Rhode Runner: 2016 Newport Marathon (State #46)

Like someone who accidentally drinks a cocktail laced with kryptonite, I feel like I’m losing my superpowers.

2016-10-09-06-53-14For years, I was able to control the weather. If I wanted to ensure a dry morning for thousands, even millions of people, all I would have to do is sign up for a race on that date. Weather forecasts were impotent against my talents. Even hours before sunrise, charlatan clairvoyants would augur the coming of tempests, and I would dash them with a simple wave of my hand. They called me the Diviner of Dryness, the Denier of Drizzle, Prohibitor of Precipitation.

But then I ran the Mad Marathon in July, whose pristine wooded hills were beset by rain for most of the race. However, it felt like a refreshing mist, an almost welcome addition to an already beautiful journey. It turned an otherwise rural path into a fey peregrination through mystic lands. It was almost as if I had refused to concede my powers, and instead pretend as if I had, just for a moment, allowed the rain to join me for a run in an act of peaceful communion.

I must have angered the cosmic forces whose joint abilities hold sway over the gathering of clouds with this impudent display, because they decided to make an example of me during the 2016 Newport Marathon. Five days before race day, the seaside city of Newport, Rhode Island, was in the potential path of Hurricane Matthew. But though its path would eventually move east into the Atlantic, much to the delight of many people with actual concerns for their well-being, the rains stayed staunchly in the forecast.

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And they stayed, resolutely, for the entire day. Even as I flew back to Chicago that night, it was still raining in the area. I would later learn that locals were thrilled with the prolonged downpour, as it certainly helped many parts of New England that had been suffering an unusually harsh summer drought. It was a slight consolation for enduring the wettest race I’ve ever run.

2016-10-09-07-43-26The race started at Easton’s Beach, a thin strip of land separating its eponymous Bay and Pond under grey skies that threatened to spoil the area’s beautiful coastline and quaint commercial streets. Before the starter’s pistol, runners were either huddled in an empty parking structure or shivering in line for the bathroom, tiptoeing around the rapidly growing puddles, only delaying the inevitable. As the opening notes of the National Anthem rang, we oozed reluctantly out of our concrete shelter and into the shower.

The race course is divided between the towns of Newport and Middletown, which together make up the largest island tucked in the Ocean State’s many bays and inlets. For the first four miles, we ran through Newport’s picturesque town center and neighborhoods, almost on our toes to avoid any splashing. We eventually reached the shore and began skirting the island’s perimeter, where we beheld several massive homes. Moneyed tycoons of the Gilded Age built mansions in the area that rivaled European palaces, which today are open to the public as museums to excess and profligacy. I would have taken several pictures of them but my phone was too wet to respond to swipes.

2016-10-09-07-52-30Our path took us alongside several of these impressive estates, from Marble House to Rosecliff and the Breakers. Along the way, even the roads themselves felt prestigious. It was a remarkably beautiful course and for most of it, I had almost forgotten about my sagging clothes and waterlogged shoes.

I was brought back to reality by the awful realization that the marathon course was going to literally run right next to the half marathon finish line. There’s something inherently difficult about watching four out of five runners stop what they’re doing, rest their hands on their legs, and march towards the buffet tables, beaming and proud, while you’re only halfway done. It’s not the distance itself, but the psychology of knowing most everyone else is breathing a sigh of relief. Even diverting the half marathon at mile 12.5 would make the rest of the race easier. But even if you divert your attention and defiantly look away, you can still hear the announcer congratulate them on their accomplishment. And honestly, a tiny voice in your head definitely wishes the accolades were for you.

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That nagging voice grew much louder just a minute later. Marathoners run past the finish line and then loop around the parking lot and back onto the road connecting Newport and Middletown, heading east. Right at that moment, as if someone had pulled a lever, we were struck by a fierce headwind. The second half had begun.

newport-marathon-02The rain pattered against my shirt and shorts, ricocheting off the soaked fabric as if I were wearing a tarp. Long ago, I had taken my energy gels out of my pockets and clenched them in my swinging fists. They were weighing down on my shorts and I was tired of pulling them up every thirty seconds. The next two miles covered an uninspiring stretch toward the Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge. Just before reaching it, we turned around and enjoyed a brief tailwind, which would escort us toward seaside neighborhoods.

I had run about eighteen miles and I was starting to slow down considerably. I blamed the wind, which had been pushing aggressively against me for four miles. But underneath the cold exterior, I was worried that I was hitting the same gruesome wall I faced in Omaha just three weeks earlier. One disastrous bonk is an outlier, but two can be an indicator of something real. Was there something happening with my fitness and training that had gone wrong in recent months? Or was I literally just being held back by the gales and gusts of the northeast Atlantic? I kept reminding myself that if I were to suffer a similar adrenal halt, I’d face a serious drop in body temperature. It felt melodramatic, but I knew I couldn’t afford walking more than a mile of this race if I wanted to leave the state in good health.

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As I ran along mostly empty streets, the answer was clear. I wasn’t in the kind of shape to threaten or even goad my PR, but I could still hammer out a marathon. Somewhere around mile 20, I was still keeping a running cadence, enjoying the gentle climbs and the occasional pocket of spectators. The rain and wind had predictably kept many people in their homes, but every now and then I would get a quick injection of motivation from a friendly Rhode Islander braving the elements from their front yard. It was a quiet second half, marked only by the sound of winds, and the squishing of shoes.

newport-marathon-08I was back in familiar territory; those last, long miles that seem to stretch on forever, conquered seemingly only by the slow passage of time and lethargic swinging of arms. I was used to this, this was my element. Though each of those last miles was a little slower than the one before it, the fact that I was still running through them certainly helped me smile. I was hoping to finish the year with a picturesque romp through a historical town, perhaps even with a fast time for the books. But given the unbalanced year I’ve had with training, any confident, forward progress was a cause for celebration.

We returned to Easton’s beach, to the parking lot where we had started the race, now filled with umbrellas and ponchos. The winds were roaring across the waters and no amount of last-minute sprinting effort could warm me up enough to stay and enjoy the sights. I crossed the finish line in 3:44, snatched a Mylar blanket, and sought shelter. There were two large vats of chili and lentil soup being offered by the gear check. Were I not so focused on finding dry clothing and protection from the winds, I would have happily joined my fellow runners and let these delicious broths warm my hands and spirits.

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Truth be told, this race earned me very little surface area on the map. But on the road to fifty statehood, it is just as meaningful as Montana or Texas. I won’t cross off the four remaining states soon, but I can still taste the finish. Slowly but resolutely, the journey continues, one unpredictable story at a time.

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The Wind-Up Hurt Chronicle: 2016 Omaha Marathon (State #45)

I woke up very early, as usual, and sauntered to the hotel mini fridge to grind a Clif Bar like a camel chewing cud, washing it down a Blue Machine smoothie. The 2016 Omaha Marathon was almost three hours away, and I didn’t want to wake up Mike in the next room by turning on the TV, so I put on some headphones and let the finger-tapped gothic musings of Katatonia wash over me. After four songs, I went back to sleep.

(left to right): Mike, me

(left to right): Mike, me

Hours later, Mike and I were following the crowds to the TD Ameritrade Arena. Within minutes of arriving, the speakers cracked alive with the sound of a nervous official who told us that there had been a nearby shooting, shocking the crowd into silence. We waited, slack-jawed and a little on edge, for the rest of the report. But even before reassuring us that our personal safety was not in jeopardy, he broke the news that the race start would be postponed by an hour. To make matters worse for many runners, the delay would also mean a last-minute course change.

