Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The race of life

I often ask myself why I race. Why have I devoted so much time and energy over the last five years to racing? I'm not particularly skilled, nor do I have much natural athletic talent. I don't possess competitive fire and my biggest adversary in any race I have ever competed in has been myself. And yet I keep going back out there. I shadow others on the dusty trail. I press deep into the lifeless tundra. I sweat and bleed and cry out in pain so I can find what lies at the finish line. What lies at the finish line? I never find out. It's just out of my grasp. And thus, the pursuit continues.

I have been thinking about the next race. Thinking it's time to really start training. So on Tuesday, I officially kicked off the winter training season by going for an eight-mile run on the smooth, wide, slightly inclined Rattlesnake River corridor. For the first four miles, I marveled at how great my legs were feeling despite the 130 miles of bike racing on Saturday-Sunday. The frosty night air swirled in my headlamp beam, and when the light started to dim, I decided it was time to turn around. I kicked up the pace because I was feeling great, and because my light was dying. Then suddenly, without provocation or reason, my left ankle twisted violently and my body slammed into the dirt. A shock of pain rippled through my feet and legs. I tried to get up, but an overwhelming wave of nausea forced me to lay back down. I rolled onto my back. The pain gripped my ankle like a vice, and I tried to remove myself from it by focusing on the stars. The night was deathly quiet, and cold. The sky was deep with stars, like a bowl of diamonds. I smiled, in spite of myself, because it was so beautiful. The pain dissipated a bit. I stood up and the electric shock returned. I sat back down and focused on the ice threads weaving together in puddle near my feet. I smile again, in spite of myself, because they were so beautiful, too. I stood back up and started to hobble. The stars shimmered. The cold air needled into my thin running shirt and tights. It was going to be a long walk back to the trailhead with a sprained ankle.

I didn't know how bad the injury actually was, but initially I assumed the worst. I lost my focus on the stars and ice. I thought only about cold and pain. I thought I had ruined my entire season, right there, on the very first day. What had I done wrong? Did I go out too soon after the 25-hour race? Did I wear the wrong shoes? Did I need a better light? I didn't even trip over anything. There was nothing to trip on. It was a smooth, wide trail. Did I just not know how to run? Was I ever going to learn? After all, I have yet to get through a real run this fall without injuring myself. What in the world was wrong with me? Why did I even want to run in the first place?

My mood was dark this morning. I can't help it. I don't like being hurt. I received a message from my friend Bill, the friend who won the solo division of the 25 Hours of Frog Hollow. It was November 10, a significant date for him, a difficult date, a date that represented loss. My heart ached for him, and everything he's going through right now, and I started to tap out a message of support, when I received a prompting that I had another message.

It was from Ben, the man who took second place in the weekend's race. For 25 hours, Ben and Bill had been engaged in a dance unlike any I had ever witnessed - mirroring each other's moves, surging and attacking, pulsing pain and fire for an entire day and an hour. Just to be the first to find out what lies at the finish line. It was both inspiring and astonishing, to watch two people dig so deep for so long. On the sidelines were me, Bill's often-absent co-racing friend, and Amy, Ben's wife and hardworking support crew. Amy was so sweet to Ben, preparing his bottles, fetching him snacks, catching naps but dutifully waking up every hour to see Ben through the pit. Amy was also five or so months pregnant with her first child, a son. She talked excitedly about the future. They would name him Bodhi Finn, she told me. I told her a friend of mine also just had a son named Finn, and that he too was likely to become a little bike-racing epic adventurer. Ben's determination and athleticism were inspiring, but Amy's love and devotion were even more so. Amy brought the big picture to it all, the reason for it all, that even as we struggle mightily to reach the finish line, there's nothing at the end but each other.

"Jill, I just wanted to say nice blog write up," Ben wrote to me. "I almost lost it with your line about racing and life. We went in for our regular check up yesterday morning and found out that our little boy's heart was no longer beating."

Sometime in the last couple of weeks, Ben and Amy's active little boy managed to kick and move enough to twist his umbilical cord. The hospital induced labor. Bodhi Finn Welnak was born at 2:25 a.m. Wednesday, November 10, at 1 lb. 5.8 oz. He put up a fantastic fight but in the end, he did not make it. Bodhi died November 10, too.

"It's these times when life and racing really do mirror themselves and why I gravitate to long adventures," Ben wrote. "It's like the 15th hour of a 24 hour ... you just don't know how you'll get through it. But, you bear down, jump back on, and keep going. That's just what we will do."

It's these times when my life falls into perspective. I have seen Ben and Amy's strength and love and know it will carry them through this difficult time, but my heart aches for them, and for Bill, and for the unexpected falls in this race of life.