I have recently started training for my first attempt at running an ultramarathon. I have a 50K race coming up in October. Training is coming at a perfect time, as we will soon be leaving on a 25 day camping and hiking road trip. Running now takes the pressure off of focusing on mileage, and I can instead focus on preparing myself to handle some pretty awesome hiking while being the pack-horse for our family.
When one disappears on a trail for 3-4 hours at a time, some funny things happen. One time, a few years ago on a really hot day, I became a little disoriented as to where I was on the trail, and where I needed to go. I stopped, and reversed direction. About 10 seconds later, I decided that this was the wrong way, so I reversed course and started to double back. Another 15 seconds passed, and no, that way didn’t seem right either. I did this back and forth game 5 or 6 times. Finally, I just stopped and laughed. I figured before I continued to mimic a squirrel with ADHD, maybe I should stop and think about where I was actually going. It was funny, and a little scary. Thankfully, I was never all that far from my car, and had enough water to make it should I get misdirected for a while.
After the first 45 minutes, all I do (other than run) is think. Sometimes, it’s constructive. Others, my mind wanders from inconsequential topic to even less consequential topic. When we hike with the kids, thinking stops, and we play “would you rather”. (Our nine year old daughter is deceptively good at coming up with disturbing scenarios. If it were a competition, she would win frequently.)
Lately, I’ve been pondering “help”– when I’ve given help to people who really needed it, and when I’ve really leaned on other people. It’s good to be on both ends of the spectrum. When I was interviewing for medical school, one physician asked why I wanted to become a doctor. My answer was something to the effect on how helping people feels really good. He then asked me if I let other people help me. I stopped for a minute; it seemed odd. He then stated that sometimes he deliberately let other people do things for him that he could do for himself, because he wants other people to feel good in the same way. I like the way he thinks.
Running has given me plenty of examples about how this can play out. I’m sure my list isn’t exhaustive, but it’s a place to start. In residency, we were asked if we were a “splitter” (someone who delineates sub-categories) or “lumper” (someone who puts similar-ish problems under the same heading). I’m a lumper for sure.
–Sometimes, you just give help. My father has always run; he has done so as far back as I can remember. I always thought that he enjoyed it. Turns out, Marines are creatures of habit. He needed/wanted to stay in shape. Marines run in basic training, ergo he ran. He didn’t really start to fully enjoy it until about two years ago.
In the winter of 2015-16, he started adding some distance. (He was always a “run a 10K every other day” sort of guy.) We got him up to an almost two hour run late in that winter. He kicked around the idea of running a half marathon, but then the St. Louis summer set in, which is miserable with a capital M. He picked up with the distance again this winter. He asked me what it would take to cover 13+ miles.
I laid out a framework for him, and put together a training plan. Every two weeks, I would accompany him on his long runs. We worked on pacing, taking fluids, and hills. Yes, I made my 70 year old dad tackle hills. I had to be a little nutty, even with my own father. But he really needed to be prepared; I didn’t want him caught off guard when tackling this new endeavor. If we wanted him to get across that finish line, then I needed him to be ready to tackle anything that course might throw at him.
About one week ago, he completed his first half-marathon, a hilly 13.1 mile course, in 2:33:40. I was his “Sherpa” for the process. He took first place in his age group (though, in fairness, he was first out of two people. We passed that gentleman at mile 8. He saw my dad and said, “Please tell me you’re 69!”). He did so well, he even had the legs to sprint the final 200 yards (and ran his last two miles in 10:15 and 10:05 respectively). He did all the work, I was just thrilled to be a guiding light after all the things he did for me as a kid. (He spent so much money on me in the batting cages, we probably should have bought one.) I was happy, honored to help. The shoe was on the other foot, and it just felt good to help him accomplish something that was completely new to him.
–Sometimes, you just receive it. I ran competitively in college. (I was on the team, but not very good comparatively. I was always one of the slowest on the team.) Cross country was always my favorite over track. I think it lead to my love of trail running; it was the next logical extension. Anyway, training preseason is always a fine line. If you don’t put in enough work, your body is virtually guaranteed to be unable to handle the volume and intensity of in-season training. If you over-train, you are almost assuring yourself of peaking too early and having your body breakdown prematurely. Once you are past peak, the only remedy is rest, recovery, and reload for track season that’s a few months away.
I made this error entering my sophomore year. I reported to camp in good shape; too good, actually. Championship season is November; I peaked in mid-October. By Halloween, I was toast. Between a full load of course work (including Physical Chemistry, and I still miss Dr. Kooser to this day), working, and training, I had broken down. I started getting sick. I still had a few weeks left of the season, but regardless of my mental approach, my body was DONE.
I finished a workout on a Monday in late October. We were to run 8-one mile intervals, and have our last two be our fastest. #7, for me, was slower than #6. I tried hard to rally for my last one, but it was an unmitigated disaster. I wasn’t even close to where I needed to be, and it was my slowest of the 8 intervals that day. I finished the workout, and I was frustrated. Angry. Enraged. Unhinged. All at myself and what I couldn’t do. I was crying, yelling at myself, and swearing. The whole team, men’s and women’s squads, had a front row seat to my breakdown. I must have been a sight.
Our team captain, a man we all called Flüg, approached me. I think he initially got in my face, just to calm me down; he had to do something to talk OVER me. I don’t remember what he said for his opening salvo, but it was to the effect of “calm the (redacted) down.” We then ran our cool down together. He told me that he was glad I was on HIS team. That he needed my presence. And he told me to focus on what I COULD do at that point, and keeping my approach positive for the upcoming seasons as he could see I was toast for the present one. He made me step back from the edge, got my attention, and kept me focused on the bigger picture. I’m fairly sure that his conversation was the reason I came back for the upcoming seasons, and didn’t make that one my last one. He had nothing to gain; it was only him helping me, but it snapped me out of my funk. I still finished that particular season poorly as I was past my peak, but I was a more consistent performer in the future as I kept his words in mind. I never have adequately thanked him for that one.
