We Seek, We Find

Halfway across the Atlantic on my way to La Palma for Transvulcania, I am taken by a severe bout of food poisoning. I touch down in Madrid, plow through the line of bumbling, zombie-like international travelers, and make a half-hearted sprint for my connecting flight. I am slowed by customs, security, and a 20-minute train ride.

With a half hour to make my next flight, my efforts are futile. The check-in lady tells me there is nothing she can do to help and that I will need to exit the airport to rebook my flight at the Iberia ticket office. While under normal circumstances this would be frustrating, my general state of misery makes things barely tolerable. Finally reaching the ticket office, I announce, “La Palma,” place my ticket and head on the counter, and begin swaying side-to-side. Twenty minutes later, my flight is re-booked, I have an eight-hour layover and a free lunch for my troubles. Oh, and where’s the pharmacia?

The trip to La Palma started out rough, but I was certain that with a few days rest things would come around and I would be good to go by race day. Traveling internationally to race is a privilege and something I take very seriously. Much of my attention preceding an event is focused on getting in proper training for the race. However, it is easy to forget that running is usually the most straightforward and controllable part of preparation. One’s mental and emotional state play a large part in success as do other variables such as travel or managing new foods and a different climate.

Two days preceding the race, I sat at Tony’s bedside while he lay in a foetal position shivering in the sweltering heat. Despite being in the best shape of his life, the flu had cut him down, relegating him to his bed for the next week. “Man, I just wanna be home, back in high country, you know,” he commented. Oh, I know. I know exactly. Laying on my back, crippled in the Madrid airport, all I could think of was home. I disassociate home and the high country from any sort of suffering, remembering only the good and blissful, the sweet smell of pines and the sweeping mountainscapes. Little did I know I would again need to draw from this inspiration on race day.

At the start of the race, I felt feverish, my kidneys and lower back sore, my head pounding. I had caught Tony’s flu and, as I struggled up the first climb, I somehow thought I might be able to shake it. But, as the day went on, my condition worsened, compounded by the heat and challenging terrain. Any chance of being competitive was over, yet I thought to myself, I can wait, I can hurt, I can finish. Oddly, despite my setbacks, I felt a certain sense of satisfaction in knowing that there was no question I could not go on, a sort of comfort in discomfort. I pondered the question as to how exactly I had developed this particular trait to be content to simply endure. Between cold sweats and nausea, I could not make sense of it in the moment, but my answer came to me on my first run back at home.

The morning had a most delightful feel, the hills and valleys being enveloped in a thick fog, giving the air a particular mystique. Clear signs of spring popped through the grey, dreary blanket: grass greener than I have seen in years, flowers in bloom, baby birds chirping from a hole drilled in my cabin wall. I meandered around town for bit before making my way over to the Mountain Research Lab for a jaunt up Niwot Ridge. The climb started off well. I had plenty of pep in my stride and had mostly overcome any lingering flu symptoms.

I made it to the ridge with ease so I decided to make a loop out of the run, cutting down through the trees to the Sourdough Trail. I quickly ran into snow, nice hardpack for two, three hundred feet on which I enjoyed some fast glissading. Before long, though, I dipped into the forest and with each step sunk down to my knees or thighs. The thin layer of crusty ice on top of the snow cut into my shins. I hit branches under the snow that further tore into my legs. My shoe got sucked off and I slumped forward into a tree well. I let out a slew of expletives and yelled at dog, who was off chasing rabbits. At this point, backtracking seemed pointless but forward did not seem much more promising.

Immediately, I was overcome by the same sense of angst as on the plane to Madrid, a helpless feeling, with no end to my strife in sight. I remembered my race-day mantra: I can wait, I can hurt, I can finish. What choice did I have, really? I could let myself be overwhelmed by the situation, punching the snow, screaming into the wind, but for what? None of this would get me any closer to being done. Challenges such as these, however small, can seem insurmountable in the moment, flooding the senses with anger, frustration, and bringing out our limitations. Yet, with a simple change of perspective, the situation can go from seeming desperate to quite manageable.

This is where the capacity to endure initiates, in a slight shift in perspective brought out through consistent practice. The daily run is not always perfect, not always blissful, but it serves as a tool to build character. Beyond the coping mechanism, the run becomes a lens through which to see the world, changing the negative into joy, elation, love. In the moment, this is not immediately apparent, but over time as I work through challenges, big or small, the ability to endure, to find comfort in discomfort, is a powerful state of mind to nurture.

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Joe Grant

frequently adventures in wild places, both close to home (a frequently changing location) and very far afield. He inspires others by sharing his words and images that beautifully capture the intersection of the wilds, movement, and the individual at Alpine Works.

There are 17 comments

  1. Jim

    Thanks for the message Joe! A good reminder for me that when things get tough, to find the "comfort in discomfort". Something I forget a lot.

  2. Mike Behnke

    Hi Joe. Once again this is just amazing writing! Two points that stick out for me

    are that my wife and I had a travel day from hell where it took us 16 hours to

    get from Florida to Michigan instead of 3 but I still feel this pales in comparison to what you went through! Secondly, how in the hell did you get thru that run in that heat with that elevation feeling the way you did!!!!

  3. Nathan

    That was beautiful in a lot of ways–the narrative, the visual imagery (both,in words and photos), but most of all, the takeaway message. Thank you for sharing!

  4. Jay kelly

    This is a great read! Thank you! "Challenges such as these, however small, can seem insurmountable in the moment, flooding the senses with anger, frustration, and bringing out our limitations. Yet, with a simple change of perspective, the situation can go from seeming desperate to quite manageable." This statement really hits home for me. As a parent I constantly told my kids to focus on the positive, glass half full. Sometimes as a person/runner I forget to follow my advice. Thank you for shifting my focus. I have been injured and am just returning to the trails, was shocked to find out how much conditioning I had lost. But at least I am running again!

  5. Dmitry

    I understood you very well. I twisted my ankle in first 10k of UTMF and it would be logical to quit…but quitting after travelling across half of the world and not to see the rest of this beautiful trail..it was not the option..:) good that they had very generous cut offs…

  6. Matt

    I started running to get back into shape. However, your article describes what keeps me running and adding longer distances. I'm looking for that next wall to break through, learning more about myself with each step. I've read/heard many times from the ultra community that we can always do more than we think we can and find our strength in very low moments – I love finding the truth in that…!

  7. Hoots

    Meh, you had me until "plow through the line of bumbling, zombie-like international travelers, and make a half-hearted sprint for my connecting flight". Didn't realise you were that guy.

    Found this the other day, on a blog called itravelfar.com, perhaps written by one of your co-travellers.

    "I remembered my long-haul mantra: I can wait, I can hurt, I can finish this trip. What choice did I have, really? I could let myself be overwhelmed by the situation, plow through the zombies, make "announcements" at the people in the ticket office, but for what? None of this would get me any closer to making my already impossible connection."

  8. stoopid

    arrogance personified.

    Hoots nails it – we're all just humans travelling to fulfil our needs. You were as much a zombie as the next guy.

    Starting a race with flu and pulling out isn't "embracing the discomfort" it's "embracing stupidity" and sets a terrible example.

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