“You look flushed.”
“Flushed like a sunburn or flushed like all the blood has drained from my face?” I asked, realizing that if all the blood had drained from my face the look would be more like pale death rather than flushed.
I was sitting in a comfy chair inside the tent at the Patagonia Lounge – a space for runners to relax in some well used but greatly appreciated sofas and chairs. I finished my second American River 50 Mile Endurance Run in a time that was one and one-half hours faster than last year.
“Do you want to walk over to the medical tent? It’s around here somewhere.”
Diane just finished bringing in the runners she was pacing, showing her obvious excitement at having been a part of their first ultra marathon. She congratulated me on my time.
“That’s a great personal record,” she added in that voice so wonderfully full of infectious enthusiasm. I was certain she noticed that my breathing was fast and shallow, which baffled me especially since I finished the run at least an hour ago.
Going over the finish in my head, I had followed my immediate post-race plans to the letter: a smile and a wave of the hand for the photographer as I cross the finish line; pick up the finisher’s jacket and put my name on the list for a quick massage; and finally get something to eat and drink at Joe’s Cafe – in that very order.
But the veggie burger had no taste, which was probably not down to any fault of Joe. I just couldn’t finish it. My name was promptly called by the masseuse, who asked if I wanted to remove my shoes.
“If I take them off, they won’t be going on again,” I commented with some prescience.
The masseuse carefully cleaned the dirt and debris off my legs which made me sad. It seemed the legs should have remained respectfully muddy with that unique blend of perspiration and dust for a certain period. Only later when I returned home and removed my Pure Grits did I notice that my right foot was swollen. So that shoe really wouldn’t have gone back on if removed.
“Let’s see if we can find the tent.” Diane coaxed me to my feet, and I hobbled along after her. Perhaps it was not coaxing as such, but that I was just waiting for someone to tell me it was OK to ask for help. Her suggestion had found me receptive.
The young man looking after the medical tent had a compassionate and reassuring nature and an air of quiet confidence.
“Did I have any tightness in my chest or tingling in my arms?” No.
Dizziness, headache? Had I been hydrating, eating, replacing lost electrolytes? No to the first question and yes to the second.
“Why don’t you sit here for a while, get some fluids into you and see how it goes?”
So I sat with Gatorade in hand and watched the runners cross the finish line, some with great expressions of joy, some tears, and others with a look to which I could clearly relate. As with last year’s run, I realized there was no other place I wanted to be. Not the medical tent, mind you, but with this great group of runners and volunteers – living life in this moment as the sun set on the Auburn Dam overlook.
So rather than describe the run from beginning to end – such as by telling you how the moon reflected off the American River while runners shifted from foot to foot exchanging words of encouragement waiting for the start (for which I don’t have the poetry); or by telling you why you can’t run with a peeled banana like you would with a baton (it breaks in two with one half falling into the dirt); or about how I dumped the contents of my water bottle on the ground thinking an aid station was just around the corner (it wasn’t. I had another three miles to go) – I would like to end with talking about what running fifty miles teaches me about life.
First off, I feel best when my feet are not fighting with the ground and tripping over pebbles but are moving with the planet; when my stride is not stiff and tight but loose and rhythmic as if gliding through water; when my breath is not shallow and short but deep and in motion with the wind. I am most content when I feel connected to the earth to which I know I’ll return. I am least content when I am cutoff from nature.
Blisters, sprains and black toenails teach how to cope with adversity. These things will happen, but it is important to continue forward. It is also important to stop and walk – to enjoy the view – for life is a journey, not an end. Family, friends and volunteers wish you well. They have been in my shoes and have traveled their own pilgrimage. There is no shame in asking for help.
Most important is the aphorism from my great aunt Nan to “look after each other.” Nan spoke these words to Debbie and I when we visited her on a trip to Northern Ireland in 2005. It was following this trip that I started running again after an absence of some twenty-five years (realizing that if I wanted to continue flying I would need to get in shape for the ordeal). Nan was full of stories which she delighted in telling. Sometimes, she would tell the same story twice in the same conversation, but with a subtle twist that justified the repetition. She was proud to have mowed her own lawn in Belfast until aged ninety – and may have thought that running fifty miles is just a little bit silly. But then so is life…look after each other.
Nan passed away in 2007, and it is to her unfading memory that this piece is dedicated. In the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna says to Arjuna “…there never was a time when you or I did not exist. Nor will there be any future when we shall cease to be.”
I would like to again thank Diane Forrest and the indispensably marvelous staff of Fleet Feet on J Street in Sacramento (congratulations to Bob Halpenny on his Western States finish!); the innumerable and tireless volunteers; Julie and Darnell at Urban Fitness; and my family – especially my wife Debbie who puts up with, an even encourages, these adventures.