[Thanks to Salomon for supporting Dakota Jones’s column on iRunFar.]
It’s dark out, and I’m sitting in dark sand. A warm salty breeze is ruffling my hair and the sound of waves drifts up from somewhere ahead. To my right, around the volcanic point of land that shoots out into the ocean, lights flash and mechanical noise booms. People in running clothes with headlamps walk by me chatting animatedly to each other, and runners jog by with their heads down, as inside their own thoughts as I am. There are 10 minutes remaining before we’ll all take off up the hill behind me in one of the biggest races of the year, and there’s a lot to think about. This is Transvulcania 2015, and I’m sitting in the sand wondering what it all means.
It’s a major race on the international running calendar. It’s a beautiful race in an exotic place. It’s an opportunity to run against/with many of the best runners in the sport. It’s a long way from home. It’s also starting to feel familiar, after two other times racing and the last five weeks spent living here in training. I think about my last four months of intense training and the hopes that I have resting on this race. I think about how I don’t like to think about how much this race means to me, because those thoughts amount to pressure, worry, fear. Right now I’m sitting in the sand and I want to feel calm. I want to feel calm. I don’t feel calm and I want to.
There’s tension in my shoulders. Tension in my hands. Tension in the muscles around my eyes. There’s tension in my legs too, but I don’t feel that. I feel tension everywhere but where it matters most. In a few hours, while running up the mountain, that tension will grow and expand through all the muscles, tendons, ligaments, and fascia until the tension becomes too great. Something will have to give, and that will ultimately be two different bones in my foot that get pulled or pushed or twisted or whatever until they are deeply bruised from top to bottom. They won’t crack, but they’ll succumb to the tension, and that’ll be the end of my year of racing. But I don’t know that yet. I’m just sitting in the sand with my hands clenched in my lap.
At this point, six and a half years have passed since I ran my first ultramarathon in the desert where I grew up. In that time I have run more than 30 ultras, plus a wide variety of long-distance adventure runs in dramatic landscapes around the world. Through a combination of hard work and pure luck, I have shaped my life around this sport. I’d rather not think about how much it means to me, because that would be a reminder of how precarious my life is, of how easily my source of happiness can be taken away. It would be a premonition of the tests ahead.
The warm ocean breeze is calming and relaxed, but it washes around me like a rock in the sea. There are more things I don’t think about that I push away from the surface. I know that I’m lucky to do what I do, and to be where I am. I like to think that being openly grateful like this is being truly grateful, but part of me knows that’s not enough. There’s a certain level of respect for the good things in my life that words aren’t enough to express. Months will pass before I figure out that being grateful for a gift is taking care of it. In this case, I need to stretch, strengthen, and take enough time to recover after events. But a lot of time will go by before I realize this, and even more time before I put it into practice.
For now, the race is starting. Despite the tension, I do feel more calm. I’m excited too, ready to race. I get up and walk quietly into the lights and noise in an almost meditative state, ready for the challenges ahead. There, I am immediately spotted by the announcer and ruthlessly shanghaied into a public pre-race interview in front of 1,500 people. The announcer’s name is Depa and he has no mercy.
Depa: Dakota Jones! El Presidente! How do you feel before the race?
Dakota: I was feeling great Depa. Now I’m nervous as hell.
Depa: That’s likely because you’re speaking in front of 1,500 people.
Dakota: I expect that’s part of it. Although there’s a chance it’s also because of some innate knowledge that I have trained myself too close to the edge, that maybe I’m over-prepared for this race and running it will injure me for a whole year.
Depa: And what could have caused you to do this to yourself? Surely you are smarter than that?
Dakota: I think that even though I know the dangers of overtraining, I’m too emotionally charged to listen to my own common sense sometimes. Perhaps I’m so desperate to succeed that I don’t respect my good fortune in being able to do the things I do.
Depa: But you run all the time. You eat well. How can you say that you don’t respect yourself?
Dakota: I think because I run so much–I use my body in so many extreme ways–that the exercise goes beyond healthy and into potentially damaging. It doesn’t have to be damaging if I take care of myself, but I struggle to do that. I don’t stretch and I race too much. I don’t honor my body’s needs for recovery, and there’s a high likelihood I’ll one day have to pay the price for such negligence.
Depa: And you think that day might be today.
Dakota: I wouldn’t be surprised.
Depa: Well, those are certainly some thoughts for all of our Spanish runners to consider in their races today. Um, good luck!
Depa is a hell of an interviewer, apparently. But even he can’t tell the future. And I’m glad, because if he could he might tell me that in a year’s time I’ll be at home stretching instead of back here on La Palma racing. He’d tell me that the injury I’ll get in a few hours while racing up this steep volcano will not go away for a year, that I won’t know what has hit me until I have continued to worsen it for months. He’d tell me things that would take me away from these bright lights shining on a dark beach, where the waves from South America pound the rocks just out of reach and send their glittering drops fanning onto the sand.
He couldn’t tell me a lot of what’s ahead, because knowing these things would preclude their possibility. The race is starting now, and the sky is just beginning to grow lighter. The sun is rising out of Africa and headed over us to set beyond America, and if I knew that I’d be in that sunset in a year’s time, lying beneath the mid-day sun in Colorado while darkness fell on La Palma, I might be heartbroken. I wouldn’t be able to recognize in that moment that the limitations the coming injury will put on me will help me to define my sense of self as an athlete and person. If Depa told me that I’d have to miss nearly an entire season of my prime racing years, I wouldn’t be able to recognize that perhaps this forced down time will allow me to keep racing longer in my life. I wouldn’t be able to learn the lessons about respecting my body and the sources of my good fortune in order to make the most of them. I wouldn’t start stretching and I would continue to race too much, driving myself into the ground. If he told me what will happen in this race, I would drop out. And then do the same thing a month later at some other race.
So as the gun goes off, I start running through the sand, and as the tension releases from my shoulders and my hands, it begins to build in my legs. I churn through the sand alongside hundreds of other people. We’re headed uphill, chasing the sun to the horizon. I have a long way to go before I reach that summit and stand in the sunlight. But I’m going to get there eventually, even if I go off course a few times along the way. I’m doing my best to ignore the fact that improvement is not a consistent climb, that getting better requires going downhill too. In fact, I’m doing my best to ignore all the things that matter most. The more I look farther away from myself the more obviously I break down. That sunrise sure is taking a long time to get here. But it sure will be pretty when it does.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
It’s pretty certain that if you’re a runner, you’ve been injured. What advice do you have from the other side of injured? What have you learned ‘over there’ that makes your running life ‘over here’ better?