My friend Danni turned me on to a blog called “Hyperbole and a Half,” where a cartoonist combines MS Paint-type drawings with witty commentary to describe real-world situations. There’s a particular post that cycles through my mind every time I embark on an adventure or workout, called “Expectations versus Reality.” “This discrepancy between the way I imagine things unfolding and how they actually happen is most dramatic when I overestimate my ability to perform a pointless feat of athleticism,” she writes.
So on Monday evening, I went for a run. I need to preface this story with a couple of qualifiers. First of all, I am purposely training to run right now. I have a couple of fall and winter goals that may include pacing an ultrarun if all goes well. So while there will still be much bike riding in my future, with the possible exception of riding Pugsley in the Susitna 100 and/or White Mountains 100, my winter events may center around running. Because of this, I feel strong motivation to improve as a beginner runner. Secondly, I woke up before 5 a.m. Monday in Sandy, Utah, drove 530 miles to Missoula, worked six straight hours, and then set out for my run. So I was quite tired.
I changed into shorts at 7 p.m. and started running from the back door of my office. I jogged aimlessly around the streets of downtown Missoula, which eventually landed me on the bike path, so I picked up speed and headed toward the university. In the distance, I could see a steady train of students working their way up the switchbacks to the famous “M” on the mountain. Through my already runner-addled train of thoughts, some kind of spark crackled in my mind. “I should run up Mount Sentinel!”
I cut through campus and started up the trail. I purposely took the direct (steep) route just to avoid the congestion on the switchbacks. I have to say that so far, I have really enjoyed my runs. They tend to progress at a significantly higher intensity than I am accustomed to, and my cycling-forged endurance and hiking-forged impact tolerance allows me to go a fair distance without negative effects. So I am engrossed in “runner’s high” for upwards of 90 minutes to two hours. Even though my lungs are burning and my head is spinning and my heart is racing and I am fighting off an urge to puke, I am really enjoying myself. I have yet to go for a run longer than two hours, so I haven’t yet had to deal with the dreaded prospect of eating whilst gasping for air, but for now, I am convinced that running is “super awesome.”
Mount Sentinel rises to 5,200 feet from Missoula’s 3,200 feet, so climbers have to gain 2,000 feet to reach the summit. The direct route can’t be more than a mile and a half. It’s steep. It’s not very conducive to running. Similar to my failed “mountain running” attempts earlier this spring in Anchorage, I always try to run until I physically cannot function, and then I fast-hike just below the level of blowing up.
I still consider this running, because the intensity level is so high, generally several notches higher than what I experience while actually running on solid ground. And I was feeling great on Monday evening. Heart was pounding, head was spinning and endorphins were coursing through my blood. Elevations disappeared quickly below me, deer bounded along the ridgeline in front of me, and a beautiful sunset blazed in the sky. A couple of times, my body sent out overwhelming pleas to stop and rest, which I acknowledged with the excuse that I needed to take photos of the beautiful sunset. But I kept those stops quite short, and only made two.
I crested the summit and started down just as twilight started to sink in. I didn’t have a headlight, but didn’t need one as the shimmering city lights of Missoula cast an orange glow on the mountain. Downhill running is still very difficult for me, but I have listened to the advice of friends who tell me to trust my feet and just keep moving, with generally positive results. I felt like a mountain goat, dancing down the rocks as college students perched on a boulder cheered me on.
Halfway down the mountain, with my speed about as high as I can maintain without losing control, I kicked a large, sharp rock with my left foot, hitting my right ankle squarely and painfully. I cried out and slowed my pace, hobbling as I tried to find my rhythm, but I didn’t stop. “Running is all about pain management,” I told myself. “This is nothing.” I continued gimping for a bit until the pain subsided. I veered over to the concrete M and took the mellow switchbacks the rest of the way down, just for good measure.
As I ran through town, the pain started to return. By then it was dark, close to 9 p.m., and I was starving. I kept up the pace back to my office, then went home. Once at home, I looked at my foot and noticed that my sock was smeared with blood. Removing my shoe induced a few tears, and then I peeled off the bloody sock to see a swollen, bruised ankle. I think I must have kicked the sharp edge of the rock into my ankle, resulting in the cut and bruise, and continuing to run on it probably didn’t help things. It’s certainly not a bad injury, but stiff, and it may prevent me from running for the rest of the week.
Pedaling my fixie gingerly into work this morning, I couldn’t help but draw parallels to Hyperbole and a Half: “As I'm lying there, crumpled and broken from my most recent attempt at meaningless success, I feel complete bewilderment at the motivation behind what I just did. There was no point. I'm sure that the decision was based on some scrap of reasoning, but in retrospect it seems that chaos and unbridled impulsivity just collided randomly to produce a totally unexplainable action with no benefit and all consequences.”
At least I can still ride a bike.