It sounded like a really stupid question in the moment, but ended up a good one. I hear there are no stupid questions.
A track coach I know and I were having a conversation about why it’s impossible to get high school athletes to do their long runs at an easy pace. A quick answer came to mind: that teenagers running on hormones and in-n-out who have spent life so far thinking mostly about themselves probably see everything they do as tragically linked to who they are as a person. If you want to be a fast runner, every step better be fast, or you’re not fast. It’s a lot of weight to carry when you’re not sure who you are. You’d probably run faster without it.
This was about a week before I sprained my left ankle, which was about a week before my third Canyons 100k race. Losing the ability to run the way I’ve been running for the past few months felt like losing myself. Minus the testosterone and fast food, the chat was about me more that I realized.
I started the race feeling fine enough, I taped the ankle and was prepared to be in pain for most of the day, but so would everyone else. As soon as we started running, I felt really disassociated with what I was doing—I was treading gingerly downhill, worried about stepping flat with my left foot. I love trail running because it feels relaxed and it feels like a dance and it makes life feel lighter. It felt like a cruel joke to be stuck in conveyor belt of motions all day.
The mental friction and physical pain slowly chipped away at my mind until I pretty much lost it. The last 16 miles of the 63 mile/15,000 ft of vertical gain race I alternated between a shuffle and walking while openly weeping. I’ve raced through tough breaks before and all of those times I was able to mostly laugh it off and still totally enjoy the day. This time, I just had nothing. I felt drained and like I didn’t want to be in my own skin. It was a crazy thing to be in that headspace for such a long time. I am grateful for the massive range of internal experiences that running long provides, but for the first time I really wondered about the cost.
It still never seriously occurred to me to drop. I don’t fully understand why.
My people probably had a lot to do with my finish. My mom made me a bunch of chicken legs (far superior to epic bars), and the DPMRs made me laugh. Smashing a banana into Naomi’s face at Cal 2 was a highlight for sure.
At dusk, most of us still out had turned on our headlamps, and I was walking when a runner came up behind me and asked if I was crying because I was afraid of the dark. I found this to be absolutely absurd. I was inwardly furious but too tired for a snappy response, and just said, “no.”
I thought I was upset because of my injury, but the truth is that I can be in a massive amount of physical pain and not cry at all. Maybe he was right and maybe I was afraid, but afraid of what?
I love being outside at night under the stars, and love running trails without a light. There’s a lightness of movement when I can see less and feel more, and I feel like myself.
But there are other kinds of darkness. The one where I can’t run is mine, and I think that’s what I was afraid of, so I guess I should have answered “yes.”
I let feeling unable to run be tied to my sense of self as if not running well that day meant never running well again. Maybe I was afraid that I’ve lost my edge and ability to shrug off pain, which has become kind of a trademark. I let the day redefine how I thought about myself, instead of showing up deciding how I’d face the day. Had I made more of a conscious effort to run more conservatively instead of running faster for fear of feeling weak, I would have had a better race. Letting go of that would have been a lot less weight to carry over 63 miles.
The reality is that the ankle will heal and I’ll go back to running, and it might get interrupted over and over again, but there’s going to be plenty of exceptional days in between. As long as I keep showing up, they’ll be more likely to happen. I need to learn to be unafraid of losing them, or I’ll run so scared all the time that there won’t be any good days at all.
After I crossed onto the pavement of California Street I turned my headlamp off and walked through the finish. Even though I was limping and too exhausted to run it in with a smile, It felt like a warm blanket for so many people to cheer for me. I had really great support in friends and family on a rough day. Even though my outlook was pretty dark, none them were afraid for me, just sure that I would finish.