Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Learning to Let Go and Just Making it Hurt - Central Park 60k 2006

Nearly 5 years ago I wrote this - it's hard to believe.  I've traveled very far since then, but in the VT mountains I find myself circling back to a great many of the ideals I found in the middle of New York City in what seemed a life time ago.  Don't know why I discovered this old piece of writing today.  But I'm just going to roll with it...

On Sunday, I raced a good race.  At the Knickerbocker 60k I ran 37.2 miles in 4.55.18.  I took fifth overall out of well over 100 ultra runners. 

Honestly, I can care less about the results - the story, and more importantly, the lessons learned upon reflecting on the hurt and mental anguish of the race, offers up a truer telling of the day more than a standard race report.

My friend Jamie offered me up some wisdom on Saturday night.  We run because no were else can you learn and grow so much in so short a duration.  The conversation was prompted by my reservations about racing the next day.  I was feeling rather awful.  A had a horrible emotional and physical 'recovery' from my last Ironman and hadn't run in 4 weeks.  I hadn't eaten all that much either due to feeling ill.  I was horribly out of shape, weak, and 10 pounds underweight.  Not the best scenario when running 37.2 miles as fast as I possible.

But I listened to Jamie and decided to just go running the next day and learn whatever the world would throw at me while I would be plodding through central park for what might take 6 hours.  But like I said, this is not a race report.  This is a remembrance of some lessons learned.  For I wasn't there to race - I was just putting myself in an extreme situation and 'letting go', something I never associated with racing before.

Letting go is tough.  All season I have been an OCD, freak-out-anxiety-prone-super-type-A, everything in order, ultra prepared athlete.  Yes, much to the dismay to everyone around me, for such tendencies spread like a illness to many facets of your life causing stress on others.  

But the first lesson I face on Sunday was that the world doesn't operate on our terms.  We have to let go of our presuppositions and our wants in the face of reality.  It all stems from the conflict that ultimately arises from our wants juxtaposed against the way things are.  It happens all the times in our interactions.  We expect things from people that they cannot provide.  We forget, most tragically, that they should not have to provide them, and maybe cannot.  We must position ourselves relative to our surroundings as best we can.  And this involves relinquishing any foolish notion of control.

I had to accept some hard realities before the race.   I was out of shape and under nourished.  I slept approximately 3 hours the night before.  All probability pointed to a dismal performance and an unlikely finish.  But, nonetheless, for the first time in a long time I just 'let go'.  I accepted things has they had to be, and put my wants to the rear of my mind.  I wanted to be peak.  I wanted to out run all the athletes I saw at the start, the ones that would most likely destroy me today, whom I would on any another day beat.

But, instead of focusing on what I wanted, I focused on what I had.  This was the first time in long time I was confronted with the notion of feeling blessed.  I wasn't blinded, as I often am, by how I think things should be.  I just accepted them as they were.  I was standing at the starting line in central park on a beautiful day with 37.2 miles of possibility before me.  That was enough.  I was just going let myself go and run till I couldn't regardless of pace, position, and outcome.  This is applicable to how we allow ourselves to get psyched out, hurt, let down, strung out, or just burned out expecting things to me the way we want them.  The first moral of this 60k...get over you demands, just start running with what you got...let go....and be thankful for the experience. 
So, as the start sounded I just 'let go' and ran.  They say the first half of an ultra run is done with your legs...the second half with your mind.  I ran the first half pacing with my new friend, Ana, a many time Ironman and a marathoner with the same marathon PR as me.  We chatted warmly and friendly and vibrantly enjoying the day and two hours off running ticked off without much pain.  My heart rate was much higher than normal.  I tried not to think about my rapidly depleting glycogen stores and lactic levels.  I just ate a bit extra. 

But then the 2nd half hit.  It was evident that Ana I needed different paces at this point for our best performances, so we wished luck and I ran out ahead.

Here is where we come to the second notion of this piece: 'making it hurt'.  Before leaving on my bike ride from Oregon back to NJ, my dear friend Nancy made me a bracelet that said 'make it hurt'.  It was something we shared between us.  Pain is a means of change: both physically and mentally.  Times of hurt are times of great transformations.  I was wearing the bracelet during the race.

