I'm running on the Road Across the Sky. I've got five pringles in my left hand, and one in my right. I try to keep my lungs full, exhaling about half the volume with each breath. The painful tugging runs from my ribs to my belly just right of mid line. I know my ileo psaos is cramping. I push the single pringle in my mouth and chew. It soaks up the little saliva in my mouth and turns into a dry chewy clump. I grab my bottle from my waist pack and fill my mouth with water so I can swallow. I'm able to get through three more chips this way. I pitch the last two.
Brian Schmidt runs alongside. We don't talk much. Not because it's a race, and we're battling at the front. We have emerged after more than 20 miles of steep, rocky, mountain single track. After miles of ankle-twisting, body-jarring scrambling up, down, and back up the lush mountain, I eagerly anticipated the chance to run out in the open. Now I feel overexposed as we run across the highlands. The road stretches out interminably in front of us. I welcome a companion through this inviting, yet inhospitable, place. Within our quiet is a shared focus -- to maintain ourselves.
Very long runs will inevitably require attention to maintenance: to hydration, electrolytes, and fueling -- and usually in that order. Running well for many hours requires successful management of these elements. Failure is felt as exhaustion, cramping, nausea, bloating, light-headedness, and other unpleasant sensations. Ultimately, failure to manage is felt as a complete loss of motivation to continue. It usually takes an ultramarathon to get to this point, though, because under normal conditions we have a couple hours buffer built in -- the reserves stored in our bodies. Experienced ultrarunners carry water bottles, salt tablets, and high-energy snacks to supplement those stores. Of course, conditions aren't always normal.
Courses can be set that are challenging by design. Highland Sky is like that: a couple of fast road miles to lure you in, a huge climb to drain your stores, a precipitous descent to bash your quads, then more climbing to rock-strewn boulder fields that take all of what is left of your mental focus. And then, still less than halfway through, you are left to bake on a wide open stretch of road across the top of the mountain.
That's where I am when I'm confronted with demons of races past. The painful abdominal cramps that caused me to drop from a race for the first time. The cotton mouth that I've experienced many times in warm weather races. The deadly potential of low blood-sodium that I experienced twice before I knew what it was. Even considering the difficult course, and the summer heat and humidity, I should not have been struggling after only three hours.
I slept little the night before, and got up with intestinal distress. Some of that is typical race stress -- but this was disproportionate for me. I drank some of my homemade energy shake, a concoction of yogurt and blueberries that was untested as a pre-race meal. For the run, I packed several packs of Clif Bloks in my waistpack, along with my water bottle and salt tablets. I methodically emptied my water bottle between aid stations, and took an S-cap each hour, but the Clif Bloks went untouched for 20 miles. It was time to take stock.
I had benefited from the work of other runners up to that point. Sean Andrish led up the big climb, taking some of the sting out of the nettles, and setting a strong steady effort that contoured to the terrain. Sean's vast trail running experience was evident. Jeremy Ramsey has also paid some dues, and was able to take over pacing duties throughout the most technical sections of the run. He established himself as one of the three best rock runners I have run behind. Clark Zealand, who gapped me on through those same sections seven years ago, dances across rocks like a kind of forest spirit. Dave Mackey runs through rocks like a locomotive. Jeremy just picks the most economical line possible and scoots through it. To the extent I kept him in sight, my best strategy was to follow him. We all knew that a shake-up was likely. The Highland Sky course, perhaps more than any other, changes abruptly. We didn't just go from technical single track trail to open dirt road. We went from forest canopy to exposed meadow. We went from hazy shade to glaring light. And an aid station where my wife waited. She couldn't believe I hadn't eaten. I traded Clif Blok flavors around -- it didn't matter though -- I would only eat one pack the entire run.
I finally led the way down that first section of road. I choked down two Bloks. I backed off the intensity in response to the cramping and dry-mouth. At the next aid station I grabbed the short stack of pringles. Small bites of savory snacks, interspersed with sips of water, help me keep it together. The race became a lesson in management. Small bites, small sips. Short strides up hill. Arms lightly swinging, hands loose. Recognize the despair, chalk it up to low blood sugar and dehydration. Manage it. Small bites, small sips. Flow across the ground.
I proceeded across and down the mountain in that way, resolutely clinging to the edge of what was possible. Technically, at every point of the race I could have tried harder. My sense, then and now, is that if I had tried harder, at any point of the race, things would have turned out worse. Had I resisted the truth of the situation, or imagined I had any special power to buoy myself above it, my flight would have melted like the wax of Icarus' wings. What I did have, and use, was the experience of countless prior moments. I do mean the sort of technical expertise to manage fluid and fuel consumption. More importantly I mean the management of my motivation, or will, to carry on with what is ultimately a recreational activity.
You have this notion that there comes a point in the race when the strongest runner willfully separates himself from the pack. I suggest another explanation: the strongest runner prepared to separate himself. The work was done across time, and in other places. Successful athletes prepare by training, of course, but also by establishing habits of mind. No one has a special lamp for conjuring the personal genie who can levitate us to the finish line. No one can decide to just go for it. While some athletes might gain by perpetuating the myth of a spectral puppeteer, I think the first step to real willfulness is admitting our own powerlessness. How do you do that? I can recommend a little race across the Highland Sky in West Virginia...