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A Hoop And A Holler

Zach Miller writes about coping with the post-100-mile blues that ultrarunners commonly experience.

By on September 15, 2017 | Comments

It’s Saturday afternoon. I’m in middle of nowhere Colorado, refueling my truck at the Kremmling Mercantile. Topping off the tank, I close my truck doors and walk inside to find a bathroom. I tug at the door, but it’s locked, so I stand there and stare at the magazines. They’ve got all sorts of magazines on the stand, but one in particular catches my eye. It’s a copy of Trail Runner Magazine. Tucked away on the right side of the cover, I find something of interest: “David Laney on Post-Race Depression and the Meaning of Life.”

Opening the cover, I flip through a few pages and find the article. Staring back at me is a picture of my buddy David. The article is fascinating. So much so that I read the entire thing on the spot and buy a copy to take with me. And that’s saying something, because I don’t buy running magazines any more.

In the article, David speaks of lighthearted things, such as running a race with no pants and a mustache that smells like spring time. Yet, amidst the funny stories lies a deeper, darker tale of post-100-mile lows. “During a race, I know it’s uncomfortable and it doesn’t feel good but I remember there’s always a finish line. But after the race, I don’t have a finish line,” says Laney. His words hit home. Almost too much. I’m in the midst of a four-hour drive across the mountains of Colorado and it’s as if Laney just summed up the thoughts that have been swimming around in my head since the recent UTMB.

It’s interesting. People spectate from afar and see lots of laughs, smiles, guts, and glory. They see athletes striving for greatness and ‘living the dream.’ Don’t get me wrong, a lot of that is very, very real. At the same time, however, there is another side to it. There is a side that is smashed to bits, and I’m not talking about sore quads or swollen legs. Quads rebound. Swelling subsides. Aches and pains find relief. But the mental damage, that’s tough.

Hot tubs and ice baths don’t relieve a muddled brain. Try as I may, the head tends to keep on spinning. Returning to my truck, I hang a right on Highway 9 and head south toward Silverthorne. It’s funny. A few years ago, I’d be a kid in a candy shop driving through these mountains. At this moment, I just stare at them and feel (almost) nothing. It’s really strange and sad. In my mind it’s such a contradiction. I’m a mountain lover. A caretaker. An ultrarunner. Pretty much everything I do involves mountains. And yet this is where I am psychologically. Surely it’s not permanent, but even if just for a moment, how can this be?

I scan the radio for something good. I call my parents and chat with them for a bit. Shortly after hanging up the phone, I’m parking my truck and packing up my things for the final leg of the journey; a 6.5-mile run up the Barr Trail. It’s dark, but my headlamp shows the way. Not that it’s entirely necessary. I’ve run the ‘driveway’ so many times that I could almost do it blindfolded (maybe). But the headlamp is helpful and I keep it on. Arriving at the cabin, I let myself in, startling my buddy Jonathan Lantz, who is upstairs reading a book in his loft. He climbs down the ladder and we chat for a bit. Standing over the dinner table, which doubles as a trail map, he shows me where he went exploring on his run that day. He must be excited about it because it’s late and we should probably both be sleeping. Eventually he returns to his loft and I to the floor to do my core routine. Afterward I find leftovers in the fridge, eat them cold, and head to bed.

Around 6 a.m., we’re up making coffee and cooking pancakes for the guests. After breakfast we move on to other chores; sweeping, mopping, cleaning bathrooms, helping day hikers, and more. The tasks are simple and mundane, but they give me a sense of direction. I have a goal, somewhere to direct my attention. It’s a nice distraction in a time when my mind doesn’t know quite what to make of things. Later that afternoon things quiet down and I head out for a run with Jonathan. We decide to explore a new-to-me part of the mountain. I’ve lived on Pikes Peak for over two years now, but there is still a lot to be explored. We head down the Barr Trail for half a mile and then hang a left toward the ‘three ponds.’ Coming to a fork in the trail, we take the less-defined path on the right and splash through the swamps. On the other side of the swamps, we climb an unnamed peak. The views at the top are magnificent. You can see both Pikes Peak and Manitou Reservoir. Jonathan finds a small log book tucked away in the rocks and we open it up to see who has signed it. There aren’t many names in the log and a lot of them are from more than 10 years ago. Usually I don’t care too much about peak logs, but this one feels special, so I sign it and tuck it back in the rocks.

Scanning the landscape, we decide to cut a straight line for the valley below, hoping to intersect with a trail that we think is somewhere below us. Sure enough, after a bit of scrambling and steep downhill running, we pop onto a trail. It’s funny to me how there can be such well-defined trails hidden out here in the middle of nowhere. Running here feels new and exciting and we follow the trail until it disappears. Knowing that the Manitou Reservoir Trail is somewhere below us, we turn and head straight down. With Jonathan trailing a short ways behind me, I let out a hoop and waited for him to holler back. Sure enough, just like runs in our home state of Pennsylvania, he returns the call.

And that is it. That holler felt like a piece of the puzzle clicking into place. I’ve logged thousands of miles in these mountains, most of them alone. I’ve gone home to Pennsylvania and ran through the woods hooping and hollering with my buddies. I’ve even returned to Colorado and let out a hoop only to have it echoed by silence. But on this day, and on this run, someone finally hollered back. It felt so good. It meant someone else was out there sharing the journey with me. Someone I could talk to, explore, laugh, and struggle with. Someone who could holler back (y’all).

I’m not claiming to have found the cure for the post-100-mile blues. Those days spent routing through the wreckage are still a bit (or a lot) of a mystery to me. Laney said it well in that Trail Runner story, “I think people don’t realize how bad these races are for your body. They do extensive damage; you are running hard for such a long time. Your brain chemicals get really out of whack after doing something that hard.” That statement makes sense to me. I’m no psychologist, counselor, therapist, or mental-health expert, not in the least. I don’t really know how any of this works. Part of me wonders if it’s just some sort of self-fabricated pity party. Would I feel this way if I won? Do European runners experience this sort of post-race funk? These are the questions I ask and the answers I lack.

Not knowing the answers, I wonder if I just need to rub some dirt in it and pull myself out of the funk by my own bootstraps. That sounds like a simple fix, and yet, some days that dirt feels really abrasive and those bootstraps feel really heavy. As I talk to others and read Laney’s interview, I can’t help but feel that these feelings are anything but abnormal. I was in a funk for probably about a month after the 2015 UTMB. That was a rough time and may have been connected to more than just the race. In the end, I came charging out of it and stormed my way to a lot of really good things. This time, I feel like the funk isn’t as bad and will be a lot shorter. I would like to think that I can get better at it. That someday I will be able to run a 100-mile race and be totally fine afterward. That sounds nice, but at the same time maybe that’s not the goal. Maybe the funk, within reason, is part of the experience. Perhaps it’s just another mountain to climb. Another medium for developing one’s character. Another way to learn, grow, and develop.

And so, as I move forward from this UTMB, I am choosing to learn from the funk. I don’t want to just wait for it to end. Instead, I want to search for meaning within it. I want to learn how to deal with it, handle it, and maybe even embrace it. I don’t have to totally master it, but I want to search for the good that can come of it. That appreciation for community. That realization that you can push yourself that hard and still be standing. That ability to let out a hoop and let the holler bring you back.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you experience post-race or post-big-event blues? What are they like for you?
  • Have you learned to cope with the psychological challenges that can accompany the completion of a big goal or event?
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Zach Miller
Zach Miller lives in a school bus he outfitted himself. He competes for The North Face and Team Colorado. Additional sponsors/supporters include Clean-N-Jerky, GU Energy Labs, and Nathan Sports. Follow him on Instagram.