The collective groan spread across the crowd faster than a 400-meter repeat. In that moment, I merely shrugged at the delay, though I was fully aware that it meant it’d be four to five degrees warmer than expected. Mike and I had walked around Omaha the day before under a cloudless sky in hopes of finding a local gem. We found Bob, a pedestrian bridge named after Bob Kerrey, former Governor and Senator from Nebraska, and I came home with a slight sunburn on my forehead.

But despite the sunburn, the delay, and the warm weather, I let no nerves invade my morning. It was another marathon, just like the thirty-three others I had run before, in a new state. Unlike many runners around me, who were loudly bemoaning the possibility that their times today wouldn’t be honored by the Boston Athletic Association, I had no time expectations. I was there to run 26.2 miles in whatever time I could.

Mile 1

Mile 1

An hour late, we were on the road. Two miles later, we were out of downtown Omaha and into newly built residential neighborhoods. Without a time goal, I decided to experiment with my breathing, opting for a faster intake earlier in the race. The farther we ran, the greener the path became. Around the 10k mark, we entered a park, whose leafy cover allowed us to forget that, just like the day before, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

And then, a mile later, we reached the river. A concrete path two people wide ran between the river and several industrial silos, whose petrochemical perfume stuck to me like an unwanted GU aftertaste. However, the mephitic odor wasn’t what I most lamented about this stretch. It was, instead, the complete lack of shade. From this point until the turnaround six miles later, where we would retrace our steps all the way back to the start, there would be no more protection from the sun.

Mile 5

Mile 5

Up until the half marathon point, I had been running comfortably, knocking out 8-minute miles as if on autopilot. But right at that turnaround, something happened. It was as if my body had decided to completely forget that I’ve been running marathons for almost seven years. All my experience on the roads, with the repetitive plod of feet across many hours, was harshly erased. My body crossed into a parallel universe, where my memories of running were intact, but my body didn’t make the transition.

Mike and I crossed paths just beyond the turnaround. He asked me how I was doing, and I replied that I felt like I was at mile 22, not just beyond 13. I was still running in the 8s but I could tell I was on borrowed time. Ten minutes later, like a wind-up toy that had only been cranked to reach fifteen miles, my body shut down.

This had never happened to me before. Like any long-distance runner, I’ve bonked before. I’ve bonked as early as mile 18, but every time, it’s been a slow descent into fatigue. Even in Berlin, where I ran the first half too fast, I still managed a slow deterioration. But in Omaha, it was a complete shutdown. I stopped to walk, shaking my shoulders and slapping my back, and tried to pick it back up. But within a quarter mile, I was gassed.

My body was either unable or unwilling to run, and I didn’t know which scared me more.

Miles 7 through 19 were this exposed

Miles 7 through 19 were this exposed

Mike passed me at mile 19. He offered a few kind words of encouragement while pulling away from me. The last of it he spoke to the air, as I couldn’t run fast enough to keep up. Many more runners would pass me after him. With each one, I’d try and kick forward, trying to get back into a gallop. As if in a dream, I was unable to sustain it. My walking breaks grew, my pace crashed, and my attitude soured.

What the hell was happening.

Mile 13.3

Mile 13.3

I had no singular reason for why I had crumbled so quickly. I had eaten plenty the day before, had put in the requisite miles during the summer, and had run a very hilly 3:42 just two months prior. Objectively, it wasn’t even that hot. There were times when I actually shivered during those last miles. The wind had picked up, licking the sweat off my head and reminding me of how dry the air felt.

But there I was, walking the last two miles of the Omaha Marathon in their entirety as if I had never run before. My last attempt at running had left me seeing stars. A race photographer had stationed himself just a mile from the finish to capture everyone’s last dash toward the finish. I didn’t even bother with histrionics and shuffled past him with my hands on my hips, disappointed and dizzy. What tiny stores of energy I still had were saved for running the bases of TD Ameritrade’s baseball diamond, a sputtering toy too far removed from his last confident stride.

Mile 26

Mile 26

I stopped the clock at 4:22, my second slowest marathon to date. Mike was at the finish line to capture my unsightly finish, which started an afternoon of nausea and exhaustion. I found a patch of shaded grass and let my feet stop moving, loudly proclaiming to Mike that I had just finished the kind of race that could get me to reconsider running altogether. I was in no mood to read about silver linings or to exhume the bright side of anything. That race was a sucker punch to the ego and my self-worth. It’s one thing to push yourself to your limits and earn a deserved finish. This was not that. This was a sudden implosion, an inexplicable and precipitous failure of all systems.

Or was it inexplicable?

In the first half of this post, I formatted a few phrases and sentences in bold. As if to console my wounded self-esteem, I looked back at all these reasons as perhaps individual Jenga pieces that I removed over the course of the weekend. Perhaps it’s because I refuse to believe that I’m simply not in marathon shape, or that sometime in August of this year the gene responsible for sucking at running was switched on.

Finishers. Notice the dark, ghostly veil draped over me? It's the shadow of death.

Finishers. Notice the dark, ghostly veil draped over me? It’s the shadow of death.

But either way, it shook me. Whether it was because of a series of subtle mistakes or one big, ineffable change in my body chemistry, I can’t say. But I do have another go at the distance on October 9 in Rhode Island. Whether I decide to tempt another potentially disastrous run or play it safe will depend on what happens between now and then. Either way, I will start the next one without the insouciant bravado of races past, where a sub-4-hour finish is basically guaranteed.

Onwards. With trepidation and even a little reluctance … but onwards, nonetheless.

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Mammoth Run: 2016 Ice Age Trail 50-Miler

I danced downhill over rocks and exposed roots, side stepping onto the soft earth as if it were a ramp, letting it gently guide my legs over the next obstacle. My eyes were three rocks ahead, trance-like and robotic, finding the optimal path to avoid tripping. Every second my gaze would dash three or four times, my strides never the same, with short steps quickly becoming bounding leaps over large rocks, followed by heavy, typewriter stomps over steep terrain. Tiny flecks of sleet fell from the canopy, dusting the damp trail in a crystalline white pattern. In this moment, I felt unstoppable, efficient, and powerful.

But it was also in this moment that my quads began to singe. And I still had twenty miles to go.

This is it, I thought. This is where it all begins to fall apart. After a lackluster training effort thanks to injury and last-minute illness, this is the beginning of the end; this, right here, is my last chance to feel confident and capable, the last upright steps that portend the miserable slog to the finish. I might as well enjoy them.

Ice Age Trail Runs Start

Ice Age Trail Runs Start

Many hours earlier, I was in LaGrange, Wisconsin, at the starting line of the Ice Age Trail 50-Miler, a race billed as one of the country’s “classic ultramarathons.” Whether the race has earned that description from age or by bearing the standard for how ultras are organized, I had neither the experience nor the research to say. But I had made it to the starting line as a tangled knot of nerves. A knee injury in March had made ultra-long trail runs nearly impossible, relegating my training to merely fitness upkeep, and a slight head-cold the week before was threatening to dehydrate me more than usual.

Remembering my last and only attempt at the 50-mile distance, I couldn’t help but feel frustrated and dejected. I sat on a folding chair in the woods of the Manistee National Forest with an ice pack slowly melting off my knee, watching as dozens of dusty bodies entered the North Country Run’s aid station with bright smiles. How were they able to make it this far, 39 miles into a race, still happy and energized? What did they know that I didn’t?

Nordic loop, mile 1.5

Nordic loop, mile 1.5

Whatever it was, I hadn’t learned it in the last two months. And yet, there I was, listening to the Star-Spangled Banner in the dripping wet woods of the Kettle Moraine State Forest with kindred spirits Otter and Mike, just minutes away from a distance I had never completed before. The miles I had run in the lead up were paltry and my confidence at an all-time low. The only option I had was willful submission. I was going to enter the woods, walk through the verdant looking glass, and let the journey unfold as it should.

