Saturday, May 16, 2009

Our Burden to Bear

The gouge cut into the red soil of the Santa Fe Trail. It meandered back and forth organically, though never far from the center of the trail. It continued as far ahead as I could see. I was clipping along on my 20 mile run for today. Nippert sent me here because it’s flat. My tendons already feel the stretching of running on the gravelly canyons at the base of the mountain. By contrast this section of the Santa Fe Trail is well compacted. My legs seemed to embrace the change. With the strong wind at my back I made good time, a little better than 7 minutes per mile. The altitude didn’t seem like a factor. It takes the added effort of climbing to really notice.

Yesterday afternoon, though, I felt exhausted. I hadn’t slept well the night before. I tossed and turned. It reminded me of the several nights before Western States in ’07. I was in a comfortable bed in a quiet house but just couldn’t sleep. Of course I had just arrived a couple days before, and the house was at about the same altitude as I am here. I was unaware of any direct affects of the change in elevation, though. It was like when I opened a canister of recovery drink before setting out on the run this morning. The can wouldn’t sit flat on the counter. The top was puffed out as well. When I tore open the seal it whooshed with the release of pressure. It would not have done that in Virginia. I wondered, at first, if something inside had gone bad. That didn’t seem possible for a powder, though. Then I realized that I had brought the canister from 2200’ to 6200’. The air pressure outside had decreased but the pressure inside was still the same as that at the lower elevation where it was sealed.

Similarly, my body has to make specific adjustments to the decreased pressure. Gases that have dissolved in the fluids of my body, for example, are going to “come out of solution” at the higher elevation. This didn’t occur to me when I had to apologize to Nippert for my many “lapses” during our first couple runs together. I politely stayed behind him and assured him this was unusual for me. I don’t know the details of changes going on in my body, but I know there is no escaping physics.

I was curious about the cause of the gouge. Someone riding a bike with the kickstand down? The gouge was too wide, though, and the meanderings too jumpy for that. Something made it – fresh gouges don’t just show up on a smooth trail.

“There’s no such thing as bonking” Nippert declared last night. “If you take a muscle cell, put it in a dish with glucose, water, salt, and an electric current, it’ll keep firing forever.” I didn’t object. I don’t think much good can come of crossing Nippert. I knew what he meant. There is nothing mysterious going on when people bonk. Quite likely they have run out of fuel for their muscles. You have to eat, and drink, methodically in very long endurance events. No mystery. Just physics.

The source of the gouge came into view. A dark haired man with a dark blue sweat suit was jogging with a vague grimace. His hands were clasped around the full size cross that he carried on his shoulder. Behind him the tail end of the cross dragged along the trail, leaving a distinct gouge. Two other joggers led the way, just in front of him. They looked businesslike, if a bit pained. One spoke on his cell phone. The conversation was not casual.

Among the intended messages may have been that Jesus died for our sins. I’ve never understood what that means, though, so I thought about another of the still likely intended messages – that we all have a cross to bear.

One might think that ultrarunners are masochists. We do put ourselves in uncomfortable situations. My favorite race is called “mountain masochist.” I’ve had my share of painful injuries, all self-inflicted. I’ve had to stop running during an ultra when my ears started ringing intensely and my vision narrowed to a dark tunnel. Are we punishing ourselves? Assuaging the guilt for our wickedness? No. Speaking for myself and the runners that I know: we are not masochists. Do we have a cross to bear? Maybe, but I don’t think it is the sort of burden metaphorically represented by the cross used to crucify Jesus.

The burden that ultrarunners carry is self-knowledge. Not a New Age sort of self knowledge described by vague and mysterious “energy flows,” but a real understanding of what is possible – and what isn’t. We go to that line all the time. It’s like the gouge along the Santa Fe Trail. No special force intervened to lighten the weight of those 4x4 timbers. The wood cut into the dirt with exactly the force exerted by gravity – minus the intervention of the man who carried some proportion of the weight on his shoulder. We like to think that all of us have a levitating influence like this within us. Some hedge against the determinism of the physical world in which we live. Ultrarunners know better. There is no room for mystery after running for 14 hours straight across 80 miles of snow covered mountains and sun-baked canyons. There certainly isn’t room for effrontery.

This is our burden: our own nature. And gravity. They are inescapable, and yet we have the capacity to reflect, aspire, plan, and strive. The source of this capacity can’t be left a mystery, though, if we expect to get any better.

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