Sunday, February 23, 2014

Mind versus Body

(Before the run - ignorance equals happy days)
 2014 Shotover Moonlight Mountain Marathon
      (click on the name to see more about it)

So who does not want to run a marathon through the mountains?  When Ben first started tossing around the idea with me I thought the same thing most people would think, "Um, no thank you.  I appreciate the invitation but please go to the looney bin where you might find some people dumb enough to run this with you." Well Ben is quite convincing and after doing a few training runs with him I began to see the benefits of running in the mountains - mostly the views.  The challenge of it is nice but to be honest it is not the biggest draw for me.  It feels nice when I am done but during the event itself I can lose focus on why I am doing such a thing to myself.  
(At the start of the race the Maori did a Haka war dance to
help inspire us on our way - pretty awesome)
(I tried to snag some shots along the way.  Sometimes it was
too dangerous and I had to pay attention but at other times
I stole a few beautiful pics)

So who is dumb enough to sign up to do a mountain marathon with Ben... yeah.  I was suspicious when looking over the registration information and finding out there was a compulsory kit each runner needed to carry.  No big deal, only the following items: short sleeve thermal top, long sleeve thermal top, full length tights, seam sealed waterproof jacket, thermal beanie, gloves, and a first aid kit with - a crepe bandage, tape, ten bandaid strips, a triangular bandage, small scissors, and a survival bag. This should have been a good indication that perhaps I should just leave this run to the more experienced trail runners. "No," Ben would say, "That gear is just in case the weather turns nasty when you're up on the peaks. No worries" (oh right that makes it sound better).  I managed to round up all of the "compulsory gear" and Ben let me borrow one of his running bags so that I could carry it all with me, along with two water bottles.  The day before the race I went to have my bag inspected and discovered my short sleeve top did not count as thermal and what exactly a survival bag was so I could buy one.  It's basically a survival blanket but bigger (those metallic looking things they throw on people when they need to be shielded from the elements).  I purchased the necessary items, stuffed my bag with it all, ate some delicious dinner, and headed back to get some much needed rest before the big day.  All the talk was done and this thing was finally upon me.

(As I said, the main advantage to this kind of running is
definitely the scenery - unbelievable until you see it)
I believe it was 4:15 am when Ben's alarm shattered the perfect tranquility of our hotel room and my pre-race off-and-on night of rest (always hard to just get the body to calm down before such an event).  Why so early you might be wondering?  We needed to wake early enough for the lengthy process of making it to the starting line before 8:00 am.  Ben drove us to the finish line which included driving on unsurfaced roads and quite a bumpy experience, and Helen, Ben's wife, road along so she could have the vehicle for the rest of the day until we finished (what a support she was to the experience!).  Then we all loaded onto four wheel drive short buses with what I guessed to be around 20-30 people each and were driven to the starting line.    
(Yep, we crossed several streams and rivers. This was one of
the smallest - pretty epic shot of this guy that was
running in front of me)
 I have to pause here to describe our ride to the start of the race.  I had just heard about a certain road called "Skippers Road" or "Skipper's Canyon Road" while being transported by a local a week before.  When we talked about this particular road he mentioned that almost all rental cars specifically mention it in their insurance policy and state that it does not cover driving on this nasty road.  Not only is it bumpy and plagued with holes, but it also winds down the edge of the canyon and can be quite dangerous.  I saw the sign as we were turning onto this road in our gigantic vehicle and the entire conversation came back to mind.  It was not long until I felt and saw why this road was left off of insurance policies!  Woah.  As Ben said, "This road reminds me of the roads in Nepal."  I clinched up a few times on the road down as we rounded bends and I felt as though I was peering directly down into the canyon out of my canyon-side window.
(I wanted to add a few shots that really
captured the steepness of some of our
But... we made it - obviously otherwise I would not be writing this post.  Even getting to the starting line was an adventure as we had to cross over a bridge twenty people a time at a quick walking pace to keep it from swaying too much.  Then down a hill to a river bank we went where we heard our final instructions and were motivated by the Maori Haka dance pictured above.  Off we went properly motivated, carrying all of our gear, and excited about what the next twenty-six miles had to offer us (some people were doing the 30k run which is a little shorter).  And everything went really for me for the first ten miles... the problem was that it was a marathon and not a ten mile race.

There were a few issues that added up to my performance - we will call them issues instead of excuses because who really cares.  But over the past month or so I've been nursing a "niggle" in my knee (click here to read a previous post where I talk about this a little bit more).  It was getting the better of me and in an attempt to keep my knee from exploding unexpectedly on a run I started taking off some time.  Regrettably when I finally decided my knee pain was too bad to train properly this past month for the run it had passed the point where any refund was possible.  And since the entry fee is nothing to scoff at I decided I would still run anyway.  I think this was a good choice as the marathon was a good experience.
(Great view but why do we have to climb it??  To be fair
the view was better at the top!)
Now that the run is over I believe a new anti-inflammatory medication I was trying out may have contributed to dehydrating my body some.  I say this because I began to develop cramps in numerous muscles, which has rarely happened before, and overall my body started to reject my attempts to push it onwards (and I was drinking quite a bit during the run).  Regardless, it was a great run and I am proud to have it under my belt, even if I will have to take some time off to let my knee heal - I might just become a fish and live in the pool for a while.

(At the top of the two main climbs there was an aid station
with a wonderful volunteer to give us water/electrolytes
and sometimes snacks like Jelly Belly beans)
This trail was the most technical trail I have ever run in my life.  Most of my efforts were spent trying not to fall off of the edge of some precipice or keeping from tumbling.  We ran on ridge lines, climbed hills steeper than any I remember climbing, descended monstrous downhills, crossed streams, waded a river, pulled ourselves over boulders with rope, scaled a ladder, leapt/ran down gravel/rock slides, and crossed a stream twenty-three times or so the last five kilometers (that does not include how many times we crossed stream before the final 5k).

