Most of you reading this know we had a pretty brutal winter. In some places, it was the coldest and or snowiest in decades. I like winter but have long been since ready for this one to end. It was fun, at first, running in the first arctic air outbreak, or egads…polar vortex, as the idiots in the media decided to name it. Hint: Each hemisphere gets a polar vortex each winter. It is like a river, always present. When the river floods, you don’t say “we got a river!” No, you say, “we got a flood.” What is a flood? An outbreak of water from the ever-present river. Just like the outbreak of Mars-like cold is an outbreak of arctic air. But I digress.
Most of my running friends quickly fell behind on their training schedule, me included. It started bad with a blow out in my calf in mid-November and didn’t even get to the point where I could run effectively until December. Soon after, I was running in -10 F air temps with wind-chills around -25-30F. It was fun at first being bundled up like an astronaut on Mars. As the winter progressed, Mars felt more like Titan. I didn’t even want to go out anymore. And some days, I didn’t.
By the time February came, my long runs were down to 8-10 miles but I had added in the dreaded Maple Hill running route on Thursdays. I did the Portage Winter Blast Half Marathon in the first weekend of March in the balmy temperature of +10F. It was a bad run. Not my slowest, but close. I think I was just sick of being cold all the time.
In the subsequent weeks, we started running longer distances. Each one was more difficult than the half marathon was. By this point, all of us decided to forget the Kal-Haven Ultra marathon. This time last year, I was well beyond running 20 milers and was ready for my 42.5 mile run that I did in late March of last year. This year? 15 was a struggle.
Two weeks ago, my running “wife,” Jenn and I went out to do a 17 mile course. Both of us were now realizing just how little time there was to be ready for the Bayshore Marathon. This run was a near disaster for me, and mentally it was the pits. I did just 14.4 miles and it took more than three hours. The hardest and worst 14 miler yet. I was mentally drained and was ready to toss in the towel for the Bayshore. My heart, which really wasn’t into this since Winter Blast, was gone now. We agreed to shoot for 17 the following week and I dreaded as the days approached.
The following Saturday, I bailed from the run. My Saturnian jet stream simulations that I set up to run on Friday night all came back full of garbage. I had to figure it out and figured that Sunday’s weather was more favorable anyway. And I needed to run alone. Not sure why but I needed to be alone with music and my thoughts.
Sunday rolled around and I waited until the frost melted away and it was in the 40’s. I didn’t have to wait too long and I set off in a pair of shorts, two shirts, my running jacket, a hat, and gloves. It was shaping up to be a beautiful day. The sky was remarkably clear and a deep blue. I hadn’t seen it like this since the really cool and dry days of last autumn. I thought it might be a good night for the telescope if I didn’t have to go to work the next day. By the end of the first mile the hat and gloves were off. Warmth. Real warmth was finally in the air. No more deceptive sunny days; you know, the kind of days where you think it is pleasant outside because of the sunshine but still as cold as the Yukon.
I was curious as to how I was going to fit in my 17 miles since I was headed for the Kal-Haven trail. I was expecting it to be a mess of snow and mud. Hell, I expected the Kalamazoo Valley River Trail that leads to the Kal-Haven to still have a half foot of snow.
Once I reached mile 3.4 and turned onto the KVRT, I was pleased to see there was no snow. I was feeling ok but not thinking too much of it because it was only a few miles into the run. A while later, at 4.5 miles, I started down the Kal-Haven.
Just the day before, the relay teams and solo ultra-marathoners had run down this very same stretch of trail. I, unlike the previous two years, was not ready for it. But I had long since given up feeling bad about it. I had done it twice before and this was, by far, the most difficult winter of running I had experienced. From limping at a walk in mid-November to where I was today.
I started having this feeling that this run might not only be just ok, but good. I felt energetic and was enjoying the warmth and music immensely. About a half mile down the Kal-Haven, I came to a long patch of snow. It was more grainy ice than snow and it didn’t slow me down too much. Judging by the number of footprints, or lack thereof, it was clear the race yesterday was sparsely attended. The sun was dappled on the ground and the dirty snow was glistening. Dark spots like pepper were scattered about and although I didn’t stop to look, I was pretty sure it was a combination of dirt and springtails (small, very primitive insects).