Otter was running because he loves trails and the Ice Age races in particular, but also because he too was on a redemptive attempt of his own, having dropped out of the 2015 event seven miles short of the full distance. The two of us then goaded Mike, RaceRaves’ Chief Lunatic, into running his first ever 50-miler by assailing him with enough text messages, pictures and emails to pave the entire trail.

Mike + Otter

Mike + Otter

The three of us had decided to run the first nine mile section together. Called the Nordic Loop, it is a fairly wide path that traces a jagged circle over soft pine straw, rocky paths, and grassy stretches of flat land made for speed, finishing back at the start. In between, it rises and falls like an ancient roller coaster, assuring that our pace would see similar peaks and valleys as we would stop to walk uphill ready to pick up the pace on the other side. The field of 372 runners was a tightly-packed human train for most of this loop, allowing for the kind of friendly chatter that completely belied the monumental task ahead.

As we reached the first aid station, I remembered the need to eat early and often. I was attempting fifty hill-ridden miles, a feat that would burn between 7,000 and 9,000 calories, and the average person typically stores anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 in their reserves. Rather than wait until I actually felt hungry, I planned on noshing at every aid station to avoid an early bonk. I surveyed the spread under the white tent, the only artificial blemish in an otherwise serene wooded path, and grabbed a few Oreos.

Runners + Crew, left to right: me, Steve, Mike, Katie, Otter, Lisa

Runners + Crew, left to right: me, Steve, Mike, Katie, Otter, Lisa

The end of the Nordic Loop would mark the last time the three of us would run together. The casual, carefree banter that we exchanged mostly to distract us from the task ahead, was coming to an end. As we approached the starting banner, we found our respective crew members amid the whooping clamor of spectators. Mike grabbed a sandwich and high-fived his wife Katie before speeding towards the race’s next section. Otter’s girlfriend Lisa was in a bright green winter jacket, ready to keep him in fighting shape for the 41 miles to go. My father-in-law and trusted crew master Steve refilled my water pack and bottle with the course volunteers before urging me to eat. Otter and I realized we were both ready to go at the same time, so we marched back into the woods shoulder to shoulder, feeling light and cool.

The occasional clearing

The occasional clearing, mile 4

We had started the race shivering. The early spring warmth of the previous week had been dashed by an arctic wind, whose gust was rustling the dense forest around us, often drawing creaks from nearby trees. I had considered shedding some clothing a few miles earlier, but once I stopped running at the aid station, that lingering desire became an immediate need to stay warm.

Otter and I ran together for a few miles until the aid stations began separating us. For the next two hours, I followed a very reliable pattern. Drink water, drink electrolytes, eat an energy gel, drink water, drink electrolytes, catch Mike, pass Mike on a downhill, reach an aid station, hand my wares to Steve, watch as Mike would leave the aid station, eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, suit up, chase Mike …

At mile 19, I reached the next checkpoint in a clearing surrounded by tall grass. I gave my hydration vest to Steve and he looked at me with a mixed expression of confusion and fear. “You should eat something salty,” he says, as if there were a grim sign of it on my face. I grabbed a handful of pretzels and chewed on them until they were a mealy paste caking my teeth. I put myself together and took off, wondering if Steve’s admonishment was a sign that I was starting to succumb to the ghostly pallor of exhaustion.

Otter and I, Mile 10.5

Otter and I, Mile 10.5

Drink water, drink electrolytes, eat an energy gel, drink water, drink electrolytes, catch Mike, pass Mike on a downhill, reach an aid station …

I would strike up brief conversations with Mike as I would reach his heels. But since I’m not much of a talker on the run, I kept the exchanges short. Without music or a running partner, it was up to the course’s beautiful and constantly changing character to entertain me. Thin single-track eskers became wide open mounds of earth, which led into tree-lined promenades and serpentine dirt paths. If it weren’t for the nagging voice in my head, reminding to keep moving forward at all costs, I would have stopped to breathe in the Wisconsin air, crisp enough to slice and eat.

Meanwhile, everything seemed to be working. My left knee, which had plagued me with all manner of discomforting pain during March and April, was at the top of its game. Despite being covered by weary and worn road shoes, my feet and toes were free of blisters, and I wasn’t chafing anywhere. My stomach was happily digesting the food I had eaten, and my lungs were thrilled at the fresh air coursing through them. I reached the aid station near the shores of Rice Lake, just shy of 22 miles into the race, the farthest trail distance I had run in anticipation of this event, feeling composed, energized, and ecstatic.

After stocking up on supplies, I grabbed Steve’s hands and leaned back into a squat to stretch my hamstrings. With a quick slap to legs, I shuttled out of the aid station once again in Mike’s footsteps. Water, electrolytes, energy gel, water, electrolytes, Mike, downhill, aid station, all in a reliable cadence of clean breaths through an unpredictable series of open clearings and narrow paths. The ease and relaxed stride that carried me through every mile felt invigorating but deceptive. Ask any long distance runner and they will tell you that the first half of any race feels great, but there will inevitably come a time where, pushed against your limits, you will begin to suffer. With very few exceptions, I have faced that awful wall and have never been able to recover. Once it hits me, I’m done and have no choice but to drag what’s left of me to the finish.

Wandering in a wooded wonderland

Wandering in a wooded wonderland, mile 26

The first sign of worry came just before mile 30, as I drummed downhill toward a roadside aid station. A tiny pinch in my quads had emerged and I felt twinges of pain with every downhill step.

This is it, I thought. This is where it all begins to fall apart.

Approaching an aid station, Mile 19

Approaching an aid station, Mile 19

But I continued moving forward, almost daring the pain to get worse. Given enough time and distance, the body will find a way to collapse, and with twenty miles left, there was plenty of both. I would have dwelled on the pain longer, but I could hear the hollers from the aid station emanating from the woods. I reached it to find Steve busy tending to a runner with dried streaks of blood on the right side of his face. Seeing that he was handling a delicate matter, I filled my own stores. Once he was free, I told him where I was and how I felt.

The next crew-accessible aid station was ten miles away. Up until now, our crews were there to help us roughly every three miles. And it wasn’t just Steve who would be there at the mouth of every aid station, but Katie and Lisa as well. That kind of support and dedication were better rewards than any sugary treat and I had come to rely on it to keep me going. Steve was also providing real-time updates to my family in Costa Rica, which was an added surge of motivation to stay strong every time I reached an aid station. The next ten miles away from my support crew, into the hills and in the shadow of Bald Bluff, the tallest climb in the race, were surely going to test me.

Drink water, drink electrolytes, eat an energy gel, drink water, drink electrolytes, chase Mike, chase Mike, reach an aid station, continue chasing Mike … where the hell is Mike? …

Bald Bluff, or about 30% of it

Bald Bluff, or about 30% of it, mile 33

I continued my pattern of walking uphill, running the flats, and stomping downhill with great temerity. Every runner that I was able to catch, I would slowly approach and then storm past them on a downward section, letting my long legs leap over rocks and the occasional stair, acutely aware of what could happen if I clipped a root or slipped on a moss-covered rock. My quads were still feeling a tiny pinch with every hill, but they had miraculously not worsened. I kept expecting everything to go south at any minute, knowing how furtively the wall can suddenly plant itself, but against all odds, that hadn’t happened yet.

Like a finely-tuned machine, I took swigs of water and HEED, ate at regular intervals, and shoved peanut butter sandwiches down my throat at aid stations. If I heard water swishing in my reservoir, I would drink it; if my water bottle was heavy, I would drink it; if the road was flat, I would run it; if it bent up, I would walk it. I was focused on the singular act of moving forward, subconsciously expecting the demons of running to shank me at any minute, spilling my energy like blood on the damp trail.

