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.