The Solace of Wilderness
"Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves."
Long before I was an ultramarathoner, even as a child, whenever I needed time to think, I searched for the quiet solitude of the wild places. I guess I have always been an ultramarathoner at heart, even if I didn't know it.
However, as I described in my previous post- Greenland 50k 2010, I've slowly and finally come to realize that I shall never be the ultramarathoner I dream I'd like to be.
I've been in denial about it for several years. Then I bargained with myself: "If you only trained harder, you won't be so short of breath when you run fast or go high." Realizing that the medical condition I have is congenital and there is no way to train myself out of it, I was angry, discouraged and sad.
"It's not fair!" I thought.
Nevertheless, I realized I must find a way from such negative thought and move forward towards acceptance.
The five stages of coping are:
Although usually applied to situations of severe grieving and distress, such a death of a loved one, when facing one's own death, a failed personal relationship, the loss of a job, facing a chronic illness and so on- this process can apply to a variety of situations in which any form of loss occurs.
There are many morbidly obese people whom I see in my medical practice every day who say "I can't" when it comes to trying even minimal exercise or controlling their diet.
"You can't or you won't?" I sometimes wonder to myself but would never ever say out loud. I rapidly force such thoughts out of my mind. My job is to coach, advise, help and support- never ever to judge or criticize. .
With time, training, and dedication, I know a number of them could eventually outrun and outperform me, if only they had the initiative to begin and the self-discipline to stick with it.
However, I do need to point out that there is the occasional patient who does begin and succeed at changing their lifestyle- it is extremely inspiring. It makes what I do for a living worth it.
Some of them even thank me. I reply, "No thanks are necessary. You did all the work. All I did was point out what you already knew."
I was overweight once too. Not a lot, only about 35 lbs. Indeed that is one of the reasons I started running 8 years ago, never imagining I'd eventually be running ultramarathons. Losing weight and keeping it off is hard.
It's not fair for someone who truly wants to and enjoys exercise have physical limitations, while there are millions and millions of others who don't bother even trying, but then life is not fair.
Finally at Greenland, I realized that I must eliminate such negative thoughts and accept the situation.
"Get over it!" I told myself over and over. "Stop whining and get over it!".
Facing limitations and overcoming them, that is what ultramarathoning is all about.
Every single one of us have limitations, whatever they may be and no matter whether we admit them to ourselves or not.
To be honest, I cannot say that I've actually lost anything- I've always been dreadfully slow- so technically I never had "it" to lose.
Still, the loss of a dream is still a loss, even if it is a far milder loss than any other possibilities.
So needing both a training run AND time to think, I did what any trail runner does:
I went for a long training run in one of my most favorite local places to run here in western South Dakota: the Black Elk Wilderness.
I initially considered running a circumnavigation of the Black Elk Wilderness, that would have been about 24 or 25+ miles. But we recently had had a heavy snow the week before, making trails muddy and streams filled higher than I'd seen before.
I started out intending to run the full loop around the Wilderness, wth Laurel Highalnds 77 miles only 4 weeks away, it would have made an excellent training run. We were soon to leave on a 12 day trip to Alaska, during which I would do minimal running, so I needed at least one last long training run before that race.
The trails were wet and slippery. I was glad that I wore my INOV-8s instead of my Vibram Five Fingers.
Those VFFs would have been cold!
Most streams you can find a way across without getting your feet wet.
Some of the streams were mid-calf or just below my knees. Expecting wet terrain, I had preventively taped my feet to avoid blisters as I do before every big race or difficult long training run. Despite soaking my feet early- no blisters!
We had had a heavy 6-12 inch snow only a few days before. With rain and warmer temps, most of it had melted.
Gosh that water was cold!
All around me were signs of spring, melting snow, blooming wildflowers, and singing birds.
I saw Bearberries both blooming and with red berries from last year.
It is rare for there to be both edible berries and blooming flowers on the same plant, the exception being some types of domesticated everbearing strawberries.
Bearberries do not taste very good- they're dry, floury and only slightly sweet. But they are the only berry available during cold months of mid-winter and early spring. They will keep you alive if you're lost in the mountains and starving. Smashing them seeds and all against a rock will provide even more nutrition than chewing and swallowing whole.
Another past use was as Kinnick-Kinnick- a non-tobacco, non-nicotine containing dried herb smoked by indigenous peoples.
Another source of Kinnick-Kinnick is the Red Willow or Red Osier Dogwood. It grows along streams in the Mountain West and Far North. We have some of it here but I didn't see any today so I wasn't able to take photos to post here.
I also saw blooming Pasqueflower- the state flower of South Dakota.
Onward I jogged. I wish I could post the sounds of running water and smell of wet ponderosa pine.
You'll have to come out here to experience it yourself someday.
I finally came to a crest where I saw "George and the Boys"in the distance staring back at me through the mist.
It was Mt Rushmore- with past presidents George Washingtion, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt- carved out of solid rock.
Despite the Black Hills being a well-known tourist destination, sometimes I forget and am surprised when I come around corner to see sights such as this.