As I ran miles 18 to 26 I could feel the tension building in my calfs, hams, and quads.  My knees started to ache.  I was pushing a heart rate that was 15 beats too high for what I would call a rational pace.  I was running at a pace my out of shape body, scientifically speaking, could not hold.  I had to look away from my watch.  It only told me that I wouldn't finish.  When your heart rate is 190-193, and your 26 miles with 11 to go...well, that's just bleak.

As I mentioned before, my recovery from my last Ironman had been difficult emotionally.  I hurt a great deal as I tried to adapt back to normal life.  I was cast into a not so uncommon post IM depression.  It's like the person you've slept with every night for 2 years is now gone.  I would always wake with my IM goal, my race on the calendar.  Now I was waking to what seemed to be emptiness.  I felt hollow.  I was agitated, not myself, quite sad, and rather lonely.

My thoughts while running were...let's just see how much hurt I can really take.  How far can I really push my threshold of pain?  What will that be like?  Do I really know what pain is?  Maybe I've just been whiny as of late?  Hell, let's just consider this a legal way to try and kill yourself...just run until you drop dead.

By making it hurt we are transforming our understanding as to what we can withstand.  We set new thresholds from whence we derive new criteria for our spirit and where we can let it begin to rise.

So from mile 26 on I ran as my body locked up in tortuous muscle cramps.  My eyes would wince and tear up as a result of the tremendous discomfort.  But I would not allow myself to slow.  I watched as my perceptions started to alter.  The road would drift before me and sometimes I would get really dizzy.  These are bad sensations to have while considering...well, at best, at this pace I'd be done in a little less than 90 minutes.

But pain of such magnitude does transform you.  It humbles you.  It makes you want to harvest it and cultivate it so that you can evolve from it into something stronger.  It makes you grateful.  It makes you have a quieter disposition.  It makes you take less for granted.  It cuts you to your core and exposes your true self...the one separate from the one saturated in daily crap.  You stop and think about true suffering in parts of the world where hunger and poverty make this an everyday experience.  You want to never inflict pain upon another human being again.  You want to stop and think a great deal more, and act and speak less.  Here is where you begin to start to embrace it.

With 2 miles left I couldn't speak to people as I passed them and they started conversations.  I couldn't keep the road straight before me.  I was sputtering nonsense.  I had a side stitch that felt like I had a horrible knife wound in my side and someone was prying around with a crow bar.  I was mille-seconds from vomiting.  My eyes would roll back in my head as if I were about to face plant and then with all the volition I could muster I would pull myself back to the reality of hurt.  I could only look at a street lamp 10 feet away and give everything I had to get there before sighting the next one.  But I would not slow...after all, I wasn't dead yet.   

This is when it occurred to me that this was my ability to grow.  To step out where I never had.  To run until I would either finish strong, or hit the pavement hard.  This is when I spotted two racers about 400 and 800 yards ahead of me running at a quick clip.  I gave myself over to the suffering.  I welcomed it.  This is my form of cutting...my masochism i guess.  Scars on our bodies are shallow compared to the ones we can impress upon our minds.  I passed one guy with 1 mile left.  The other watched helplessly as I out ran him with 200 yards to go.  I rolled up next to him, looked over with what would look like a cool poker face (but was really just a face numb to the world) and accelerated.  My ears rang with pain, and my legs defined a new reality of hurt for me, but I finished at full clip.

I had taken 5th place with a time 4.55.15.  I couldn't believe it.

Sure I got a ribbon.... but I really gained so much more.... well, maybe less...by letting go, I finally was really able to make it hurt...and thus by making it hurt to such a new degree I learned to embrace it...therefore, making me all the stronger for letting go in the future. 

Life is too short to be watching your watch and counting mile splits.  Sometimes just run towards the worst hurt you can find...and realize that if you don't die...well, you have a new threshold, and therefore a new realm in which to inhabit.  And when things don't hurt....cherish it...cherish it...cherish it.

"The poison of which weaker natures perish strengthens the strong - nor do they call it poison" ~Nietzsche


  1. Well put! I think every athlete needs to find moments like these, to truly define who they are.

  2. You have come a long way Jason and have a long way to go this weekend. Good luck on 100 miles and looking forward to following you this weekend! Good luck!