Thursday, December 09, 2010

The art of slog

Teeth-grating pop music blared through the radio as I crept through rush-hour traffic on Brooks Street. I switched through the four stations I can pick up on my ancient car stereo and settled on the only song I didn’t recognize. I crept through one traffic light, then another, trickling ever-so-slowly toward Blue Mountain.

I admit it was a strange route to drive across town for. The Blue Mountain Road is just an nondescript strip of gravel snaking through the woods up a nondescript mountain. In the winter it’s gated, which means it sees little to no motorized use and therefore doesn’t offer much of a base for cycling or running. I parked next the summer trailhead. Ignoring the tracks that led to a network of ski trails I knew would be fast but short, I donned my microspikes, switched on my flashlight, and started running down the pavement. After a mile or so I turned left onto frozen gravel, which soon became packed snow. I paralleled wooden fences and open meadows before I crossed the gate, pressing deeper into the woods.

The steep canyon blotted out the moon, which was thin that night, anyway. City lights reflected off the clouds and cast a dull orange glow on the snow. My legs kept an even speed, not necessarily feeling strong, but not bad, either. I followed a well-packed foot path for a mile, until it became a loose foot path, and then just a single set of footprints that paralleled a set of ski tracks. Minutes passed even though miles really didn’t. I moved slow and steady, breathing large gulps of the moist, chilled air. I let my mind wander to the tracks, creating small stories and entire universes around them. The runner had a smaller stride than mine, probably because he was walking. I saw the faint tread of boots and imagined a hiker marching blissfully upward in the weekend’s sunlight. The skier had a dog, punching deep postholes into the ski track. But those tracks faded before the ski tracks did, so I imagined several skiers, shuffling single file beside the phantom hiker. Why did we move up this mountain, with such an unclear destination? Obviously, for all of us, that reason was exercise — the art of becoming fit. But what does fitness really mean? These are the things I ponder when I am alone, running up the mindlessly steady grade of a snow-covered mountain road.

Soon the footprints petered out, and I ran through the powder next to the ski tracks. Just before the road’s mile marker four, even the ski tracks cut a lollipop loop and ended. I looked around for a sign of a destination, but saw nothing remarkable. This just happened to be the place the last person on the road decided to quit. It occurred to me that I was now traveling farther than anyone had since the last snowstorm. I saw deer tracks in the snow and followed those. I ran a mostly straight path as the deer wove in and away from the hillside. But after mile marker five, even the deer moved permanently off the road. The snow was eerily smooth. I was alone. Completely alone.

I continued running through snow that was becoming ever deeper. I was shuffling, struggling, wheezing deeply now, and moving ever slower. Powder clung to my pants as high as my knees where I wandered into drifts. I kept up my shuffle, watching the shapes of snow-covered pine trees creep beside me, half-willing myself to believe in monsters, to believe in the exciting prospect of sinister forces lurking in the shadows. I looked up at the opaque sky. It’s orange glow was gone; the city lights had been blotted out. There was no more sign of life.

The dark outline of the mountain hovered above me. I passed mile marker six. I had no memory of just how far this road really went. Several other bits of information lingered just outside of my limited realm of comprehension — the fact that seven miles up means seven miles back, the fact that I was now working quite hard to move at walking speed or slower, the fact that it was getting late, that I had other things to do tonight, that people would worry. I only understood one thing and that was that I wanted to follow this road, as far as it would take me, as far as I could go.

Fatigue settled over me like a warm blanket. Within the fatigue, the montone shadows, the monotony of the climb, was a peace that I only find when I am in the midst of a good slog. It is difficult for me to describe — slog isn’t exactly an goal to seek out, like climbing mountains or winning races. Slog has no reward in sight, no concept of an end. Slog only begets more slog, the depletion of energy, the wearing of muscles, the creep of exhaustion and seep of intellectual capacity until it seems the only thing left in the world is slog. It’s difficult to describe, impossible to understand, but I find peace in this feeling. There is joy in the slog, just as there is joy in hardships and pain. In experiencing both the world and myself in their most basic forms, I find I can truly appreciate the beauty and complexities that lie in both the world and myself on the other side of the slog.

I find it equally impossible to explain to people why I’m training to run the Susitna 100. I’ve braced myself for criticism because no one, and I mean pretty much no one, shifts from no running at all to running a winter 100-miler in a matter of months. I expected others, especially my more experienced runner friends, to question my delusion, lack of understanding or hubris. I wish there was a way I could explain that the Susitna 100 is really not like other races. That in it’s own way, it’s no more like a 100-mile ultramarathon than it is like a 100-mile mountain bike race. Of course, in many ways it’s much more difficult than either, but how do you define difficult? Maybe, I want to expain, a “real” ultramarathon like the Western States 100 would be impossibly difficult for me compared to the Susitna 100. That the “real” ultramarathon is hard precisely because it doesn’t contain enough hardships, enough mental challenges, enough slog.

My ultrarunning friends have yet to openly step forward with questioning or criticism. But I did receive one bit of encouragement from a friend who understands both sides:

“You're doing the perfect types of runs to get ready for something like Susitna. There are so many people who try to become ultra runners who just don't understand what it really means to slog along for hours on end. You obviously understand that part better than almost anyone and I think that will be a huge benefit for you.”

More than 20 minutes went by and I hadn’t passed another mile marker on the Blue Mountain Road. I knew I was moving too slow. There would be calls and texts waiting for me back in the world cell reception. I had to go to work tomorrow. It was late. I took one last lingering glance at the ridge above me and turned around to run, slowly but with increasing speed and confidence, the seven miles back to my car.

