This weekend I ran 100km. Voluntarily.
It was on a looped circuit of just over 1km, and was a timed race of 24 hours. That meant that the goal was simply to complete as many kilometres as possible in a set amount of time.
My colleague, friend and ultra-runner extraordinaire had told us that in every ultra, there is a lesson to be learned. It is different for each person and for each race.
The race started out well, we followed our 2km walk/3km run/2km walk/3km run/2km walk/break plan for about 10 hours and 60km.
We excitedly (and foolishly) calculated that at this rate, our 100km target was perhaps too modest, and that 120km, even 160km (100 miles) might just be possible.
And then it all went to hell. My hamstrings which have never before bothered me, seized up and stopped me dead in my tracks. My stomach decided that it would no longer accept the continuous force feeding I’d been torturing it with for 10 hours, and the long, cold night was creeping in.
As I limped around the circuit willing my stomach to accept the dry bread and water I was forcing down, I thought I knew what the lesson was.
When I stood on the starting line for my first marathon, I was acutely aware of the challenge before me. I was cautious and careful and respectful of the distance and its pitfalls. I stood on the starting line of the 24-hour race with little idea of what lay before me. And as such, I allowed myself to be swept up in early optimism and over confidence. 100 kilometres demanded a greater respect than I’d afforded it. It was not a given that I’d achieve my goal, by any stretch. I didn’t ‘deserve’ it, I hadn’t, it occurred to me rather belatedly, trained quite as much as I should have. This distance, this race, it humbled me. It also occurs to me now that humiliation and humility are rather close in spelling. And that perhaps one is necessarily preceded by the other.
Around midnight I changed into warmer clothes (aka, all of the clothes I had brought with me) and buoyed on by the Wallabies victory against England I hobbled, slowly, slowly around the track. But at least I was still moving, the kilometres counting down slowly, slowly, but not as slow as they would have if I’d stopped.
And I wondered if maybe the lesson wasn’t simply: just keep moving.
The hours between 2am and 5am were the strangest, longest hours I’ve ever experienced in my life. I so badly wanted time to speed up, for morning to break, for the race to be over. But not until I had the kilometres I needed. More than half the participants had retired to the relative warmth and comfort of the gymnasium for a few hours rest, and those of us remaining resembled characters in a Stephen King novel, walking, running, moving forward in and endless pursuit of an undefinable and likely unattainable peace.
My iPod was fully charged, but I put off using it, knowing that the battery would run out and I’d be left perhaps worse off than before. I thought about calling my mum in Australia, but the dark places in my mind held me back. For three hours I walked, a thick black wool scarf wrapped around my neck and head. I walked, and I cried. Not silent tears rolling down my cheeks, loud, hacking, snotty sobs. I walked, and I sobbed. And all of my demons came out to play.
I relived every bad day I’ve ever had, every loss, every heartbreak, every rejection, every embarrassing thing I’d ever done. I questioned my every decision, but especially the one to sign up for this race. Why was it, I wondered bitterly, that I couldn’t be content with a 10km race like most of my friends? Why couldn’t I just run for fun, for a bit of fitness? Why did I feel the need to be here, freezing, miserable and broken, in the middle of the night walking around and around in circles? What was the point of any of it? Who did I think I was to even be there on the track? I was surrounded by people more than twice my age, who would complete many more kilometres than me by the time the night was through. How far did I have to run to find peace? How far will I need to run to be remarkable? For it to mean something? And what made me think that the answers were to be found here, dirty, sweaty, exhausted?
Then, the words of a poem I don’t particularly like popped into my head. Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’. Not the part about choosing paths, or straying from the mainstream, but this:
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep
Round and round in my head ran the words. I want to stop. I want to go home. I want to curl up in a ball and weep. I want it to be okay that I want to stop. I want to be allowed to stop. I want to stop and not have it be a failure. I want so many things. But… But…
Frost’s promises have been long debated. Many assume he’s talking about his wife and children. The responsibilities of everyday life.
And as for my promises?
The first, the simplest: I had promised my team that I would finish 100km.
Then there were the other, less obvious promises.
Such as the fact I am an able-bodied, healthy, young human being with fully functioning limbs. I owed it to everyone who couldn’t walk, who would never run, to suck it up and keep going.
Or that I’d been brought up bound to the eternal promise to do my best, no matter the situation. Hand on heart, I knew I hadn’t yet done my very best.
And then, there was the fact that I had vowed, after the tragic death of a loved one: to live, to really live, to feel as alive and as much as possible. On his behalf.
Then there was me, and who I am, and the nagging, dogged belief that I still have so many things to do. So many things I want to say, and write, and think about and hash out over late-night bottles of red wine. So many places I want to be, so many things I want to try and fail and succeed at. And the sobering realization that I’ve hardly scratched the surface yet.
And so I walked, and cried, and thought. And dreamed of sleep.
After a while I started singing Jewel songs to myself, maybe out loud. I sang ‘Hands’ and ‘Foolish Games’. Not the most uplifting of choices but songs that reasonably accurately represented my state of despair and frustration.
Eventually, I pulled out my iPod and let the music carry me forward. I didn’t skip songs or play around with the playlist for fear of unnecessarily draining the battery.
And that’s when I realized.
It didn’t roar, but whispered.
There are no shortcuts. You can’t skip the bits you don’t like.
I had felt every single second of that early morning. I was horribly aware of every step, every stone on the track, every movement, every thought; amplified by the silence and the stillness and the endlessness. I was present, and it was awful. I wanted the 100km but I didn’t want to have to actually go through them. I wanted the achievement but not the blood, sweat and tears. And that was my lesson.
I rush things, skip steps. I force intimacy, and expect too much from new friendships. I want my first novel to be a bestseller, I want to be good at everything I turn my hand to. I want to be well-liked and respected and admired and left alone and in the background. I want everything, all at once. I’ve always done it, and largely it has worked out for me. But it is my weakness, my Achilles heel. I rail against it, I refuse to believe that good things have to take time.
It’s like that children’s book about hunting bears:
We can’t go over it,
We can’t go under it.
We’ve got to go through it!
The only way to finish the race, to get those fucking 100 kilometres was to go through them, every single one of them. To feel those metres, to measure those steps, to move forward, humbly and determinedly in the only direction available to us as human beings. The next minute, the next hour, the next day. To show up and be present, and feel things, all the things, the awful things, the stunning things, the nothing things, the in-between things.