–Sometimes, it’s symbiotic. If I’m ever going to get into trouble, chances are it’s with my friend, Dennis. Not police type trouble, just jeopardizing our own safety. It was summertime, and we were both training for the upcoming cross-country season. We decided that we needed a good 7 to 8 mile effort, and we wanted to do a trail run. We knew there was one close to a place called Lone Elk Park. The trail is called the Chubb Trail. The sign said 8 miles. Perfect! We would run it and finish back the car; mission accomplished.
I learned many lessons that day, one of which is to do RESEARCH before you do something new. Yes, the trail is 8 miles. We assumed it was a loop, thus starting and finishing at the same place. The trail is actually point-to-point. In order to get back to the car, it would be 16 miles. We didn’t know this; we could not have been more oblivious to the mistake we were about to make. I should also add that it was a hot, sticky, typical mid-summer day in St. Louis. And we weren’t carrying food or water. And there are no water fountains at the trailhead.
We took off. There are twisty flats down by the river, grueling climbs, and technical descents. But we were MOVING. We ran really well and attacked the whole 8 miles. We arrived at the end, and were proud of ourselves. But then we had a “pre-Ashton Kutcher becoming famous” moment of “dude, where’s the car?”
After a momentary mini-panic, we saw a mountain biker. We asked him where the hell Lone Elk Park was. Not knowing our predicament, he pointed and told us it was 8 miles, the other way. He must have seen our heartbroken faces, because he chuckled, and took off riding. He probably thought we were idiots, and he may have been corrent. We now knew what we had to do. We turned and took off, embarking on an extra 8 miles we hadn’t planned for.
In the ensuing journey home, we took turns keeping the other person calm, focused, and most importantly, running. We made jokes about our collective stupidity. We cursed– me more than Dennis. We openly wondered that due to dehydration (summer in St. Louis after all), when we might urinate again. But mostly, we kept each other positive, climbed the hills, attacked the downhills, and stayed focused on getting to the car. And we did; I think I may have shed a tear when I saw the car. (I had never been so happy to see my mother’s red Ford Escort.) Had we not kept each other from panic, given our lack of supplies and conditions of the day, one of us could have gotten sick. It took a collective effort to avoid a minor catastrophe that day; and it is a source of conversation for the both of us, twenty plus years later.
–Sometimes, help isn’t coming, and that’s ok. And you may get a helping if humble pie, and that’s even better in the long run. A few years ago, I jumped in a workout with a training group, 90+% who were significantly faster than I was. I knew I was in trouble when the warm up was 2.5 miles, and I was trailing the group significantly at the warm up pace. I was in the slowest group (me and one other guy I didn’t even know); 8 x 1 mile at half marathon pace with one minute rest between intervals. I kept up with my partner, and it was hard. I was red-lining about halfway through. But there was no backing out now. There wouldn’t be any talking to anyone in order to make things better. No worrying about how I was going to finish the workout. Just do the next one, and then make a plan for the following. And so forth.
My legs felt like two worn out sponges, but I hit my target splits, and finished what I thought was the workout. I was exhausted, a little light headed, but content. I was ready to put on a dry shirt and drive home. Then the woman who the workout was actually designed for (Julie Lossos) came up to me. (For the record, Julie was training for a marathon, and would go on to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon. She’s an awesome runner, and a better person.) She very kindly stated she was doing her cool down, and would a few of us mind going with her, as it was getting dark. Safety in numbers. We had a group of three or four people.
I figured I could do that. Surely, a cool down was a cool down. It would be short, I could serve as some form of protection for this very nice person, and then I’d finally be able to call it a night.
I wrote in one of my first blogs that sometimes, one trial learning isn’t my strength. This woman’s “cool down” was fast; probably the speed I was running for my workout, and was as long as our warm up. About half way into the “easy jog”, a few things became apparent. One was that I had no business training with this group. Ever. Not because they weren’t good people; they unequivocally were (I’m still friends with some of these people today). But we were on two utterly different planes and the planes weren’t supposed to meet, not at least in that training session. The other issue, quite practically, was that I couldn’t offer any security 50 yards behind the person I was supposed to be helping and offering protection. One cannot offer much help with one popped lung. Seeing as how Julie had another person or two with her that were keeping pace, I slowed down from near-puke pace to a quasi-crawl.
I fought my way through that workout. I’m still proud of it to this day. But I started laughing as I was driving home. I couldn’t hang with an elite training group, and I especially had no business trying to keep pace with St. Louis’ best woman’s marathoner; not in a workout (which I already knew), not on a warm up (which didn’t surprise me), and not even on a cool down (which still wasn’t surprising, but still had an effect of smelling salts on me). I never crumbled, I never panicked. I persevered. And I had seen the Holy Grail; the line which I can never cross, no matter how hard I try. Rather than being depressed, I felt honored just to have been there. But I made a mental note to never do THAT again.
There’s nothing inherently unique about running and these items. They just so happen to serve as illustrations to me to make the bigger point. Help comes in different forms at different times. We should be acquainted with all of them. We need to be able to give without the expectation of immediate benefit. We need to accept help, pride be damned. We need to be able to work together frequently, thus creating win-win scenarios. And yes, we need to be able to draw upon our own strength, as sometimes it’s all you have. I can’t say one is more valuable than the others; we need all the tools at our disposal. I’m grateful for all of them. Hopefully we can learn these lessons before we take on irreparable damage.