At mile 35, I reached the base of Bald Bluff. I followed an older runner in a yellow singlet, who refused to power hike and instead took tiny, yet still airborne steps to tackle the mountain’s bright, gravel path. I couldn’t help but chuckle as I nipped at his heels with my long walking strides. I passed him on a flat section and continued upward, acid seeping into my quads with every step.

Following the path

Following the path

Here it is, the thought crept again. Much later than I would have ever expected, but this is where the knives pierce my legs, this is where each ligament and muscle becomes a wrought-iron cable, stiff and heavy.

I continued hiking uphill, keeping my body as upright as possible to avoid reflux. My quads were burning, but this far up, there was no stopping. As I crested the top of the bluff, I lunged forward into a run and found that I still could. The seeping burn into my legs was only temporary as I climbed, and now that I was back to running flat terrain, they were still willing to cooperate. In fact, after a minute or so, it was as if nothing had changed. Bald Bluff, the most imposing part of the race, had only slowed me down a little, but had done nothing to break me.

Mike, mile 40.8

Mike, mile 40.8

What the hell is happening? I thought, completely aware that I was questioning a good result instead of merely enjoying it. Where was the breakdown? Why wasn’t my stomach rejecting all the food I was eating like it has in every other ultra I’ve run? Why don’t my feet feel like they were marbled and ground? Why wasn’t I gasping for air, this far into the longest continuous run of my life? Where was the sound of the freight train, the inevitable thud of fatigue that can trample the strongest of wills?

In short, why was I doing so well?

Although every step I took got me no closer to answering these questions, they pushed me toward the next checkpoint. I saw Mike running toward me, fresh out of the upcoming aid station. He clapped when our paths crossed, content that I was still in the game forty miles into the race. Not long after, I reached the Emma Carlin aid station, which was a raucous party thanks to the Flatlander Ultrarunners. I ran comfortably in and began replenishing my hydration stocks. I told Steve I was feeling great, and that I was eager to take this all the way to the finish. He looked me dead in the eye and reminded me to relax for a minute and celebrate this moment, as I had passed the longest I had ever run; that every step I took would be an improvement over the last 50-miler I tried to run, whose coiling path was cut short at 39 miles almost three years earlier.

Otter, mile 39

Otter, mile 39

With the electrifying encouragement of my crew behind me, it was time to retrace my steps. Although I felt accomplished and could sense that the finish was near, ten dense, hilly miles separated me from the end. I could face any number of perils in that long swath of trail, from rolled ankles to sudden gastric discomfort or perhaps energy depletion.

I tried to avoid thoughts that might throw my focus off balance. I still had ahead of me the same distance that separated me from the aid station where Steve was helping the injured runner, which felt like an eternity. I had to re-scale Bald Bluff and every smaller hill in between, with only two aid stations to break up the miles. By this point in the race, the field was spread so thin that I rarely saw anyone ahead or behind me. Everyone had found their pace, marching in unison like colorful ants. But if I ever came across a runner, I would always pass them on the downhills, which I was still somehow able to tackle with alacrity. I saw Otter approaching and we both came to a dead halt, which almost threw off the person I didn’t know was running quietly behind me. We exchanged brief status updates and fist bumps before returning to our paths.

Up and down I continued, drinking and eating, running and drinking, eating and running. In a haste to speed up, I clipped many roots on my toes. I stumbled on many occasions and quickly regained my footing, allowing the woods to absorb a loud “Come on!” before resuming the path. I was lucky to fall only once in the entire race, and it happened during a slight uphill about six hours earlier. It was almost as if the trail itself were trying to keep me from pushing the steady pace, as if it could tell my patience was being tried and had quietly hunched a few roots into my path.

A very tempting bench at the top of Bald Bluff

A very tempting bench at the top of Bald Bluff, mile 47

Reaching the top of Bald Bluff proved easier this time. I stopped briefly at the top and took in the view before scrambling down the loose gravel path on the other side, leaping over rocks and wooden planks like a mountain goat. I reached the next aid station and skipped it entirely. I was 2.5 miles from the finish and feeling great, with no sign of stopping. I felt my phone buzz in my hand and I checked it to see my cousin calling from Costa Rica. I answered and told him I was 48 miles into a 50 mile race. He laughed almost incredulously and urged me to keep going.

As I skipped the last aid station, I almost felt ungrateful. But I had everything I needed to reach the finish line. Even though I could almost taste the end, I kept my regular pattern: walk uphill, run the flats, drink often. Here I was, just minutes away from accomplishing a goal that had haunted me for three years, and yet, it somehow felt un-ceremonial.

The final sprint, mile 49.9

The final sprint, mile 49.9

It’s no secret that long distance running and masochism can sometimes feel inseparable. Deliberate suffering or at least the mindful acceptance of it is part of the experience and for many runners, it’s a source of pride. The last six miles of a marathon are an exercise in attrition, fighting against the building agony and seeing how far you can go before you relent. Salt deposits, staggering limps, and even a black toe or two are as much battle scars as they are badges of honor. But as I approached the finish line on that cold Saturday afternoon in Wisconsin, I was feeling great.

With each step, there were more spectators standing where the trail meets the woods, clapping and smiling. I was half in the moment, enjoying the experience, and half in a daze, completely shocked at how I was able to do this with such a lackluster training season. I had fantasized about this moment for the last five months, expecting that I would turn the corner into the finish line, in plain sight of my crew, a ragged mess with a proud glint in my eyes. But that wasn’t who emerged from the woods. The lone traveler was instead completely free of heaves, tears or a lip-biting struggle to reach the banner at any cost, speeding up and ending his journey in ten hours and nineteen minutes.

Victory.

Victory, mile 50

In the moment, it was just another stretch of trail, which, if followed past the crowds and parking lot, would have led to another series of winding paths. I could have honestly continued further into the woods, deeper into the indifferent beyond. Despite the cheering crowds, the finish felt a little anti-climactic, precisely because I didn’t have to dig myself out of a spiritual trench at mile 40. Instead, I had managed to put all the pieces together to run seemingly forever. The result, in a word, was magical.

For a beautifully written summary of the day’s events from Mike’s vantage, please read his post at Blisters, Cramps & Heaves.

Even as I write this, I can’t quite process everything that happened. Every ultra I’ve attempted has resulted in wrecked legs, a tumultuous stomach, and gassed lungs, and those all followed a successful training regimen. The worst I suffered during this race were a few side stitches after mile 40 that went away with a quick walking break. Part of me credits the weather with keeping my sweat rate down and allowing me to stay hydrated and thus, able to digest food and continue running. But what truly kept me going were the people who shared the day with me.

13235096_1080472668665361_5347430754452198483_oThe belt buckle I earned at the finish line goes out to everyone who helped me along the way. I dedicate it to Steve, who is not only responsible for my running lunacy in the first place, but kept me focused and honest with my nutrition and wouldn’t let me leave aid stations without a handful of pretzels; to Lisa and Katie, who were always waiting for me at every trailhead, cheering as if I were leading the race and never complained about cold or hunger; to the many friendly volunteers who bundled up and braved the winds to keep this race a world-class event that sells out every year; to ultra-runners Paul and Jeff for believing that I could finish this beast, even when I was at my most skeptical; to Mike for humoring us in the most dedicated way possible by agreeing to run the longest race of his life and selflessly sticking around after a huge 9:54 finish to capture our finishes; to my family and in-laws for their constant real-time support throughout the day; and to my excellent partner in life Steph for always supporting me in my running adventures, even though they require early morning alarm clocks and a separate laundry hamper.

