Riddle: I’m running away from myself and toward myself at the same time. What am I doing?
Answer: See below
A lot can be written here. There is something mysteriously soul-drenching about smearing oneself across countless miles of serrated wilderness. Those of us who do it know what it really means to be exposed. I could try and fool you -- convince you that once shed of flesh the spirit rises free. I could spin a story about resisting or even defying gravity, not just in one miraculous moment but step after step for well over 100 miles across a lush and notched landscape -- on a course that lures runners upward over 30,000 feet only to be dropped back down again. And while I do have a heightened sense of what glory feels like, I know better the basest attributes left when the body has been defaced.
Here’s the beginning: Guy Love asks me to help him run the Cruel Jewel 100 in northern Georgia. He says he wants to run it in 25 hours. Guy Love and I go back. He grew up in the tiny town where I now teach, the only son of two college professors. He approached me wanting to know about running ultras. I gave him the brief and some s-caps. Amongst his fellow trail runners at Virginia Tech Guy Love has blossomed. He crewed for me at the inaugural UROC a year and a half ago. So I want to help. And here is where the truth flashes subliminally across my cortical screen: I only want to help so much. In an instant I know that I won’t be waiting at remote aid stations working completely in service to someone else’s goals. I won’t be locked in a death-march with an imaginary short-rope connecting me to someone who barely has the will to continue. I see the overlap in our goals and that is about as far as I can stretch. I suggest to Guy that I enter the Cruel Jewel so that we can start and try to run the same pace together. Because I will be attempting a speed record of the 480-mile long Colorado Trail in July, most of my training is at 4 miles per hour, the same pace that Guy will need to maintain in order to complete the Cruel Jewel in 25 hours. And so we are agreed.
At only one point during the run was I aware of a significant tension between my stated goal of training for the Colorado Trail and a desire to compete in the Cruel Jewel. Guy and I have been trekking steadily for about 2 1/2 hours and are on our way down from Scroggin Knob toward Weaver Creek. At the bottom we will simply turn around and climb back up. We cross paths with the leader (Gabe Wishnie) early on the descent, so we know that he is already ahead by a significant distance (as much as 3 miles). Although I never consciously acknowledge engaging competitively, I find myself pressing hard when we turn around and begin to climb. Guy, who up until then had been running right with me, began to lag behind. Only gradually did I realize that I was glowing from the heat generated by the work of my many mitochondria at full bore. I was 15 miles into a 100 mile “training run” and I was causing the wheels to come off of my running partner. I had to consciously pull back and disengage. What Gabe, or anyone else, did on this run would be theirs. My job was to lock in a sustainable trekking pace to the end.
Many hours later, with darkness fully upon us, I had settled behind Guy. We worked mechanically up and down monstrous climbs, locked into the beam of our headlamps. Ours was a slow and gradual disintegration. The pace ground down like a machine with ball bearings stripped of lubricant. We rusted under the steady fog and drizzle, squeaking noisily across slick rocks and under fallen trees. At 2am we reached Buckeye Knob having covered 48 miles in 12 hours. We shook slightly with the cold and complete depletion of the effort. The two guys at the White Oak Stomp Aid Station literally gave us the jackets off their backs, and that may have been exactly what was required to keep us going. It got colder and rainier as we crossed over Coosa Bald. The descent to Vogel State Park was slow and torturous. We could imagine little that would keep us going. Race director Willy Syndram had listed that aid station as a quitter location, and we began to accept the real possibility that we would not proceed beyond it.
I had already hatched a plan to stop and take a nap, because I knew the turnaround was a cabin at the park. Guy finally said aloud that he had serious doubts about continuing, and that he was at least going to stop for a rest. When at long last we made the cabin after 58 miles and over 15 hours we met with what once again turned out to be exactly what we needed to continue -- though it would turn out to be an hour and a half later. The two women at the aid station had prepared hot peppery soup, and then grilled cheese sandwiches. We sat and ate and warmed ourselves. They would hear none of our sob stories, though, and simply left no room for us to quit. Although they threatened to shoo us out quickly, they eventually made way for us to doze on the soft beds long enough to recover our wits and see daylight again. I was still thinking that Guy was going to quit, and if he did, that I would probably quit too. But I wasn’t injured and I knew I could go on. But once again, the truth about myself emerged in an instant.
The way back would have to be driven by my goal. My trekking pace would get me back at just before dark. That was the motivation I needed to finish: a race against the darkness. And it implied a naked truth: I could not work in service to Guy Love. I had to tell him so, baldly -- I will leave you if you aren’t able to keep up. It sounds cruel because it is. I can see another kind of mountain top: the moral elevation of working for someone else, I just can’t get there. I have cried listening to the lyrics of Mumford & Sons “I will wait for you” because of what that really means: offering up yourself. The only thing that troubles me more than my selfishness is the possibility that I could fool myself into thinking myself better than that. At least, and it is cold comfort, when I put myself on an exposed and uncaring mountain ridgeline some distance from a challenging goal I will have to be honest. All of my success as an ultrarunner comes down to this -- I know myself.
Let me illustrate with a simple contrast that occurred to me about 85 miles into the Cruel Jewel. Almost 15 years ago I ran my first ultra. Although I had run competitively for 15 years before that, and had hiked the length of the Appalachian Trail, I still got it wrong. The Mountain Masochist is about 53 miles long and requires about 8000 feet of climbing. Although there are substantial stretches of trail, much of the run is on gravel forest service road. I won’t recount the race -- you can read a more detailed account here -- but there came a point when I simply could not sustain my race as I had imagined it. I slowed to a crawl and limped along completely disillusioned. I had overshot, tackling what seemed the most challenging possible event and letting it literally cripple me. It took around 8 hours and I did not run again for the next two years. At mile 85 of the Cruel Jewel I had been running for about 24 hours including something like 25,000 feet of climbing on terrain far more challenging than that of Mountain Masochist. I was methodically -- and effectively -- rolling out my plan to stay on my intended pace. I swung my arms to power up the climbs and immediately transitioned to a run on the descents. I stayed alert to my hydration and energy, anticipating and correcting any downward trajectory. I knew in that moment that, despite the apparent craziness of the endeavor, I at least could say that I had gotten it right. The extremity of the demand meant that I had little margin to be wrong -- in that case I would have slowed or stopped. I feel uplifted that I can claim that kind of certitude. I can do what I had set out to.
That jewel may be a lump of coal, I don’t know. The goals I set for myself are often couched in comparisons with others -- and I want to be better. It may be an inescapable truth that I am disposed to seek status at others’ expense. I know that I cannot completely give up myself in service to someone else -- that I cannot climb such a sacred mountain. My highest aspiration is for the kind of integrity required to climb the most difficult earthly mountains. What I glean from that may be a cruel jewel, but I hope it is at least real.