Relentless Forward Progress

Somewhere around mile twenty four, I saw someone in an orange vest behind me. My legs were cramping and my feet were blistered. Thank God, I thought, The race sweeper. I’m the last one out here. He’ll pull me off the course and end this sufferfest.

It was just another runner in an orange vest. Shit. I had to keep moving.

I’m nobody’s idea of an athlete. Slow, uncoordinated, nearsighted, with poor balance and prone to weight gain, I was always the last kid picked for any team in school. I was something of a Renaissance man, which is to say I sucked at every sport. Now I’m getting old, and my never-very-good best days are behind me.

But I can run, because any able-bodied person can run, so that’s what I do. Not fast, and not gracefully, because I’m built like an undersized linebacker. But I run.

I don’t love it. I’m perfectly happy on the couch with a plate of warm chocolate-chip cookies. Besides, running puts me in the company of people who are younger, faster, more athletically accomplished, and more beautiful than I. It twangs and strums the strings of my insecurities. But it’s necessary for health and fitness, so I run.

It has its benefits. It’s a pretty satisfying feeling when you defy others’ expectations to do things no one thought you could do. It’s something else entirely when you do things you didn’t believe you could do. Suddenly, the light goes on. That voice in your head that says, “I can’t?” It’s just a wuss who doesn’t want to try. You won’t listen to it next time. You know now that the voice lies. You will do all the hard things, and you won’t make excuses, and you won’t listen to your own doubts and fears, because they were bullshit last time and they’re bullshit this time. If you choose to walk away from a challenge—well, that’s a choice, and you’ll own it. There is no such thing as “I can’t.”

At mile twenty seven, I knew I’d make it to the aid station at mile twenty nine.

Sometimes I ask the important people in my life to do hard things, because sometimes life requires the doing of hard things. Beyond that, I want them to know that their own voices that say “I can’t” are just as wrong as mine. How can I make that ask if I’m not willing to push myself to accomplish things I think are beyond me? I will not be that guy who asks of other people what he will not risk himself. I will not be that man who seeks to control a woman to compensate for feelings of disempowerment that the world foists upon him. There’s a lot of that in today’s world, and it isn’t my way.

At the aid station at mile twenty nine, it became unthinkable to drop out less than two miles from the finish. I’d get there if I had to crawl.

I will do the difficult things in life that I don’t want to do. I will do them even if they hurt. I will not quit despite wanting nothing more than for someone to give me permission to quit. I will lead by example, not by diktat. The people to whom I mean something will say, “If Jeff can do what he does, I guess I have no excuses.”

The barbecue at the finish line warmed my insides and restored some brain function. I looked at the finisher’s medal in my hand. Is this mine? Did I really do this?

Life gives you plenty of opportunities to sit out a challenge. But the true adventure begins at the edge of the known world; that is, just beyond what you believe to be the limit of your capabilities. Somewhere past that point are things you’ve never seen and can’t imagine. Someone has to bring back reports of what’s out there. Why not me? Why not you?

Aid Station

The runner shuffled toward the aid station clutching her thighs. I jogged out to meet her. “What do you need?”

Her pacer replied, “We need to problem-solve. Her quads and glutes have seized up and aren’t working. We need to know what our options are.”

Other aid station volunteers rushed forward. They brought a camp chair—the runner cried out in pain as she folded herself into it—and piled bags of ice into her lap. To me her pacer repeated, “What are our options?”

“You can’t drop here, if that’s what you’re asking,” I said. “This station is too remote. You’ll be waiting here for hours. Your best bet is to keep moving to Cal-2 and see what they can do for you there.”

“How far is that?” asked the pacer.

“About five miles.”

Our station chief came forward. “Cal-2 isn’t much better. It’s pretty remote. If you want to drop, your best bet is to go back to Foresthill. The terrain’s pretty rough—you’ll be going uphill on the way back—but they can get you out easier there.”

The pacer’s face tightened. Going forward is always better. It keeps your options open. You might feel better. You might catch a second wind. Start walking back up the trail, and you’ve conceded defeat. Walk back several miles, and every step is pure humiliation. Every runner coming up the trail looks in your eyes and sees a quitter. The pacer wasn’t having it.

“How long can we stay here?” he asked.

“She’s in eleventh place. She can stay here quite a while and still finish strong.”

The pacer squatted and looked in his runner’s eyes. I thought about the rousing speech I would have given in his place. I would have said, “This is mile sixty-five. You are two-thirds of the way through this race. There is no tomorrow, no next week, no second chance. Today is the day. We will rest here a bit, and then we will keep moving down the trail. If we have to drop, we can do it at the next aid station. Or the one after that. But not here, not now. Not until there is absolutely no question that you cannot go on. Agreed?”

Her pacer didn’t say any of that. Instead, he said, softly, “We don’t want to quit, but you don’t want to walk the rest of the way. We’ll stay here a while. If you can run, we’ll go on. If not, we’ll call it. Okay?” The runner nodded mutely.

We fed her pickle juice and Saltines. Yeah, that’s a thing. I thought about the pacer’s manner with his runner—how he wasn’t interested in pushing her, how (I thought) he couldn’t tell that her frame of mind wasn’t right and that she’d probably quit if given the option whether or not she truly needed to. He didn’t seem to care about how she’d feel tomorrow if she dropped out now.

He knew something I didn’t. He knew his runner. She was a champion at 50 miles and a damned tough competitor at one hundred. She’d seen the inside of the pain cave many times, and had the mental toughness to come out the far side. She didn’t need some dominant man trying to make her into the best possible version of herself. All she needed to push herself onward was to be told it was perfectly alright to quit.

After twenty minutes in the camp chair, the runner gingerly stood up. The station crew applauded. She took a few wobbly steps, got a sponge bath from a volunteer at the far side of the station, and headed out with her pacer. When they disappeared around a bend in the trail, she was running.

Game On

This is a special post for a special group of people. See, there’s this group at the Attorney General’s office that I used to run with, back when I was a contributing member of society instead of a deliriously happy social parasite. They kept me motivated, and they kept me honest. Really, I owe them big-time. So I just want to take this opportunity to say to each and every one of them:

Game on, suckers. You’re already behind.

Yeah, I know that I basically took last year off. After a studly 2016, I sorta kinda burned out on training. I raced very little. Then I retired and, what with adjusting to a new routine and all, my training fell off even more. But it’s a new year, and I’m stoked.

So we’re going to renew our friendly competition this year to see who can run the most race miles. Same rules as always. Time doesn’t matter; we’re only counting race miles. And the miles only count if you officially finish the race. Drop out at mile 25 of the marathon, and you get credit for zero miles. (Of course, if you drop down to a shorter distance on race day, you still get credit for those miles. You just have to officially finish the new distance.) Total race miles is what matters, so nine 5k’s is as good as a marathon. Ready? Good.

Because you’re already ten miles behind.

Auburn Resolution Run. January 1, 2019. Ten miles. (Actually, 10.14 by my watch; trail courses are less exact than road courses.) Time: 1:57:11. Pace: 11:33/mile. Yeah, I walked the hills. When the official results come out, they’ll reflect a distance of 10 miles, and probably be a second or two slower.

I’ll see if I can figure out how to create a Facebook group so we can post our race reports. If not (I’m a dinosaur, people), we’ll use email, or Pony Express, or smoke signals, or something.

Catch me if you can.