What a day, gentlemen

What a day, gentlemen

Last, but certainly not least, I couldn’t have finished this race without my running pal Otter, who not only believed in me more than I ever did, but routinely went out of his way to help me overcome my woeful training. There were times during the spring where it felt like he was more interested in getting me across the finish line than earning the buckle himself. After all, he was the first person to see me hobbled at my first failed attempt, and knew more than most how much I wanted to earn the title of 50-miler. But he too was out here for more than just another run beneath a green canopy.

On the morning of April 9, he lost his father. The weeks that followed were a test of Otter’s emotional fortitude, as he took charge of the heartbreaking tasks that come with the death of a loved one. Although I never met his dad, it was apparent that he was a kind, generous, and selfless man, whose driving purpose in life was to help others. I didn’t say it at the time, but I’m certain that at some point during his communion with the wilderness, Otter must have thought about his departed father and everything he learned from him. His willingness to put my success ahead of his own is nothing short of a loving testament to his father’s legacy.

Into the woods

Into the woods

Since I’m still trying to make sense of everything, I don’t yet know how this experience will shape my running path going forward. After all, there are tacit questions that come with a successful finish like this one. It certainly made me more confident about my abilities and shed light on why so many people love the ultra life. But don’t expect me to sign up for any similar or longer races in the near future. I’m still basking in the glow (and residual muscle soreness) of a race completed, but won’t plan on another one until I’ve finished running all 50 states.

For now, I’m happy with my redemptive day in the forest.

Heavenly Gaits: Running as a Religion

“Without constant renewal, what he had experienced at the monastery would vanish. Otherwise, for the rest of his life, he would awake in the morning with the same tendencies, the same desires, the same sins that he conquered only the day before. Only a return each day to the monastery would save him. Running, I told the reporter, is just such a monastery – a retreat, a place to commune with God and yourself, a place for psychological and spiritual renewal.” – George Sheehan, running author and guru

I try to keep this blog very focused. It is almost exclusively about running and rarely do I use it as a vessel to ruminate on life’s big questions, or to sort through personal issues. Unless those big questions arise during a footrace, I don’t let political leanings or any deep-held convictions enter this space in any direct, unequivocal way. I’ve often nudged certain viewpoints into posts with harmless disguises, but never with a provocative intent. If anything, I expose my worldview with more gusto in comments I leave on other blogs.

And yet, if all you know about me is what you’ve read here, you probably know a lot about what makes me tick. I like to run, I’m kind of fast, I love to use races as a stand-in for visiting friends and family and I often combine a big race with a chance to try the local cuisine. But what do I think of the social safety net? Do I have a stance on gun control? On federalism, foreign wars, the public school system or the Vatican? For the most part, I’ve stayed away from opening any floodgates because I know it can turn some people off. In many cases, big picture topics don’t really fit in a space largely reserved for describing the marathon experience. Plus, I want my running stories to speak for themselves. And yet I know this kind of thematic quarantine is unrealistic – sooner or later, you’ll get to really know someone. I’ve simply decided to avoid that here.

And then one day, toward the end of a long run, I followed an interesting thought. It led me through a thorny reverie and I came out the other side confused, frustrated, but intrigued. I took these lingering feelings and, over the last month, wrote and fastidiously re-wrote this post. We’re still talking about running, as I always will on this space, but with a new approach. To encourage a thoughtful discussion on the topic, we first have to journey back to my childhood.

Genesis

You see, I’m not exactly what you’d call a religious person. Not surprisingly, this is largely due to my upbringing. My father was always very critical of organized religion and my mother never had much of an opinion on the topic. Although her side of the family was equally ambivalent, his was a fascinating combination of conflicting views. My grandfather, who we called Lelo, was a Freemason who would sit with his arms crossed at mass and grumble, while my grandmother Lela was very pious and likely sat toward the front. As a child, whenever we would visit our native Costa Rica, I would spend most of my time at their house, as Lela was practically my best friend. I fondly recall playing piano in her living room while she would bring me strawberry milk in brightly colored, wide-lipped tin glasses.

Left to right: Lela, me, Lelo, my sister Adri (circa 1986)

Left to right: Lela, me, Lelo, my sister Adri (circa 1986)

Thanks to her, I learned to read at a very young age, which made me very quick with a book in kindergarten. Every weekend, we would visit the cathedral in Alajuela and take a stroll through the park that served as its front yard. She would let me pick one tiliche (Costa Rican for “doohickey” or “plaything”) from one of the many merchants during these visits and I would spend the weekend playing with it. Every night we would pray together and I soon learned to recite Our Fathers and Hail Marys in Spanish. She was a very loving and kind woman, even as she slowly succumbed to breast cancer when I was just seven. I learned a lot from Lela, but despite her piety and the nightly blessings, I never bought into Catholicism. I was more interested in the cathedral’s cupola than the guy nailed to the cross beneath it.

Growing up, my family would go to church only for weddings and funerals. During these visits, I would be fascinated by the opulent and imposing architecture of cathedrals and churches, but I never achieved any spiritual resonance. I attended Sunday school very briefly, but I suspect that was just because my mom wanted me to spend less time in the basement playing video games. Around the same time, a friend invited me to an all-night lock-in at a Go-Kart and Video Game emporium in Atlanta, where you could drive all night and all the arcade games were free. I practically salivated at the invitation and could scarcely believe it. I was soon dismayed upon learning that we had to first listen to a series of sermons at his local church, sing popular songs with a religious spin (i.e., “Walk Like a Christian”) and discuss catechism in small groups before a single engine could be revved. But I put up with all of it for the chance to play Mortal Kombat and Daytona USA for hours without coughing up any hard-earned quarters.

It wasn’t until much later in life that I suspected that the whole thing was a deliberately orchestrated parable for the Christian experience.

As a teen, I had always described myself as “spiritual, non-religious,” as I had felt my fair share of sublime inspiration through the muses of art, laughter and loved ones. But even in college, where the vicissitudes of higher education, boundless freedom to explore and the incredible distance from home encourage many young people to soul search, I only went to mass once, and it was literally to “coincidentally” bump into a girl. Much to my delight, we ended up getting lunch together afterward. I didn’t believe that this fortuitous date was thanks to divine, cosmic influence but I was still far from hard-line atheism. My journal entries at the time, written during years fraught with anxiety about girls and finding a job, routinely invoke a higher power, usually in a supplicant, pleading tone. Whenever a friend would call himself an atheist, I would dismiss it as a juvenile act of teenage rebellion, similar to getting a nose piercing or a tattoo of your favorite band. Even to me, the word “atheist” had a certain sting to it. I didn’t subscribe to this religion or that one, but part of me bought into the idea of a supreme being. I blame this on movies, books, and joining a fraternity established in Virginia.

Call it cultural osmosis but the idea of God was too entrenched in the world around me to ignore.

Exodus

But then after graduation, out in the real world, I had a change of heart. Once out of the nurturing bubble of college, I began immersing myself in current events and didn’t like what I found. World affairs were being framed as a cosmic battle between religious forces; the Intelligent Design curriculum was weaseling its way into school classrooms; Islamic fundamentalists were stoking the fires of long-standing, internecine conflicts in the Middle East; the Vatican was being plagued with unspeakable scandals involving priests and minors; Scientology was reaching new heights of exposure and ignominy; and congressmen were citing Biblical scripture to justify legislation that would threaten women’s access to health services. On and on the list went. I voraciously read books on the topic, from confrontational atheists Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins to religious scholars Bart Ehrman, Reza Aslan and Noah Feldman, ultimately coming to the conclusion that we have one life to live, governed by chaos, and little else. In the words of Rainer Maria Rilke, I decided that it was an error “to think of any afterlife or any reincarnation we are bound for as more extraordinary than finding ourselves here in the first place.”

Religion had never played a large role in my life, so I decided to take the next step and make it official by identifying as an atheist.