It was an amazing experience overall but I cannot say that it was not without some major trials. After mile ten my body started to reject the idea of mountain running being fun.  In fact, as I neared the halfway point of the run I honestly doubted my ability to finish whatever this grueling course had in store for me.  As I neared the halfway point of the course my mindset had become so poor I had decided I would ask them for a ride to the finish line.  The lines had already been rehearsed in my head, most likely something about my knee, and then something funny happened.  As I approached the aid station at the half
(No real trail here - just running down.  I
quite liked this part really.  I felt free as
though I was just out running on
mountains like they were a playground)
marathon one of the aid workers said, "How's it going out there?"  I responded with, "Rough."  He almost instantly quirked back in a playful manner, "Rough day in the office aye?"  I have yet to discern if it was this short conversation, the runners who came up behind me (I recognized one and knew they were good runners), or if it was just the much needed food but I found myself continuing the course.  

Why?  How would I finish another thirteen miles when everything inside of me felt as though I barely finished the first thirteen?  I knew there were still some major climbs and I dreaded them.  

Something got me moving.  Somehow I managed to try and stay with that group of guys as long as possible.  And slowly but surely I worked my way through the rest of the course. 

The ascents were more brutal than my mind had imagined.  The descents were longer and more detrimental to my body than I could have predicted.  As the muscles in my body all started to revolt in their spastic seizing cramps I was forced to stop multiple times and stretch waiting for them to loosen their tight kung fu grip.  It was not fun to watch as others would run on by, envying their lack of lactic acid in their legs or whatever was causing my cramps.  But on we all went and up and down we all staggered, some faster and some slower.  There were moments when my mind found what I was doing to be a betrayal against all of what it means to be a human, while there 

(This picture is significant to me because it is where I knew
I would have no choice but to finish the whole race - the
halfway point where I kept going)
were other moments when the feat before me or the mountain I had just climbed was all it meant to be human.

With such a strange confluence of emotions and thoughts the marathon became much more of a journey than a run or race.  While it is true I still clung deep down to the self-centered thoughts of, "What will my wife think of me if I do not finish?" or "Man Ben is going to really make fun of me for coming in so slow." or even, "I am probably in last place and it is so embarrassing," there was another and deeper part of me that saw through all of that to the truth.  None of that mattered and most of it was entirely false.  Sure there is competition and pride and selfishness routed in all of what kept me going, but there was also something more real trying to uproot all of that other foolishness.  Maybe a connection to something greater, older, more pure, and even utterly more simple.  I grasped at it while I ran, when I could, fading out of my own thoughts and into the rhythm of the landscape.
(Our first climb after the halfway point... it...just...kept...
going.  But don't worry, there was more for all)

But how can I explain what I barely glimpsed out there?  I wish the pictures could show what it is to see these sites.  I wish it was as basic as me saying something like, "The views make it worth the effort."  There is something more primordial in the event.  As the mystical "unicorn" so the speak, it elusively dangled its scent before me for a few moments during the run and now as I look back in my heart's eye I can almost see it.  Like a dream the memory fades as I grasp for it.  Yet even if I could get a more firm hold on even the concept of what was happening I doubt my words would hold a candle to what was happening yesterday.

During the last five kilometers of this run I found myself speaking to my body, begging it to relax.  I had been cramping off and on for so long and
(This might be the best selfie I have ever taken - phew)
to be honest I was just tired of having to stop. I had the energy to finish and I desperately wanted to do so.  It is amazing what the mind will remember at times like these.  Our coach in college brought in a real crazy guy who wanted us to learn to relax our bodies so that we could practice more efficient breathing.  He took us through some basic yoga techniques, minus too much of the stretching, and he explained to us that we could focus on different body parts and make them relax.  With around what I guessed to be about 3,000 meters to go (just under two miles) I began to speak more directly to my body, imploring the techniques from a dark room so long ago.

My left abductor on my inner leg had been the main culprit and was not happy about my wanting to finish this run.  With a lot of focus, pretty much everything I had, I spoke out loud to myself, "Relax the left abductor."  It's grip remained.  In a stronger voice, "Relax the left abductor!"  It loosened a little bit and I followed  this up by calming my body as
(I had to whip out my camera and take a shot of this ridge
we were running up.  I kept thinking we would just run out
of space - so much ascending)
much as possible and whispering, "Relax the left abductor."  To my surprise it released and I kept running without having to stop and stretch!  This technique worked to get me safely to the finish line without having to stop and stretch one more time - I was ecstatic!  Who knows what was going on there or if I could have done that earlier to help combatant the ever strong revolt of the body but it certainly worked near the end of one of, if not, my toughest run ever.  I laughed to myself as it reminded me of a scene from the movie For the Love of the Game - a movie about baseball starring Kevin Costner.  In the film a professional baseball player is able to block out the crowd by saying the words, "Clear the mechanism" to himself (I'll post a link to the scene below).

There is so much more I could say about this run and I have said way too much already!  A special thanks to Ben, Helen, Miriam, Gordon Shona, Cath, and Simon for waiting and cheering me on as I finished as though I had just won the race.  What a way to finish!  It turns out Ben was not ready to make fun of me for finishing so slowly but had only words of encouragement for finishing my first mountain trail run (I knew my mind had been lying to me out there).

I have added a few more pics because they are really the best part anyway.  There will even be a video or two of the ridge line running and crossing a stream.  I hope you enjoy them - maybe go for a nice long run sometime soon.

(Here is the video clip from the movie I was talking about earlier - pretty awesome)