Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Finish Lines

Somehow my silly hobby got me an interview on a running podcast. It just so happens that I am of huge fan of said podcast. I also happen to know the host since we ran the crazy Hrimthurs races together and several other races it turns out. He does great work with the show. It was a tremendous opportunity to tell people how running has become part of my life and made it better. I was very nervous about it and hope someone found something redeeming about it. The one thing I have learned was that even in a long form, two hour interview, you only get a very small fraction of the story. This is no fault of the host, who has the difficult job of getting to all the topics in a timely and engaging manner, which Scott does marvelously. It is up to others to judge my performance as I can not impartial. I put myself out there and open myself up for judgment.  I'm fine with that.
Each story that was told, each race that was mentioned had much more going on below the surface. Being on the show was a great chance to get some of that out. This format is my chance to further elaborate on the details. A chance to self reflect and to share the rest of those stories. If you're here reading then it is because, maybe, you want to hear these things. Thank you for that.
One example of a topic briefly covered was the story of my first marathon finish. The months leading up to this will have to covered in another, deeper dive of a post but they were not the best of times. Running began to become a release form the stress in my life. I started to be consumed with the idea of running a marathon. It was the ultimate feat of endurance that I knew of. Well, maybe an Ironman triathlon but that was just some insane fringe sport {wink}. I finally decided it was time to commit to it and the 2009 Detroit free Press Marathon was my target.
I looked online for how to prepare for a marathon. Like so many before and after me, I found the Hal Higdon program. The mileage for each day and each week was laid out simply and logically. My engineer's mind ate this up. I printed it out and began the first week of June 2009 for the race which took place in late October.
Week One consisted of short runs around 3 or 4 miles. The long Sunday run that first week was a whole 6 miles. I had never run over 4 and it seemed to be a daunting task. For some reason I trusted that I would be able to get through the 18 and 20 mile runs later in the plan. I went out and did that run, not knowing if I could. I recall feeling good the whole way. Coming into the last mile I realized I was going to do it. 6 miles. I was so proud of myself and, honestly, it is still a special running memory. In comparison to what has happened since it doesn't seem so amazing, however, nothing that came after would have happened without that day. It was a critical first step. I began learning how to face seemingly difficult tasks and realize that I am capable of doing more than I think I can, as all of us are.
As the weeks went on I built up my confidence. The long runs became longer and I was finishing them. Every day there was work to do towards the goal. I still had no idea if I could really do it or what it would be like. I was afraid to miss a workout and I did the exact mileage called for every time. I felt I had to follow the plan exactly because if I didn't there was no way I could succeed.
The long weekend runs kept me away from the home environment which was always tense and uncomfortable. My wife at the time and I were rarely talking any more or doing anything together and when we did it was just a waiting game for one of us to get angry about something. Running was my place to think. It was my place to focus on other things. It was where I could succeed or fail on my own terms. I didn't know it but I was learning a way to address and cope with issues I was having with myself, which will have to be another post (or 2 or 3).
As the race approached, I was nervous but started to feel that it was entirely possible. I struggled with an 18 mile training run but had felt great during the 20 mile run. The lesson that has carried over is that not every day is your best but struggling and getting through difficult days is the real test.
I left very early race morning, worried about finding parking and getting to the start on time. The race takes place in late October which in Michigan can swing between freezing or high 70s. It was freezing at the start. It was a long cold wait for the starting gun. I became a bit emotional as the crowd started to move forward. My first race ever was beginning.
There is really no need to give a detailed recap of the race. I felt good for the first half marathon. I fed off the crowds that big city marathons have every where. As the half marathoners veered off, the race became a little lonely. At 20 miles the day was heating up and I hit that wall marathoners talk about for the first time.
The last 6 miles was a mix of walking and running. It was somewhere here that my decision to divorce began to take shape. I had committed to the marriage and still for some reason hoped it could be saved. That faded the closer I got to the finish line and was gone by the time I jogged the final half mile with tears in my eyes to the finish. Everything would be different from then on.
The 1st finish line when it all began

That brings me to finish lines. I crossed that first finish line alone. I didn't know a single person that was there cheering. I had no one there supporting me or encouraging me. Though I had made a momentous decision, the moment I crossed the finish line wasn't some magical, cinematic moment. I simply ran across an arbitrary point in the universe. The next second life still continued just as before. I still had problems to deal with that finishing a race didn't solve. I'm sure I was not alone in mistakenly thinking that the completion of monumental goal will instantly produce positive results.
Since that race, I have worked my up to ultras and still occasionally have that flawed expectation of a triumphant finish.
Crossing the finish line of an ultramarathon can be one of the most anticlimactic events you'll experience. There are rarely large cheering crowds. Ice Age 50 had a nice group gathered along a finisher chute clapping as runners finished. When I finished Grindstone 100, it was  somewhere between 4 and 5 AM, and by the light of a single weak flashlight, I met the race director, who handed me a shirt and buckle. That was that after more than 34 hours of struggle. After finishing my first 50 miler, a huge step in my running development, I was handed a medal and then sat by a tree and cried.
No one I knew was there to share in that moment.
The rare exceptions stand out. My wife at the finish of my first 100. My brother, who met me at the finish of both Tuscobia and Arrowhead. My parents at the Marquette 50. My friend Chris most recently at the Lumberjack 50. These are are all very memorable to me. I cherish them.
Mohican 2014

Mohican 2016

As I run more races and get to know more people in the ultra running community, I recognize more of them at finish lines. Whether it is someone I've known for a while or just met that day on the trail, seeing them at the finish, congratulating each other, makes this sport fun. The triumphant finish isn't really what I needed, even though I thought I did. Getting to any finish line is a only temporary goal. The work and struggle to get there is the important part. Interacting with my fellow runners, who share similar experiences is important and helpful to me.
Personally, I enjoy hanging out at the finish line to cheer others on at the end of a race. From 5k to 100 milers you get to see the faces of those who fought to reach a goal and accomplished it. It is inspiring to, perhaps, see the moment when their lives have changed, even if there is no movie soundtrack playing or fireworks exploding.  I'm looking forward to my next finish line and what lies beyond.

Check out Ten Junk Miles Podcast on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts

Western States 100 Preview post coming next week

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