14 comments:

  1. Awesome post as usual!

    I wanted to state a different perspective on Jill and 100 miles. From the moment I met her I honestly thought she would be able to finish almost all foot 100s in this country (and I've done a lot of them) today, albeit with some potential for injury. The Su 100 is a perfect candidate for her to finish without problems. What I've seen of her so far only reinforces that assessment. She has crazy endurance, and she has a giant heart. Also she has a very significant foot-base that's more relevant to running 100s than a lot of the "speedwork" that people put in. I would estimate her finishing chances to be higher than the average over-prepared novice hundred mile runner who has been training for two years in an "easy" race. Jill doesn't believe me quite yet. But I know this one better than her ;)

    Beat

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  2. Here's a little ultra-running insight from another ultra-cyclist type. After earning some stubborn tendonitis in the Divide last year, my physical therapist recommended I do some running for cross training to help better develop muscles in my hips. Within a few months, I ran a 50 miler, 2 months later I won a neat little trophy at of the tougher 50 milers. Then I got bored with running because mountain biking is just plain more fun, and I've only run a handful of times since then. I'm sure you'll do fine at Susitna and be back to riding a ton by spring...unless Beat convinces you to try to get into Hard Rock.

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  3. Those are fighting words on the running front and good encouragement at the same time :) Note I didn't convince Jill to try this ... nor does it matter to me if she runs or bikes (hey I bought a mountain bike! I love variety ...) or whatever.
    I think there's some pretty cool stuff to be done running/fastpacking wise both within and outside of organized events - and it seems like a good complement to biking. And there are some incredible trails where foot is just the better option.

    That said, Hardrock would be right up Jill's alley ;) (damn lottery though).

    Cheers,
    Beat

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  4. Jill,

    you can run in microspikes? I think they are awesome for hiking but if I try to run in them I feel like I am running in high heels.Or that my feet have very big claws. It makes me giggle. But I can't do it for a long period of time.

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  5. Ha, I didn't intend for those to come out as fighting words! Since I know that Jill is capable of doing anything I can do, I just wanted to share my story to give her some more encouragement.

    And Beat, congrats on the bike purchase. You'll soon be addicted.

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  6. Probably poor choice of words on my part, I took it in good fun of course :). I like when someone's passionate about their stuff! I'm definitely excited about biking, it IS a ton of fun (though I really need to learn some technique, and crash a few times to lose my fears) ... Jill DID talk me into signing up for White Mountains 100 in Alaska on a bike - which scares me to death! However, I just got some super-warm pogies in the mail, which makes me feel a lot better!!! And I hope my snow bike arrives soon as well ;)

    And Mary, after Jill had her foot issue I recommended some more robust trail shoes with good rock protection to her (same kind of shoe I always wear for running since I have very soft feet that need to be protected from mean rocks :) and this may explain why running in the Katoolahs doesn't bother either of us particularly.

    Cheers,
    Beat

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  7. Kurt, thanks for the vote of confidence! I often refer to you as an example of an ultracyclist who dabbles in ultrarunning, along with Dave Chenault and Chris Plesko. I too like the idea of one complimenting the other, which is why I decided to strike up the hobby in the first place. (And this interest happened before I met Beat. It's actually the reason I met Beat.)

    One truly important thing I neglected to mention in this post is how meaningful and necessary Beat's support has been. I know it's hard to quantify the objectivity of the opinion of someone you're in a relationship with, but he has more diverse ultrarunning experience than anyone I know, is very much like me in his mindset about endurance racing, and has also run beside me for a fair percentage of my very short running career. So I value his opinion above anyone else in the ultrarunning community. I also have the expert advice and support of my good friends Danni and Leslie, experienced women ultrarunners, as well as support from my ex-boyfriend, who is lending me his sled for the endeavor.

    I fear this post made it sound like I'm doing this alone, when I most certainly am not. But sometimes when you are blogging about your own life, you fail to mention the parts that seem most obvious to you.

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  8. I listen with love to my body's messages
    My body is always working toward optimum health. My body wants to be Whole and Healthy, I cooperate and become healthy, whole and complete.

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  9. I think I completely understand what you mean about the near impossibility of something like the Susitna 100 making it easier to swallow. You go into it knowing that you'll be walking, dragging, taking hours to go mere miles. Expecting those things ahead of time sort of makes it all ok when it happens. That's what a race like that is supposed to be. Awesome! You're going to rock it.

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  10. Durango Joe6:56 AM

    Thanks for not running in the ski tracks as tempting as it might be in deep snow. It really does mess them up. I wish everyone practiced such etiquette. When you're tired of running, you should give XC skiing a try. It REALLY works your whole body, esp. skate skiing......

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  11. Durango Joe7:23 AM

    ...and yes, they have ultramarathon XC skiing events....

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  12. Durango Joe ...

    In this case it was just a single set of ski tracks through the powder, already punched out by a dog. Easier to maintain steady footing by staying out of them, as is usually the case with parallel tracks. But this is on a road. Often trails are too narrow for walkers and runners to realistically stay out of the tracks, which are usually trashed by the skiers' dogs anyway.

    I agree about ski etiquette but I wish non-skiers didn't have to spend the whole winter feeling like we're walking on eggshells. I've tried skiing. I agree 100 percent that it's a more efficient and faster mode of travel. I still perfer foot and/or snowshoes or bikes. Just who I am.

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  13. Slog-errific!
    Slog-Master!
    Slog-tastic!
    Slog-athon!
    Slog-ausarus Rex! RRrroaRr!
    Slog-ON!!

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