So there is a bit of a time warp. Time is used solely to define distance. Minutes are transferred into miles, and those miles used only to symbolize the space between the things needed to survive. Sustenance.
Ok, and candy.
You leave the aid station and slog up the trail. Movement that would probably be described as a brisk shuffle, but definitely not fast. It is movement with purpose though, heading to the next destination. Leaving the area of light, the aid station, festive and full of volunteers and pacers and crew, the trail heads directly into the deeply black woods characteristic of this area of the Pennsylvania wilds in the middle of the night. You look at your watch and develop a ballpark estimate of when you will reach the next aid station, the next area of light, where you will eat as much as possible, drink as much as you can stomach and be encouraged along by the amazing individuals who have volunteered to take care of every last runner. You continue on in this way as long as needed, moving not from start to finish, but from aid station to aid station. Moving between the areas of light and comfort and smiling faces and encouraging words. The distance is not 100 or so miles. It is many small distances, 3, 5 and a half, 10 miles until you see your family and friends. There are many moments that pass easily, mindlessly slipping past like a stone slips through water, affected but without obvious impact on the final result.
Other moments are not so easy. These are moments of doubt. Moments when you reach for some reminder of what brought you to this spot, this moment in time. You search for the meaning that seemed so clear a short time ago. These are moments of suffering. When each step seems more unbearable than the last and you are sure there is no way to continue. These are the moments of loneliness. When you know your only company is the light of your headlamp and the mountains and trees and the never ending path underfoot. And while just a short time ago that seemed more than enough, it is now no match for the longing for your wife’s smile or the sound of your children’s feet running across your kitchen floor.
I think about stopping. Of saying, No. Refusing to move. Sitting in the trail, maybe stomping my feet, perhaps even crying. Telling everyone who encourages me to continue, to shut up.
To leave me alone. I want to disappear. I literally want to lay down on the trail, curl up into a ball and hope to be swallowed by the earth. I don’t want to move, not even for one more second, not one more step. Just, No.
A thought occurs to me. If I stop now, as great as that sounds, the euphoria will quickly wear off. It will inevitably be replaced with remorse, regret and a want for redemption. I know that if I quit, if I give up on this task before it is complete, the feelings that I feel now will pale in comparison to how I will feel knowing I chose to stop. Chose to leave something unfinished. If I stop, the choice to return to this race is out of my hands, it will be a requirement. I will be back on this same trail in this same place next year and probably having the same internal conversation.
But what if I keep moving? What if I just say, yes? Yes, it is hard. Yes, it will be getting awfully dark, awfully soon. Yes, a shower, dry clothes and flip flops would be amazing. Yes, my body is sore and tired and depleted, but in no way broken. Yes, I am hungry, thirsty and that no amount of grilled cheese, peanut m&ms and gatorade, will really make me feel better. That, yes, I’m scared. Scared that I have bitten off more than I can chew and there is going to be quite a bit of disappointment if this is truly the case. That, yes, right now this sucks. Right now, I’d rather be doing just about anything else.
And if I say yes? Each subsequent yes is that much easier, each yes making the next possible. Yes, I am aware and I will embrace my current situation, as hard as it may seem. Yes, I will take another step forward and each will build on the momentum of last until no more are needed, at least not today.
Acceptance and embrace seems stronger than refusal and the digging in of one’s heels. The rain came, literally and figuratively, and washed away the haze of the day. Each step after rolled along affirmed by the last.
Like the miles, these difficult moments pass. Hard times endure only as long as we allow them. Our response impacts more strongly than we imagine our relationship with our experience.
Time slips by. The time warp of long races. Heady internal dialogue gives way to the joy of the aid stations. Of cups of coffee, quesadillas, blueberry pancakes, candy. I ate a lot of pizza, grilled cheese, peanut m&ms… Before long I will forget all about the low points. Before long I’ll be joined by Steve, my friend, who is willing to run with me through the night and to the finish. Before long the sun will come up. The glow of my headlamp losing its effect under the steely predawn sky. The forest will brighten. A new day will begin.
I will say yes to a new step, another mile. Each one built on the momentum of the past and preceded by every single inch of distance traveled prior. The moments of no and the moments of yes. Eventually there are no more miles left and no more steps to take. I cross the line and lie down on the grass, acutely aware of how much time had passed since I last stood in this spot.
As I look up into the searing blue sky, the sun shines into my barely opened eyes, the internal dialogue begins again.
Yes. Yes. Yes…
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