1)After 25 miles something shifted in my mind. It felt good to still be running. Food was staying down well, the legs felt surprisingly strong, the weather was exquisite. Just under a marathon to go. That’s when the old question —can I do this?— changed.

Now I asked, how fast?

There’s also, always, that little issue as to why? But during the beautifully organized North Face Endurance 50 mile challenge, earlier this month, the answers to that question were everywhere. In the steep mountains, the silent forests, the breathtaking views, the gait of friends at different spots. On Kelly’s happy face at every aid station. In my own grateful heart.

The evening before the big run my body was tense with happy nerves. It’s a physical manifestation of my readiness, something I have come to accept since I first experienced it before small New York races some ten years ago. Sleep was hard to come by. I rose at 3 a.m. At 5 o’clock Kelly kissed me as I turned on my headlamp. The horn sounded and were off, into the pitch-dark morning on trails that immediately began to climb.

IMG_0653 (1)Two hours in I felt warm and loose. Just then the first light began lighting up the green hillsides. As the sun turned the ocean blue, warming the air, my heart felt full. We climbed. I chatted with runners around me. The pace felt right. The next downhill was quick and light, and I realized I was smiling involuntarily. Why do we run? For those moments, out in the wilderness, when the smile cannot be denied.

IMG_0667 (1)The NF50 is not for the untrained. Barely a mile is flat on the northern California course. So we climbed, power-hiked, sighed, yelled, reached barren hilltops, picked up speed, flew down curvy single tracks, ate potatoes dunked in salt, gulped down cool water, and felt free. We ran. And ran. Kelly’s hugs and words pushed me forth.

IMG_1305Seeing my new running friend Annie Weiss lifted my spirits, as well. Her comeback to ultra running was impressive; running with her the day before and around mile 30 was a privilege. (Her great race report can be found here.)

Forty-four miles in I felt elated, exhausted, and emotional. Kelly waited at the last aid station she could reach, jumping and yelling. I felt like crying, my mind and soul over-flowing with gratitude for the ability to do this, here, now, with her, testing the limits of my endurance alongside my wife. We hugged, I cried.

Then she sent me on her way.

“Just another 10K”, she whispered.

I swallowed and tried to focus on the climbing trail ahead. “One loop in Central Park”, I said. “I can always do one more loop.”
IMG_0694 (1)
During the final miles my legs hurt while my face felt crusty with salt. I looked up and the views took away the little breath I had left: the Golden Gate Bridge, downtown San Francisco, the hills and the ocean, all in one  stunning wide vista. Why do we run? For this.

Maybe, just maybe there’s an issue with addiction here. In an interesting recent story on ultra running, the New Yorker put it like this: “I wondered if, like an addict, he had developed a tolerance to running, and now required an ever-greater dose to reach the same runner’s high.”

But I still wince when I or someone else uses the word “addiction” in this context. It seems to suggest harm and evoke negativity, whereas my running is simply good. Not painless or harm-free, of course. In that sense running is like life — it can hurt and fulfill and suck and lift-up, all at once.

On that note: wishing everyone a peaceful year filed with love, happy runs, and muddy shoes.

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