My Return to Racing

AJWs TaproomI have to admit I was quite nervous going into the Mountain Masochist 50-miler last Saturday. You see, this run, my 80th ultra since 1997, was also my first since June of 2011. The nerves were not typical pre-race jitters centering on fitness and competitiveness, but, rather, these were simple, stomach-churning jitters of self-doubt. The question circling through my mind at the start was a simple, anxiety inducing one.

“Could I, after 18 months away from the sport, a severely debilitating foot injury, and knee surgery, still run 50 miles?”

I had no notion of going fast and I had no idea what to expect of the course, I simply wanted to know if I could, as I once did without a second thought, cover 50 miles on foot.

From the Wildwood Campground, out of the pre-dawn darkness we ran through the cold, down a smooth paved road, and onto a nice singletrack trail. I settled into a steady, relaxed rhythm and focused on my body. As the sun rose, the trail widened and the pack spread out. I enjoyed the camaraderie of the other runners and the beauty of the surrounding countryside. My mind drifted back over the past 18 months of pain, reflection, and recovery. I thought about coming to grips with my own mortality, accepting my limits, and finding the best path back. Then, when we hit a gravel road and a two-mile uphill grind, my reverie abruptly ended.

“Yes, this is ultrarunning!” I thought to myself as my burning hamstrings reminded me that I hadn’t been in a race for awhile and my heavy breathing was clearly indicative of the woeful lack of any intensity during my recovery from surgery. Cresting the hill and beginning a nice descent was music to my eyes and, for the first time in a while, I enjoyed the long steady flow of a downhill crusher 18 miles into an ultra.

I hit the halfway mark in 4:15 and prepared for the 2,000-foot climb up to the ridge that would be our home for the rest of the day. As we climbed the air got colder and the snow emerged. By the time we hit the 33-mile aid station at the beginning of “The Loop”, the trail was covered with 6-10 inches of snow and some sections of trail were engulfed in waist-high drifts. It was going to be a dramatically different second half.

As I linked up with a group of five runners ascending toward the Mount Pleasant Summit, the words of my doctor began ringing in my ears, “You can return to running as normally as you want with one exception; until next March don’t do anything that twists or torques your knee in any way.” This admonition was particularly striking as I made my way through eight inches of powdery snow covering the fallen trees and gnarly rocks of The Loop Trail. This was, indeed, going to be a very different second half.

Ultimately, I made my way tentatively through the snowy landscape and was thrilled to arrive at the finish line unscathed in an unimpressive (for me) finishing time of 9:21, good enough for 39th place. However, for me, the time and place did not matter. What I was thrilled about was that I finished, and my body held together. Given the fact that nine months ago I worried if I would ever run again, the Masochist proved to be a landmark day for me and one I will remember for a long, long time.

The gift of running is a truly extraordinary one and one that can easily be taken for granted. I have learned that over the last year and half, and am proud to have made it out the other side. I am humbled to know that even in middle age I have so much to learn and that running has so much to teach. We are rendered anew each time we lace ’em up and get out there even if it comes with the nerves of a 7th grader running his first cross-country race. For it is only through the process of stripping ourselves bare and facing the truth that we become better runners and, ultimately, better people.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week
Avery Brewing - Ale to the ChiefThis week’s Beer of the Week is another great selection from Avery Brewing in Colorado. Their Ale to the Chief Presidential Pale Ale is a truly politically correct pale ale that goes with just about everything. While it certainly has some authority it is also a beer that you can easily forget about until you need to crack another one.

Call for Comments

  • Do you have any “comeback” stories you’d like to share?
  • Have you had a racing/running experience that exposed your vulnerability and ultimately made you stronger?