Pain and ecstasy (22 golden miles)

I had 23 scheduled for this weekend, out at Pinckney Rec Area. I think I did a little less than that because (a) 3:35 seems pretty speedy for 23 trail miles for me, and (b) I think I cut off about a mile at the beginning, based on what I remember from races there. So I’m guessing it was closer to 22, which is still the farthest I’ve run since (pulls up years-long training log) WOW. December 2012 – the Bigfoot 50k. Wait, really? That can’t be right. But maybe it is. Sheesh. Wowzers.

Anyway. When I checked the weather last night and saw that it would be in the low 30s this morning, I thought, Screw it, I’m not sacrificing a sleep-in to shiver through the first half of my run. Having skipped setting the alarm, I woke up a little after 10 a.m. and was at the trailhead about half an hour shy of noon. Early bird gets the frostbite, I always say. I was chilly for the first couple miles in just a tee and capris, but warmed up quickly enough and was soon comfortable. A little too comfortable, in fact. About 40 minutes in, as I was sailing along a little ridge between two golden leaf-filled valleys, my mind drifting to who else but Tony Krupicka and one of his interviews (maybe in In The High Country?) in which he talks about the need to be outside pushing yourself, making yourself at least a little uncomfortable every day. Literally – literally – as I thought, “Hmm, I’m pretty comfortable right now,” my right foot rammed into some rock or root hidden by leaves and BAM. I ate it. Comfort gone, replaced with some scrapes, a little blood, and a hole in the knee of my favorite capris.


What’s fall without a little fall?

Other than that minor spill (which mainly reminded me to pick up my feet), the run was relatively pain-free, although my left hip was once again giving me shit on the uphills until about two hours in. I hit 18 miles around 2:40 into my run; I wasn’t speeding along, but I felt good. I almost always hit an anti-wall about two hours in. I’ve never had a problem with a “wall” at 18 miles because, up until a certain point (50-miler, I’m looking at you!), I just kind of hover at the same level of pain and weariness. Before that, my hip might bother me on hills or my foot might threaten to cramp, but after I pass that point it all kind of evens out and I just push on. Hip feels weak? Go up the hill anyway, hands on thighs and keep up the pace. Knee’s bleeding? As long as you’re not bleeding out, no worries. Tired? Well, yeah, you’ve covered 20 miles. You’re tired and sore now. This is your existence. No use feeling worse about it, it just is. And so you keep going until you’re done, because bailing is failing and failing is DNFing and DNFing is the runner’s nightmare. That’s the mentality that takes over and allows me, and all you other distance fiends, to keep moving – it’s that not moving forward isn’t an option. It doesn’t cross your mind. Because if it does – if the couch and its giant heavy fuzzy blanket pop into your head, if you imagine what it would feel like to lie down in the warm crunchy leaves and watch the sun fall and slowly freeze to death overnight (if it’s one of Those runs) – then it’s awfully difficult for the distance mentality to prevail. The spell is broken.

That’s one of the things I love about running, especially distance and trail running. It requires a strong mind in addition to a strong body. Training miles will only get you so far; you have to train your mind too, otherwise your dedicated hours will have been for naught. It’s a strength that comes entirely from within, and is then translated to the external physical form of you, and only you, pushing yourself (mind and body) to greater feats and beyond greater boundaries – reaping greater rewards.

Pain and ecstasy. These are two things which running offers us, and though neither is guaranteed, we sign up for both every time we step onto the trail, having mentally committed to spending three, four, six-plus hours out there. Pain is expected, assumed, sometimes sought. Ecstasy – an endorphin high – is bestowed upon those who are dedicated enough to put in the time and lucky enough to have one of those perfect, or maybe imperfect, runs with just the right combination of… I don’t know what. Mood, chemicals, mud, music, anything. But not every long run ends in a rush of happiness and satisfaction and contentment and positivity. Sometimes we trudge to the car, cold, damp, and broken, and huddle miserably by the heaters and are just thankful that we aren’t running anymore. Pain rules those days and takes its mental toll. Ecstasy seems worlds away, a physical impossibility. But as the aches subside and we warm back up, it seems less impossible. The next run holds not the promise of ecstasy, but the possibility. A chance at reaching that perfect state again, and not through drugs or booze or anything else external. The utter bliss felt from an endorphin high, like the distance mentality and tenacity required to cover that distance, is produced entirely by you. Self-produced high. Now that’s satisfying.

And when you do have one of those excellent runs where you reach the parking lot tired but revitalized, weary but satisfied and proud and content, and stretch in the sun, and climb exhaustedly into your car and blast your favorite post-long run songs, you’re hit with an overwhelming surge of pure ecstasy. It’s not just about how great the last 22 miles were. It’s a culmination of all the miles you’ve run, the places you’ve run, the people with whom you’ve run. And where you’ll run in the future, and with whom, and all the miles you’ll cover. It’s where running has taken you and where it will take you. It’s… inexplicable. Many have tried and many have failed, myself included, to fully describe the near-religious experience that is the ecstasy of completing a long run. It is impossible to be sad or negative. It’s almost impossible to think, it’s so overwhelming. It’s a tidal wave of emotion and memories and thoughts all so near and dear and happy – flashbacks to standing atop mountains, running along bare ridges as storms brew, crossing finish lines… every run you’ve ever been on is suddenly there with you again, and all the time you spent and struggles you got through to get you to where you are now.

Which is tearing up in a parking lot full of mountain bikers as Alpha Rev’s Highways comes on.

No shame. ALL THE FEELS. *mic drop*

So yes, today’s run was phenomenal. Depending on whether or not I was running uphill at the time, I toyed with the idea of doing the 13-mile loop after the 18 and just going for 50k today. Wisely, though, I stuck with my plan and found that 22 was quite enough, thank you (say my knees). But I suspect that in a few weeks, I’ll be out there loping around by myself for 31 miles, because races are far away and cost money and I’m just running for myself anyway. Although they are fun. I drove home to an awesome playlist, took a hot shower (heaven), and ate many an oven-roasted potato. And completely neglected studying, which I should probably do at some point.

I hope you all reach ecstasy after your next long run.
bec

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