“Dream your pursuits; pursue your dreams” – jb
Ten long dreadful months after the 2013 Bucks County Marathon it’s finally over. I’ve endured injury, rehab, and chaos to return to the trail for a 30K in the mountains of Eastern Pennsylvania. Joined by hundreds of disturbed fellow-runners, those who consider rollicking through the woods, navigating rocks, boulders, fallen trees and rushing streams a pleasant Sunday morning, I had the peace and tranquility to dissect the anatomy of an endurance run.
My analysis is based on the 30K, but applies to distances of a half-marathon and more.
Pre-race: Preparation for an endurance race is mysterious, ranging from those who meditate to others who behave like a linebacker smashing his head against a locker before the Super Bowl. I’ve observed runners who stretch, do Ti-chi, pray, converse with themselves or other runners, do Yoga, cross their legs and perform deep breathing exercises, yell, sprint, and many who generally space out. Myself? I’m typically a loner before a long race, burrowing into my psyche and imagining mile sixteen, sweating profusely, a few lacerations, laughing at how silly I am.
Early Miles (EM): The phase where I struggle most. Thirty years ago I would have described the early miles as mile one and two; today they are the first 10K or so. The EM are characterized by making excuses to turn around and beg for a refund because I’d mistaken the trail run for a bird watching expedition and forgot my plaid shorts, vintage BanLon socks, and binoculars (apologies to birdwatchers who read this; I am actually a bird lover.) As I get deeper into the early miles, the excuses for a refund become more imaginative, creative, and usually by mile six I realize I’m in a rhythm and a smile emerges.
Early Mid-miles (EMM): I break into the EMM (roughly mile 6-9) enthused, like I’d found a $10 bill in a Taco Bell parking lot. I imagine my mane breezing in the wind as I stride and leap obstacles with the grace of a thoroughbred, feet barely touching the trail, passing runners by the dozen. In my mind, I am a stallion; in fact, I am lucky to be in the middle of the pack.
Advanced Mid-miles (AMM): A more accurate title for this stage (somewhere around mile 10-13) is Reality. It is a time in the race when illusion is replaced by unanticipated events such as a foot slamming into a rock, watching a fellow-runner smash his face into boulder, twisting an ankle, or assisting someone over a tree trunk four feet in diameter. The mind no long has the luxury of grandiose visions, rather it is focused on the reality of the situation—I’ve run roughly a half-marathon up and down mountain trails, feet soaked from slipping off a rock into a stream, and proud I haven’t yet fallen, though that means the odds are against me—and I still have roughly a 10K to go.
Early Late Miles (ELM): After decades of endurance running, I’ve come to rely on hitting the ELM (miles 14-16) for no other reason than the peace and solitude they provide. Years of experience have taught me that when I exhaust myself completely, a refuge emerges from deep within and I am at peace with life and myself. It is a state of mind where I am Buddha, Thoreau, Martin, Gandhi, and the homeless man in a heap of tattered blankets laying on a grate in downtown Philly, in other words I am in tune with the universe. My ideas are colorful 3-D, full of humungous luscious fruit and vegetables, majestic animals, smiling faces, a spotted horse. I am in a place where if I had a pen and paper, I could sit on the ground and write a poem so profound it would bring humanity to tears. I am no longer human, I simply Am. (If you are wondering, there wasn’t a marijuana patch at mile 15.)
Winding Down (WD): The last few miles of an endurance race are a challenge to place one foot in front of the other until crossing the finish line. At this point every muscle in my body is drained, I have no nourishment left in my system, my mind is mush. If it hadn’t been for the decades I had been successful at doing this, I wouldn’t believe it was possible.
Two Steps Past the Finish Line (TSPFL): I am planning my next endurance run.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve run the Double Trouble where I conjured up the Anatomy of an Endurance Race. The Double Trouble is a double-loop trail run on a 15K course where you can choose to run either a 15K or 30K. After the first lap, runners who choose the 15K are directed to the finish line and 30K fools like me continue for another punishing loop. When I was running the final steps of the 30K, a number of volunteers screamed at me and pointed in the direction of the finish line. I yelled back, “I’m doing the 45K, which way to do I go?”