I was also surprised to see a staircase built out of logs- I was about 10 miles into my run and 5 miles from any road.
I jogged on and came to a trail intersection which I've taken before but not since last year.
I couldn't remember which was the way around the Black Elk Wilderness and which cut back across the middle.
I didn't bring a map because I had run here before and thought I knew the trails.
Oh well. I took the spur I had never run before.
When in doubt, I usually take the trail less traveled by or which I've never taken before…
If it didn't turn out to be the correct one, at least I would get to see some new territory.
As I ran up a hill, I came across some hikers. They didn't have a map either but assured me that I was on the correct trail to get to where I intended.
Soon, however, I realized they were wrong too.
Because I was only a mile from the next trail, I decided to keep going and save the circumnavigation for next time.
It was good that I did.
For soon I would discover how much snow was left in the higher altitudes.
As I climbed, the trail got wetter and snowier. The snow was wet melting slush.
At one point, for every step I took, I slipped back 6 or more inches.
I looked at my GPS: I was walking at a 22 min/mile pace.
Now that is SLOW, even for me!
My feet were soaked- but the rest of me was warm. On days like this, one needs to be prepared. My pack weighed 20 lbs. Not only did I have food and drink but also an entire change of clothing, a warm jacket, wool hat, mittens, and dry pants, as well as firemaking tools and space blankets.
I never forget than I am only a broken ankle or wrong turn away from being forced to spend a night out.
This time of year, hypothermia could set in in only a few hours, especially in a fatigued runner with sweat soaked clothes and ice water drenched shoes.
I've never had to use my survival gear yet, but I'll never be caught out in the wilderness without it. When it comes to the human condition, nature may not care one way or the other- but it can be unforgiving of foolish mistakes.
Then I spotted movement and gray hair in the trees. Despite how tired I was getting from trudging through the now, I was instantly alert and awake.
There are mountain lions here.
I am always more aware than I might be were I slogging on the side of a road or sidewalk. Although no mountain lion has ever killed a human here in the Black Hills, I didn't want to be the first.
It turned out it was two mule deer does. I saw them before they saw me.
After watching them browse for a few minutes, I needed to press on.
I didn't want to scare them so they'd crash off into the trees.
I began speaking to them quietly and calmly.
They looked in my direction, concerned and curious but not frightened.
I began moving slowly, avoiding direct eye contact, looked at the ground and walked diagnally.
I tried to act as if wasn't interested in them and was planning on walking past them as if I had never seen them. This ploy has worked for me with other animals countless times in the past.
They turned, stopped and calmly watched me pass by.
It is amazing the sixth sense animals have regarding your intentions. Had I been out bow hunting instead of trail rnning/hiking, they would've ran off, sensing danger immediately.
Instead, somehow they knew that I meant no harm. For that I was rewarded with some great photos.
As I passed by, I continued to speak to them quietly. I told them what pretty girls they were and reminded the to keep a better eye out for mountain lions.
Had been a large hungry feline instead of a slow tired human, who knows what might have transpired?
Although the deer did not know (or care) what the words I said actually meant, I believe animals are able to sense our intentions by our body language, general demeanor and behavior.
I smiled as I ran the last few miles down hill to my car. I was grateful for this day, for all days in the past and those days yet to come.
Although today was not the easiest run or best weather, I was able to see and experience what most people never do.
Without a little rain and snow every now and then, how are we to appreciate the sunny clear days?
I am speaking this literally in reference to the weather but even more so as a metaphor of our lives. As much as we would like to have control over what happens in our lives, there is much outside of our control. We need work on that which we can and accept that which we cannot.
I've come to accept that I am and I will always be a back-of-the-packer. Still, there is honor and pride in that.
Almost anyone who is able to walk has the potential of finishing a 26.2 mile, 50 mile or maybe even 100 mile race. They might not do it quickly but they could still finish. However, most will never even try because they do not have the discipline, desire or insanity to do so.
"Dead f'n last" is always better than "did not finish."
Of course, even worse than either of those two is: "did not even try."
So I am slow. So what? And who the hell cares other than me? There are worse things to be.
I know I have much to be thankful for: my family and friends, my health, my job and so on. That realization alone has made the process of acceptance easier. I really should not complain- and I know it full well too. As things in life go, being slow is a little minor inconsequential thing.
I'll keep running these crazy ultras as long as I can. Hopefully that will be a long long time. I fully intend to be that 80 year old guy out there shuffling along in dead freakin' last place.
If there ever comes a time where I cannot possibly officially finish any ultra under cut off, well then I start volunteering at aid stations.
I might ever consider running some more shorter races such as 26.2 marathons (God forbid! Can you imagine me doing that!?!). I'll continue to run/hike my own personal ultramarathons on the mountain trails. At least there will never be any cut-off times in those solitary races against myself. I have all the time I need.
Until then, there you'll find me with a smile on my face (most of the time) slogging along somewhere in the back-of-the-pack. My name might be at the very bottom of the list of finishers printed in Ultrarunning Magazine- but there you'll find it all the same.
Take care, enjoy those trails and run on…