Seriously, this game was fun. Incredibly difficult, but fun.

Seriously, this game was fun. Incredibly difficult, but fun.

It wasn’t a life-altering epiphany but more a concrete establishment of lingering thoughts. As a child, I became obsessed with Battle of Olympus, a side-scrolling adventure game for the original Nintendo where the player parleys with the gods and fights monsters. It led me to a book by Bernard Evslin on the Greek myths, which I loved so much I finished it in just a few hours. I suspected that, at some point in time, these stories might have been canonical and revered as the true origins of the universe. I didn’t know anything at the time about Allah, Yahweh, Baal, Vishnu or Odin but I was fully immersed in the trials of Zeus, Poseidon and Hades. So I asked my dad, what would happen to average Christians if they met Zeus upon dying? He answered stoically, I don’t know, but that’s a possibility.

So at a young age, I felt that the idea of a supreme being, just by virtue of having such a diverse array of options, was unlikely but not impossible. But once out of college, I began abandoning the idea completely and embracing the staggering privilege of being alive, as a human, in this day and age. I shed all belief in spirits, souls, the afterlife, even ghosts. I wasn’t faced with a traumatic event or made painfully aware of the bleakness of the world, as many critics of atheism attest. I simply decided that none of it made any sense to me. The world was real, physical, and our lives were the sum of an infinite weave of choices and random events. While some might think this is a cold view, I found it profoundly liberating and empowering. I was in control of my life, my attitudes and actions.

At almost exactly the same time, I began running.

It started with just a few runs a week, as if I were getting to know the congregation. But once I fully baptized myself in the sport, I had created a regimented structure that would govern many parts of my life. Even today, running has a huge say in how I devise my weekly, yearly, and even lifetime schedule (I’ve often told people that my lifelong goal is to be able to run ten miles at the drop of a hat, regardless of age). So once again, I found myself asking questions: did my rise in running happen as a consequence of abandoning the last vestige of faith? Had I replaced one with the other? And if so, how is the running culture similar to a religion?

The Gospel of Running

In the fall of 2011, I was at the ING New York City Marathon expo with my friend Baxter. As we navigated the many booths of exotic races and unusual goods, I was surprised to hear almost every language imaginable. The field was extraordinarily foreign, made apparent by the myriad colorful flags draped over svelte bodies. It was Baxter’s first experience at a marathon expo, which he very accurately compared to a stroll through Diagon Alley, the fictional commercial street in Harry Potter lore. As much as I laughed at the comparison, it was the first real indication that I was part of a peculiar community with its own customs, gatherings and language. He must have felt like a foreigner walking through a bazaar or attending the ritualistic mass of a cult.

A few years later, I made a list of similarities. There was certainly no shortage of people likening marathon runners to members of a cult, so I decided to ask myself the obvious question: are there enough similarities to call running a religion? Ken Chitwood, PhD and religious scholar, says that “in many ways, running is a new form of religious asceticism complete with its own ascetic disciplines, literature, fellowship, shrines, meditative practices and proselytizing prophets and priests.”

In the list below, I’ve taken a similar approach to the sport and gone a little beyond Chitwood’s scope to determine just how closely I could connect the two spheres of life.

Dean Karnazes at the 2011 Chicago Marathon Expo

Dean Karnazes at the 2011 Chicago Marathon Expo

Disciples. A few booths away, surrounded by acolytes, I found the famous ultramarathoner and fitness advocate Dean Karnazes, whose fierce advocacy for fitness rivals his impressive feats of ultra-athleticism. He, along with expo staples Scott Jurek and Ryan Hall, are three of the sport’s many disciples, spreading the Gospel of Running from race to race (with Hall doing double duty by spreading the original Gospel in the process). There are many ultrarunners who point to super-athletes like Karnazes, Jurek and Pam Reed as having “converted” them to the sport.

Gods. But in addition to spreading the word, these figures and many others also represent the god-like core of running’s idols. We buy their books, eat their recipes, follow their programs, and cheer for them at competitions. Since we constantly squabble over who is supreme – some say it’s Gebrselassie, others vouch for Zátopek – perhaps it’s safe to say running is polytheistic. It also hurts tremendously when doping allegations surface and we learn that their superhuman status might have been unfairly achieved.

madison-outlineClothing. Much like Mormons have sacred temple garments and weekly churchgoers don their Sunday best, runners also drape themselves in curious garb when practicing. We eschew cotton in favor of moisture-wicking fabrics, we prefer our shorts to live up to their name, our forearms and calves are hugged by tight, brightly colored sleeves, and we equip ourselves with a variety of devices from heart rate monitors to GPS watches, fuel belts, and performance earbuds. Some trail runners shed almost all clothing save for shoes and shorts, the most notable of which is Tony Krupicka, who bears a slight resemblance to Christianity’s Jesus.

Rituals. Among the countless rituals runners perform (stretching, eating specific pre-run foods, post-run burgers), one towers above the rest. We spend our weekends, in the words of top American marathoner Shalane Flanagan, at the Church of Sunday Long Run. This grueling weekly task is an indispensable arrow in the runner’s quiver and is rarely skipped. We adhere to it with the strictest discipline, as if forgoing it would invoke the ire of our lactic threshold. It also forms the inner sanctum of our entire weekend plan, likely determining if we go out the night before and whether we’ll have enough energy for the rest of the day. Many people join running groups and meet the same friendly faces every Sunday, congregating in large, happy groups in parks and neighborhoods worldwide.

Medals and Beer, earned at the finish line

Medals and Beer, sacraments earned at the finish line

Sacrament. Every weekend, thousands of runners around the world receive blessing in the form of a finisher’s medal. In an act of transubstantiation, the trinket of metal, plastic, glass, clay or wood becomes more than just the sum of its materials the moment it is given to us. In those long seconds between heaves, the sweat-soaked award becomes an inseparable part of us as it swings below our chins and delicately bumps our frantic hearts. We wear it for the rest of the day like a rosary and some of us erect a monument in our homes so that all may see our dedication.

Prayer. The Islamic practice of salat requires that Muslims pray five times a day in the direction of Mecca. Christians routinely say grace before meals or at their bedside as a way to commune with god and keep in his good graces. If we frame the sport as a religion, then running itself is the act of praying. Anyone going through taper madness will testify that not running feels tantamount to apostasy, so many of us try to log miles as often as possible to stay close to the sport we love. Runners in the throes of their most intense weeks might start in the morning, rack up some miles during their lunch break, and end the day with an evening shake-off run. God is usually described as perfect, and by praying we get closer to him. With every run, we strive to achieve prime fitness, that elusive, “perfect” version of ourselves that will escort us to a new PR.

Scott Jurek, vegan and ultrarunner extraordinaire.

Scott Jurek, vegan and ultrarunner extraordinaire.

Diet. The Jewish laws of Kashrut govern what its adherents should not eat. Many Hindus do not eat beef out of respect for cows. Catholics are encouraged to avoid meat on Fridays and fast during the high holidays of Holy Week. Many runners, meanwhile, eat or snack ritualistically a set number of times per day and routinely lambast certain foods that everyone should avoid, such as anything deep fried or fat-free. A small sub-culture of runners also preaches the Gospel of veganism, some even finishing 100-mile races on a strict, fruitarian diet. In fact, it isn’t entirely off base to say that runners are more abstemious than serious followers of religious dogma.

Pilgrimage. Every year, many Costa Ricans walk to the Basílica de los Ángeles in Cartago to honor and give thanks to a black statue of the Virgin Mary in what is known as la romería (the pilgrimage). This happens all over the world, from Spain to Mexico and Mecca. Far beyond the obvious parallel of runners crossing long distances on foot, many choose to earn their place in the sport’s most prominent and prestigious pilgrimage: that of qualifying for and ultimately racing the Boston Marathon. Like a pilgrim kissing a sacred statue, many runners reach the blue and yellow finish line on Boylston Street with equal fervor, earning a runner’s high than no other race can impart.

