“Don’t think about it as a 50 miler. Think about it as a moving buffet,” my pal and fellow hater-lover of running Brendan Leonard told me. He’s been a great source of inspiration and mentorship on this trail. Back in May, I idiotically signed up for an ultramarathon, the first organized race of my entire life, except for one sluggish turkey trot. Signing up for the ultra was done rashly and on a whim and because I was feeling crappy about turning 33 years old. To be clear, I am not a runner. Or at least, I wasn’t a runner until I started running. So, I guess now I am a runner. But I hate myself for being a runner. Because running sucks. But it’s great.
When you grow up as I did in Chicago, you’re not exposed to skiing or climbing or mountain biking or kayaking or really any other mountain adventure sports. That was a very foreign world to me until I moved to Telluride, Colorado, after college. I spent my youth playing basketball and baseball. I was a swimmer and played water polo. I was a soccer player until high school when it was replaced by football. My true sport of choice, and where most of my identity was derived from until after college, was lacrosse. What do all those team sports have in common? Running is a punishment. I can’t even begin to figure out the formula needed to calculate the amount of times I doubled over my knees during a practice to dry heave while having the after-run or post-sprint thought, “I hate this. I hate this. I hate this.”
In my 20s and 30s, I ran-ish. Meaning, I tried to sprint two to three miles when I was feeling like a lazy blob or noticed my fuzzy bagel had lapped so far over my belt buckle that it almost curled back underneath to complete a jiggly gut circle of shame. During these sporadic runs, I tried to get as close to six-minute miles as possible. I hated every second of every run and only felt good when it was over because it was over. But any sense of accomplishment would almost immediately evaporate when I thought about how terrible running made me feel. Sure, I felt good that I could sorta push through the chest burn and the fire in my legs and the voice in my head screaming at me to stop. But running primarily attacked my emotions. Running always made me feel like a bad person, like because I was so shackled to the pain I was somehow an inferior human. Back then, running was like repeatedly stubbing my toe in the same spot on the same rock, which would be the catalyst for remembering every bad thing that had ever been done to me and every bad thing I had done to other people. I would feel huge in how small I could make myself feel. So yeah, running wasn’t fun for me.
Because of the emotional-physical torment running symbolized, I was very vocal in my hatred. And I was adamant that I would never run a marathon. When I found out that ultrarunning was a thing, my loathing got even louder. To me, for most of my conscious life, signing up for a run, a long run, a very long run, would be on par with signing up for a cow pie-eating contest. But what about the endorphin release or the camaraderie or the diligence in training and the finish line triumph, they’d ask me. Yeah well, that all may be true but in the end you’re still chomping on a turd, amigo.
But despite all of it, the hatred, the idiocy, the pain, the mental-emotional tornado, I signed up for this 50-mile ultra. I guess I wanted to set a goal and try something that scared the bajeezus outta me. In the beginning, training hurt. It really, really hurt. But then, somehow, something shifted and I started to look forward to my runs. Oh boy. I began to geek out over the gear and read about tips and tricks. Yuck. I started to talk about running in public. Ew. I found this 10- to 12-minute mile pace. A meditative, mellow stride that led to relaxation rather than physical-mental anguish. Hmmm.
In the last four days, I’ve run nearly 40 miles. I have double-digit mileage before my next rest day and, after it, I have to run 36 miles in two days. Yesterday, I did not want to go for my training run. I was tired and grumpy but the fear of bonking during my race, the fear of utter failure, is a great motivator. The first two-thirds of the run were achy and fatigue-ridden. My right knee, which I’ve injured multiple times in my team sports career, politely asked me to stop all movement by seemingly trying to turn inside out. I thought about all the things I’d rather do than be on that run, like return to being an awkward 14-year-old or being hit in the ear with a wiffle ball bat for an hour straight. But I kept going and I smiled and laughed for the final four miles. Then I ate a baby elephant’s weight in food, which is my favorite part of ultra training.
I am not driven by ego and I am not some bad rad mountain hombre, far from it. I think I like to do things in the mountains and things that scare me because of what I lack in radness and self-confidence. Or maybe I’m just dumb enough to be tough enough to do this. Am I a runner? Meh, I don’t know. I run. I am a long jogger, a jiggly trotter of distances. Mostly, I am just a regular dude who wants to find out what’s gonna happen. During that run yesterday, when fireworks were exploding in my legs and the pain peaked, I ran toward it rather than away from it. I focused on the pain rather than hiding from it. I drove into it. I became a part of it, then half of it, then all of it, until the pain wasn’t there anymore, until all that was left was me. I guess I’m gonna keep hating this thing because I love to do it.