The air in New Mexico is known for its clarity, and its light. This is a stark change from LA, where the marine layer creates an almost always present haze that traps the smog beneath it. And then there’s the smoke from the fires burning in the San Jacintos. Assembling this race report, 2 months later, out of scattered notes, with what feels a lot like a smoker’s cough from a hard weekend running in the San Gabriel Mountains a little closer than I realized to the smoke.
At the finish line of Jemez, they announced a runner who had just finished his 800th ultra marathon. Very, very slowly. But steady – I guess you learn how to pace yourself after you’ve done a few hundred of these. I’m not sure how anyone possibly has the time.
Chris Price came in third, between Nick Clark and Joe Grant. About himself, his wife Elissa, Andrea, and I, Chris said “I think we underestimated the course”. I nodded in agreement.
Chris finished. I didn’t.
So what actually went wrong? A lot, really. The climbs were long, and I do better at short, steep climbs. These climbs stretched 6 – 8 miles, and I found myself in between gears, like my truck on a hill that is too steep for second but not quite steep enough for 1st, a tough-on-the-transmission hill. It has more to do with my personal gear ratio than it does with the climbs. And it’s really not such a big deal.
Work has been terrible. As a good Aspie, I like structure, I like emotional simplicity and evenness, and I don’t really know how to engage appropriately with others when there’s panic and chaos, and there’d been a lot of that. I was carting a lot of workplace drama and tension along with me.
The weather was like the hills – it found me between gears – too hot to be cold and too cold to be hot. I was having a Goldilocks crisis. I couldn’t find just right. Not really a big deal, but all these little deals were starting to add up.
I was frantically sucking air at 10,000 feet. I run just fine (and frequently) at 8,000 feet but that extra half-a-mile of elevation was too much for a sea level boy. (This actually was a big deal).
I got lost. A lot. 6 times in 22 miles. The course was well marked, but the markings were little flags close to the ground (because elk eat the ribbons in the trees), and whenever I found myself in a running groove I would stop looking from side to side, scanning the course, and head straight…which meant straight off the course. At the rate I was going, this would end up being closer to a 60 mile race, and I was worried, too, about what would happen when the crowd thinned and stretched out, as inevitably happens in the second half of a race. There might not be anyone to yell at me, which is how I made my way back to the course all 6 times. Could I be relied upon to notice on my own? I wasn’t so sure.
At 22 miles, sucking in air, pissed and sad at my work and at myself for not being in a position to comfortably quit, not feeling particularly effective as a runner, as a programmer, or as a person, I hit a steep, steep stretch of trail, beyond my capabilities really; my feet went out from under me and I slid down the rocky hill on my ass, bloodied a little when I finally was able to grab on something and arrest the slide.
That, finally, was the last straw. I was done. I turned around and pulled my way back up the hill using my arms and hands as much as my legs and feet.
“You’re going the wrong way!” said a concerned aid station worker, as if I had somehow managed to accidentally get myself turned around on that hill (yeah, right).
Of course, I wasn’t quite done. The nearest aid station I could get a ride out of was 3 miles behind me, at Ski Hut. I sat at the aid station for a while and collected myself before heading back down the hill. “Good job!” said a number of runners I passed going backwards on the course. No, not really guys; it you look closely, you’ll notice I am going backwards.
Expectations Are A Planned Resentment
“Expectations are a planned resentment” Google it. You’ll see results come up from Buddhist teachers, from Jewish Recovery Networks, from assorted Christian Pastors… It’s not a new idea, and it’s not a rare idea, but it sure seems to be difficult to remember.
I went into Jemez Mountains with all sorts of expectations, large and small, about the course, about the views, about my time, and all of them were shit on by mile 8. My response was exactly what the Jewish Recovery folks and the myriad ministers and preachers and Buddhist teachers and AA sponsors and just about everyone else has taught me, lectured me on, and generally attempted to hammer into my thick skull have said it would be.
Sometime around 85AD, Stoic Philosopher Epictetus wrote a book called The Art of Living, described as “the Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness”, and what more could anyone want, really, than those three things? In it, he writes “Circumstances do not rise to meet our expectations. Events happen as they do. People behave as they are. Embrace what you actually get.”
This basically means that your situation, whatever it might be, is reality. Don’t ignore it, don’t succumb to it, don’t wish it was something else. Just deal with it.
I did not follow that advice. When I do, things inevitably go better. Regrets kind of suck. So does frustration. Embracing what you actually get allows you to avoid both.
Valles Caldera – the cone of an extinct volcano
The Caldera and other fun places…
I should probably say something about the course. It is beautiful, in a sometimes kind of fucked up, disorganized way. Fire decimated things a decade ago. The trees did not fall neatly. They never do when there are a lot of them. In the San Gabriels, where trees aren’t as plentiful, fire’s decimation seems, I dunno, tidier? Minimalism always makes things seem tidier, I guess. The Jemez Mountains are rough and rocky, a volcanic range, and, thick with trees, they don’t feel as spacious, even while the climbs are long, the meadows wide, and the air crystal clear. If that sounds like a complaint – and maybe it is, in terms of aesthetic minutiae – it’s a very small one.
The climbs are long, and they get longer. Combined with the elevation, runners not well prepared can find themselves feeling ragged sooner than might be appropriate in a conservatively run 50 miler. I did.
These are volcanic mountains (as are many in New Mexico), and one of the joys I did not experience is the run through the Valles Caldera, which is the cone of an extinct volcano, a section of the course I’d’ve hit in the miles soon after I dropped.