Many argue that trail running allows a closer communion with nature than standard road racing.

Many argue that trail running allows a much closer communion with nature than standard road racing.

Movements. Like most major faiths, running as an activity, sport and hobby exists in many different forms. Beyond the separation of road and track, there are trail runners who seldom touch asphalt, road runners that keep their fleet feet on flat pavement, weekend warriors who participate in non-chip timed fun runs, Hashers, Mud Runners, Obstacle Racers and Tough Mudders. All of these running incarnations come with their own creeds, temples and adherents, each no less effusive about the sport than the rest. Though no group openly disparages the others, it is not uncommon to hear trailheads bemoan the harshness of asphalt, or roadrunners vent their frustrations at seeing their times plunge in dense woods.

Up until now, I’ve stuck largely to comparisons that outline the daily habits or customs of runners and how they stack up as a religion. It has been what I consider a playful list, one that wouldn’t be out of place in Buzzfeed or Mashable. However, there are key characteristics that elevate the conversation and they deal with the personal and controversial elements that unearth the convictions beneath each topic.

The Flock

2012-0304 little-rock-marathonRunners are often vilified or at least chastised because they tend to speak at length about their sport. So it makes sense that when two runners bump into each other, they gab endlessly about their shoes, the most recent race they ran and favorite drills until everyone around them has moved to another table. As a community, we are a rich, international tapestry of athletes from all walks of life with millions of telling origin stories. We find common ground and become instant friends just by name dropping a unique race and even welcome strangers into our homes exclusively because they know the hardship of running 26.2 miles.

But this community can become an echo chamber. If anyone says running is bad for your knees, we rally against them with a collective scoff. Every time someone gives us that concerned look as we ice our joints on the couch for the third time in a month, we shrug it off and assure them it’s nothing to worry about. Whenever a scientist publishes a study suggesting that running marathons may be damaging to our hearts, we brandish our foam rollers and march as a garrison, declaring that the research methods and samples must be flawed. By surrounding ourselves with like-minded followers, we inoculate ourselves against criticism, especially since exercise is rarely frowned upon.

Religion has a similar stickiness. When people are surrounded by others of the same faith, they are less likely to question their beliefs. Unlike movies, music or even political leanings, religion has been imbued with a sacred aura that often prevents people from engaging in debate because belief and faith become so doggedly connected to one’s sense of self. Furthermore, opponents of organized religion worry that the many worldwide charities run by religious groups shield the overall movement from criticism or outright condemnation. But when that faith structure informs and even dictates its adherents’ thoughts on public policy, education, other religions and the world at large, the results aren’t always great. This can lead to otherwise friendly people harboring hateful opinions about topics like gay marriage, the building of a mosque, evolution or premarital sex.

For many of us, running is a fixed part of our personality. We stick to it through injury and illness, and go to great lengths to avoid DNFs or DNSs. We all remember how deep the explosions felt at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon. It felt as if our entire community and culture had been irreparably wounded. So if anything negative comes to light about it, we take it very personally. For us, the sport goes beyond hobby or a means to achieve good fitness; it informs others about our best qualities and values.

But if science were to unequivocally prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that running is deleterious to our health, how many of us would immediately stop?

Suffering

If we run hard enough, there will come a time in any race of any distance, where we will be in pain. Our bodies scream at us to stop but training and determination keep us going, pushing through the anguish, closer to the finish. In longer races, even walking feels like a slow march to the grave as every ounce of energy has escaped our pores and been absorbed by the grass. For many of us, suffering is a crucial component of the sport. It’s the measurement of effort, improvement, and in less tangible ways, the indication that we’re living life on the fringes of our abilities. When our bodies begin to fail us, many of us can’t just stop. It’s not an option we’ve agreed to. So we continue bludgeoning our toes and squeezing the air out of our lungs until we reach the finish line’s sweet, merciful release.

Why do we do this?

Why do we do this?

The superficial comparison should be apparent: the race represents our lives and heaven is the open bar with our friends just past the finish line. But what I want to tease out is a little more unnerving: that of reward through suffering. This is pervasive in many religions and it doesn’t just apply to the most fundamental or ascetic groups. Christians are encouraged to confess their sins, to unload the mounting transgressions they’ve accumulated and carry with them. Even those who live kind, generous lives aren’t exempt as many interpretations of the Bible state that all Christians since the fall of Adam are born sinful. We are told that prior to the original sin, the world was a bountiful, perfect paradise, contrary to the one we inhabit today. The Gospel according to Matthew contains the famous phrase, “blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth,” which is an effective, yet insidious way of placating the indigent masses of the first century into happily bearing their burdens until their recompense in the afterlife.

As I’ve stated, the concept of salvation through suffering is key to the running experience. We trust that our pain is leading somewhere. Dean Karnazes agrees. “People think I’m crazy to put myself through such torture,” he says, “though I would argue otherwise. Somewhere along the line we seem to have confused comfort with happiness. Dostoyevsky had it right: ‘Suffering is the sole origin of consciousness.’ Never are my senses more engaged than when the pain sets in. There is a magic in misery. Just ask any runner.” This sounds very similar to Patheos‘ description of Islam as a faith that teaches “the endurance of suffering with hope and faith.”

A post-race shower, or in this case, Otter dipping his legs into a nearby stream, can be a form of baptism.

A post-race shower, or in this case, Otter dipping his legs into a nearby stream, can be a form of baptism.

No race that I’ve ever run has had a moving finish line, so we know that each step is one closer to deliverance. But spectators perched near the end of any long-distance who have witnessed the assembly line of grimaces should wonder why anyone puts themselves through this. Surely there must be better ways to find gratification and higher meaning in the world than by willing subjugation to a series of trials meant to break you down.

Chitwood posits that “to run is to overcome suffering for the sake of the prize. Thus, for many, to run is to flee from death itself.” Like most of what we do, running is a means to stave off that final breath, or at least fend off the preventable diseases that can accelerate the process. But the opposite interpretation suggests something more thought-provoking yet macabre: perhaps endurance athletes push themselves to the breaking point precisely because they want to reach that liminal gap between life and death and catch a fleeting glimpse of the ineffable. Maybe in order to live, we have to straddle that dangerous line by approaching or even taunting death.

Faith

Whenever you have a direct, honest discussion about religion with anyone, you eventually, to borrow a running term, hit a wall. That fortified obstacle is either made of faith or doubt, two materials heavier than cast iron and deeper than bedrock. Although there is much common ground to be found between atheists and believers in the grand scheme of things, inevitably there is a moment where the two strands of thought diverge and progress becomes slow. That moment involves faith, or complete belief in something, sometimes against odds or evidence. The reason most conversations stop has to do with the equally ponderous tasks of convincing a believer to abandon faith and imploring a skeptic to embrace belief.

Faith and the echo chamber of our peers march in stride, as our loyal support group rallies behind us to bolster our beliefs and drown out the voices of dissent. This makes it easy to willingly accept the evidence or lack thereof for something, shielding us from the outside to preserve our feelings. The reason most conversations about religion ultimately break down, either between religious groups or with non-believers, is because the entire concept is built upon faith and belief, neither of which can be proven. What is it about the Bible, a book written by hundreds of people over as many years, that makes it the infallible word of God? Who is to say that Allah is the “true” god if Horus and Ra have been around far longer? Despite the questionable authorship and chronology, many people simply believe.

