It was 2:30 in the morning. I had just made the decision to end my hundred mile pursuit at mile 73. A few hours earlier, I had put medical tape on my left ankle/Achilles area, which had been unfortunately making threats for the previous five miles. Although it initially felt better in going out on lap 8 (each lap was 9 miles on trails in Croft State Park plus a mile start), the pain and the tightness had intensified by the time I had come back to the campground where the loop began. Unwilling to risk further serious injury, I officially dropped from the race after a painful, awkward walk to the bathroom less than 30 yards away.
The day had started at 8 AM EST under humid, cloudy conditions as the rain cleared off. Temps would not reach 70. In reality, though, the day had begun years prior after the 2011 Louisville Ironman, when a confluence of a personal friend’s journey to 100 miles by foot and a riveting book (“Born to Run”) had been a mechanism to consider that maybe I was called to run beyond 26.2. Two years prior to this 73 mile finish, I had once again failed to reach 100—this time stopping at mile 67. But unlike the race mentioned above that ended in injury, I had mentally ended my previous race many miles before.
For most, the thought of this endeavor seems crazy, unfathomable, or any other feeling expressed through a largely negative or flabbergasted superlative. At times, I too wonder what drives me to accept these challenges, especially when it is 15 degrees outside or pouring rain. “What would possess a grown man with six young kids and a busy career to do such a thing?” Isn’t this the question people want to know?
To begin, you must first understand this is not just a physical challenge, but a deeply psychological and ultimately spiritual one. I can write volumes and volumes attempting to explain, but to know it is to do it. Still, to know why I would even begin, you must understand that much of the journey lies in finding myself in Him in the truest way possible. It is a soul-searching quest to feel, know, and trust in God’s presence through the Savior of the World that I have heard so much about since I was a little kid.
Beyond the source, though, what ultras provide in great quantities which are often hard to find is a true testing ground of what we have been taught for decades. Spiritually speaking, we are told in the Bible more than any other phrase (or variant of) to “be not afraid” as fear drives out love just as psychologically it drives out joy. We are taught that pride is the root of all vices, that in whatever we do, pride of a negative sort blinds us to our true weaknesses and transgressions. Yet, although many of us intuitively know this, just when do we carve out time away from our daily tasks to confront the serious threat that pride and fear are in our life? It is here that ultramarathon training enters the equation, starting with a run in an early morning rain shower or through the deep snow for hours, but ending with a simple exercise in addressing unhealthy fear or pride no matter what the circumstances bring. Even well-prepared and conditioned, you will find that all pretenses of who you are and how important you might feel fall to deaf ears to the deer and trees that you run by. Your vulnerabilities emerge more clearly, and you begin to test just how much you trust Him more than the conveniences and comforts you desire.
Just as the pride and the fear are challenged, it is also silence that permeates us on every run. So often lost in our noisy lives, suddenly the endless tap-tap of your feet in the wee hours of the morning provides the perfect backdrop for conversations to ensue and thoughts to be heard, often thru a single lyrical line that is stuck on repeat. In what may seem like the loneliest place on earth, and sometimes is, spawns a mysterious portal to moments of clarity and conviction and creativity that rarely sees the light of a frenetic day.
“But why run, and for so long?” Sometimes I ask myself the same thing as I have been blessed with my share of long hikes and 100+ mile bike rides. To explain the essence and simplicity of endurance running is little bit like explaining why we find ourselves going back to the same song or the same food over and over. From as young as we could run, there was something about the movement and the freedom it provided, even when it was difficult, that started with the run itself and carried on even weeks and months after. Some might say it is the sense of accomplishment or the lure of adventure that moves us. Maybe. But much deeper into the sinews, it is the movement within us—not just of the legs, arms, and beating heart—but the movement of our innermost being. It is the child that never leaves us and the adult that yearns to know that more lies in store. It is seeing my kids running the hills in front of me and realizing that their youth and mine is part of a continuous line of humanity that one day finds itself growing old, but d–n well not settling in.
“Still, why 100 miles?” “Why run and walk for a whole day?” “Why put yourself through such an extreme test?” “Can’t you find the mindlessness and transcendence you desire in an easier way?” Maybe. But maybe that is not the point. Maybe the point is not to wait for the struggles to come to you, but instead go seek them out through whatever mechanism (running or otherwise) that may be. And then still find joy, contentment, and peace in their midst. Why would we wait for the floods to come and not shore up our homes? Why would we wait for the strain and strife to come and be afraid of what it might bring? Would we not rather go confront it in the utter darkness, and learn to trust in something and Someone greater than the sum of the parts for which we hold dear?
Why a hundred miles by foot? I am still asking the question myself because I haven’t gotten there. Maybe never will. But it occurs to me that the question most posed may hold the answers least known. It is the answer of where we are going, and just how we are getting there. Of what we truly desire and need in our lives, and what it means to be whole and alive and loved. No doubt we all enter this trek one step, one stride at a time. But where the trail leads in the long run remains the answer to know.