Tuesday, August 21, 2012
The War Within
It was the fall of 2004. I was only a few months removed from my college graduation and life was full of every imaginable uncertainty. Where will I live? What will I do for a career? Should I ask out that cute blonde from church? I had just started my first real job post college, and for the last 18 months I had been jogging a few miles a week to stay in shape and to help cope with the new stresses of life as an adult.
On the chilly morning of November 20, 2004, I toed the line of the JFK 50 miler. It was my first ultramarathon, and my first race. I had never run farther than six miles. That's right. Six miles.
Over the next 10 hours and 39 minutes I learned a lot about myself, and the mindset needed to push my body well beyond it's own realm of physical ability. I ran to prove to all the doubters that I could exceed the 20 miles they predicted I could run before I quit. I ran for my grandmother who was fighting a losing battle with cancer. I realized that my psychological relationship with pain was all relative. I ran to prove to myself I could do what seemed impossible. I was never a naturally gifted runner, nor to this day do I think running really comes easily. Thus, when I was able to complete that 50 mile run, it exposed a part of my will and character that for many years went undiscovered. Like many others, I thought if I could survive running/walking 50 miles in the autumn cold, then everything else in life would seem easy. That euphoric post run exuberance, however, was short lived.
Life would continue to get tougher and the stressors would continue to mount up. I worked seven different odd jobs in 2005, and struggled to pay for basic costs of living (food, gas, rent). Then Hurricane Katrina hit. I ran to raise money for Katrina victims who had lost everything. I had little for myself, but I still had running, and running was the one thing I could use to give back. I ran to cope with the pressures of reality, and again I felt that if I could conquer longer and tougher distances that life outside of the run would feel easier again. Like before it worked. For a little while.
I found that I could complete 31 miles in the mountains, then 50, and then in 2007 I graduated to the mind numbing distance of 100 miles. It seemed, if I put my mind to it, I could finish any distance set before me. Pretty soon, I realized that simply completing ultramarathons wasn't a big enough challenge, and running them faster would be the key to making the races tougher. Granted, at the time, I did not have the knowledge, or finances to seek out the significantly harder races in existence.
Over the next few years I got a little faster, but was still basically a middle of the pack runner. I ran more and more, farther and farther. I worked 80 hours a week. I ran. My grandparents died. I ran. I celebrated life's triumphs. I ran. I broke up with my girlfriend. I ran. In the frozen winter. I ran. I moved away. I ran. I quit a job. I ran. In the silent hours of the night I ran. I ran physically and metaphorically in every capacity within my mind. I ran towards one thing and away from another. Running was a constant, but one that didn't always fulfill the same purpose from one run to another. Sometimes running was just a mindless escape, because I really didn't know what else to do. Even as I write this, it seems there are days I run simply out of lack of anything else going on in my life. It's just sort of there. Sometimes I love it, sometimes I hate it, and sometimes it's just something to do because all my friends are now married with kids. There are days where I feel like life is passing me by and that I missed the boat of opportunity to get married, settle down, and start a family. It's a wonderful thought, and yet scary because it seems like a loss of freedom.
Somewhere along the way the rugged trails I met with great trepidation years ago became more home to me than my own bedroom. My comforts used to be sitting in front of my computer, blasting my stereo, and flipping through 999 television channels filled with absolutely nothing. Now, it's the curve of the single track, the jagged rocks, and the canopy of trees that I relate to. Running used to be the grueling quest that made everything else in life look less complicated, but now it's what comes easier. When relationships fracture and work drains me, running doesn't force back the same perspective it used to. It used to be that running was complicated, and reality made sense. Now reality is complicated and running makes sense. The problem is when neither running, nor life outside running make any sense. When running becomes an unenjoyable trudge through the woods, and work and friendships are also suffering, it almost feels like I have nothing else to fall back on. In those times part of me wonders if I need to step back and reevaluate what matters in the case of my own fulfillment, and whether is it seeded in all the wrong places and people.
I suppose though my expectations are a bit too high. Nothing is meant to be fully understood, nor do I think I'd actually want to understand everything. I suppose I just need to remind myself that it's the unknown that makes the journey exciting.