My first marathon, where so much was unknown

My first marathon, where so much was unknown

But runners aren’t immune to the willing avoidance of reason. In fact, we encounter it in every race we run. Our bodies are built with feedback mechanisms that inform us when our systems are failing. When our legs are flooded with lactic acid or our lungs feel like they’re been crushed, our brains implore us to stop. But we’ve learned to block out those signals, push through and even embrace the pain. The mantras we repeat convince us that this crucible will all be worth it when we’re sipping a craft beer at the finish line.

We’re told to have faith in our training, to simply believe that tapering will lead to stronger legs and a better performance. In most races past mile 20, we are seldom certain of how our legs will hold up. At that point, especially for first-timers, it (almost) becomes a pure exercise in faith. We don’t ever see our legs getting stronger or more energy efficient, but if all goes well, we are sometimes treated to performances that exceed our wildest expectations, often feeling like magic. Of course, this magic has been studied. Science has shown that endurance training leads to an increase in mitochondria in our muscle cells, which bolsters the body’s efficiency in consuming oxygen and improves performance.

But for a host of other reasons (weather, a poor dinner choice, last-minute illness), it doesn’t always work out. And when it all goes to hell and we end up crawling to the finish line with our hearts pounding in our hollow heads, our entire view of running having crushed us, how many of us abandon the sport?

Very few of us. In fact, we do the opposite and find ways to turn even the most grueling and ego-bruising experience into a lesson. Like anyone faced with a tragedy in their lives, rather than gaze skywards with rage, we say that running works in mysterious ways, and set our sights on the next race. We never condemn the sport itself as being irrational and rarely entertain the sacrilegious idea that humans shouldn’t be running long distances.

Mea culpa, we mutter, respect the distance, we offer, and return to our daily acts of penitence.

Why?

To be human is to be social, to gather in groups and have shared experiences. “The reason we race isn’t so much to beat each other, but to be with each other,” agrees Christopher McDougall, author of the bestselling book Born to Run. We all want to be part of a group, to have a support network. We find this in friends and family, co-workers and the buzzing masses of people that peregrinate alongside us through busy city streets.

Masses at

Masses at “mass”

Although I don’t go to church on Sundays, I understand why the weekly ritual attracts untold masses. For many it is a safe place of quiet contemplation; a gathering of like-minded people who want to improve their lives by enjoying each other’s company and paying tribute to a supreme being. For others, it’s a place to seek answers. Life is full of turmoil and chaos beyond our understanding, and the beautiful verses and parables of sacred texts might offer consolation during difficult times.

But running, unlike a communal trip to a church or even the local pub, offers us a very unusual personal connection. We spend most of our days in climate-controlled environments, sitting or moving slowly. Polished and well-dressed, we project an ideal and confident version of ourselves. But at mile 24, everyone regardless of talent or speed looks like death. We’re stripped down to our barest elements: flesh, sweat and sometimes blood. Running – or any sport for that matter – elevates our routine so we’re part of something greater. It’s a celebration of the human body and the marvelous feats it can accomplish. It makes us feel like we’re truly living. As we stand at the starting line, we can feel the current of nervous energy flowing through each jittery participant. Hours later, as we approach the finish line, stripped of elegance and poise, we know every step we took to get there was all ours, earned through initiative, dedication and perseverance.

In many ways, the tribute we pay is to ourselves.

And when it’s over, we do it all again. We ask how we could have improved, what kind of drills we should incorporate into the next training cycle, and whether we’d be comfortable running even farther. Seen this way, running has a lot in common with reincarnation. A quick search of running blogs will return many examples of runners who have, in a way, become “reborn.” The reasons for their transformations vary from a desire to lose weight, overcome illness or abandon a sedentary lifestyle. Over time, they literally become different people with new bodies, schedules, and outlooks. In times of stress or great anguish, many people and organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous turn to a higher power for guidance and structure. Running it seems can also provide a similar outlet for self-improvement. There are even several popular running groups that hedge their bets by combining the two.

On that note, I’d be remiss to not mention that, independently of religious affiliation, many people experience this elevation of routine as a spiritual transformation, or as George Sheehan calls it, a “psychological and spiritual renewal.” Though I’ve encountered similar transcendental moments, I frame the experience in biological terms. Once past our limits and into the great unknowns of achievement, our brains aren’t being fed the necessary ingredients for proper cogitation. The clamp on our chest and the ever-mounting burn in our legs combine to blur the world around us and expose our deepest, most base instincts and feelings. This mental state can make us feel like we’ve broken through a barrier, perhaps to a divine plane. For Rachel Toor, author and professor, the experience is profoundly spiritual. She believes “trail running is as close to church-going as I can get. Because you do not stand still to behold the sublime, but move through it, limbs hailing and exulting all there is in the world and whatever lies beyond.”

At mile 25, pain is part of the experience.

At mile 25, pain is part of the experience. For some, it is the experience.

The internet has even coined an official running religion called Runnism, which advocates “inner peace, a sense of belonging, fulfillment and a deeper meaning in life.” In a nutshell, they’ve encapsulated the deeper parallels between a life dedicated to the pursuit of fulfillment through running and one based on apocryphal books written two thousand years ago. The results are similar, so why not worship running?

It is very likely that all of these parallels can apply across all sports. Anyone with enough dedication to something will invite such comparisons; I just happen to be a runner. But unlike religions, who compete to provide the answers to life’s great questions, we don’t say that running is inherently better than basketball or that it will provide more happiness. We don’t wage war against CrossFit or disallow swimmers from participating in weekend 5ks. Though our core mythology involves the legendary death of Pheidippides, our sport doesn’t have a bloody history of armed conflict. Our flock, though a bit unhinged, is inclusive of all people regardless of origin, abilities or personality. It keeps us moving, inspires us and can offer a path to fulfillment if we desire one.

In the middle of the desert, with miles to run, it wasn't difficult to

In the middle of the desert, with miles to run, it wasn’t difficult to “rise above” the race into a meditative state.

New studies, including a very recent publication in Nature, suggest that the ability to run allowed our species to split from our ancestral simian cousins, paving the winding path to the beings we are today. If we’re searching for whatever created us, we might not have to look too far past our ability to walk upright and cover great distances. If bipedal locomotion is such a staple of what it literally means to be human, then don’t we owe it to ourselves to be active and make the most of our bodies?

I’m sure I’m not alone in finding this truly breathtaking, but it’s worth repeating. The most sacred texts of the world’s largest religions describe the origins of our species and universe in grandiose, often colorful ways. But if you want a concrete, tangible answer for why we are the way we are, you might hear echoes of it with each fluid stride.

So you can see why I was confused and a little frustrated at the end of my contemplative long run. I had based a lot of my worldview on a holistic rejection of organized religion because of what I considered pernicious and atavistic qualities that had no purpose in my life. As I began connecting the dots, it seemed that I might have instead found a different outlet for whatever human impulse drives people to join a church, if such an inclination exists. But rather than follow a religion, which for most people is a decision almost entirely dictated by their parents, I chose to become a runner.

I will never claim that running is immune to criticism, nor do I believe it is the purest expression of the human experience. But then again, neither is anything else, not even art, sex or religion. That’s up to each of us to determine. Early in life, I was given an intimate look into the religious experience. As I grew older, it failed to persuade me so I subconsciously found an alternate source of personal fulfillment. Rather than work for a rewarding afterlife, running makes me feel great now and potentially in my twilight years. But it is not my reason for being, nor does it promise me anything for my efforts. It is only one way of many to enjoy the privilege of being a human for the brief, yet wondrous flicker of time we have.

I can’t say with any real certainty that deities don’t watch over us in realms beyond our imaginations. But in the absence of that knowledge, surrounded by the few truths I do know about myself and what fills me with gratification, I happily follow the path of the runner.

Special thanks to Mike for reading this article in its earliest form and for providing insight and editorial guidance.