At one point I felt the sweat roll down my face and was thrilled. I was sweating while running over ice and snow. Winter was definitely on the run while Spring was advancing fast. My mood soared. Somewhere around six or seven miles, I ran past one of the numerous vernal ponds along the trail. Algae and duckweed was already growing. I heard a familiar high- pitched sound coming through my earbuds in spite of the music. Slipping off one than the other earbud, I was greeted with a deafening chorus of Spring Peepers and Western Chorus Frogs, the latter sounding like dragging an enormous fingernail across a titanic plastic comb. I swear I thought I heard the sound of clacking ball bearings, the call of the endangered Blanchard’s Cricket Frog. I couldn’t help but smile for the next half mile.
As I glanced at my Garmin, I saw my speed was picking up. I consciously backed down a bit and started thinking. Soon, I would half to turn around if I was going to do 17. I remember urging others to stick to the running plan. But I was feeling good and figured one more bad long run, and no more marathoning this year. If I did 17, fine, but I knew I wouldn’t feel ready for the marathon unless I hit the next magical number – 20 miles. I decided to go for it.
The great thing about an out and back run is if you decide to add to it, you are committed! Unless you can dial a ride, you are stuck with having to do the return leg. So as I passed 8.5 miles, I just kept going. My music was cranking along and I was listening to the funk sound of “Here Come the Mummies.” Perfect to zone out. My mood was soaring and I was in the zone. I hadn’t felt like this in many, many months.
At mile ten, I turned around and was taking a walk break. So far, I had been really good and only doing them at each mile. I decided not to think about the return trip. If it was bad, at least it was 20 miles and if really bad, maybe I could still toss in the towel or limp my way through the Marathon in a few weeks. If good, then I was getting well prepared.
As I started back the long slog uphill to the trail head, I started thinking about the last few months. The end of October started a really bad downturn. I lost my job unexpectedly through no fault of my own. My graduate work took a big set back the same week, and I lost a friend. All in three days. I dealt with a serious bout of depression that stemmed from all this, the feeling of “not AGAIN” after thinking things were on the mend. I reacted bad at times. I lashed out. I felt terrible and wanted to strike back at those that helped make the situation worst. It wasn’t my best time and I wasn’t behaving my best. I was ashamed of myself during those months.
By January, I had decided that being unemployed had to be worth the stress and anguish and focused hard on my graduate work. I surprised myself by actually completing an application for a fellowship in Planetary Science via NASA. At the start of the month, I had nada to go on. Nothing. Not even a topic. By the end of the month, I had the application, the research proposal, and glowing endorsements from my Chairman and Research Advisor. And we submitted on time. It was a lot of work and even if I don’t get the Fellowship, it forced some serious decisions to be made and my dissertation took a huge step forward…meaning, I have a topic now! I didn’t realize how my stress evaporated once I decided what I could do.
I interviewed for a job in the beginning of January and didn’t think I’d be offered the position, and to tell the truth, I wasn’t much interested. I was far more concerned with my studies. However, by March, there would be no more unemployment money and I was going to run out of cash a few months later. Reluctantly, I took out another relatively small loan and signed up for a full load of research credits.
Surprise, surprise. Just like how this 20 miler was shaping up to be a good run, I got an offer and decided to take the job. What the hell, I needed the money and I could manage full-time work and full-time school for a year or so. I started on Valentine’s Day and the job has been very interesting and so far, pretty good! I like it.
Some time later, I crossed the 13.1 mile mark and was pleased to be beyond the half marathon mark. I looked up and saw the sky was quickly filling it with high, thin, cirrus clouds and turning milky blue. It reminded me of summer and I was at a perfect temperature. The endorphins were flooding my bloodstream and I was feeling happier than I had in a long, long time.
Once I passed 14.4 miles, I was feeling a hundred times better than the previous week’s crappy 14.4 miles. I was singing to myself, “Black and Tans” and “Irish Volunteers,” militant and wonderful Irish Rebel and Irish Civil War tunes, respectively. I knew they’d be good additions to the running list! Here I was now in what I call No-Man’s Land. For a Marathon, I feel like it gets hard between 14 and 20 miles. The thrill of reaching the half way point is gone and the urge to just “gitter done,” as dog tired as one usually is then in that last 6.2 miles, hasn’t arrived. It is the doldrums, the boring part, slogging through, or No-Man’s land.
I just pictured a lone mule standing in the torn up landscape between two World War I trenches. Muddy, depressing, and just ugly are these miles. However, I was jubilant! I think it was because it was comfortably warm, I was sweating even over the occasional snowfields, I could hear birds and frogs and my music. And the endorphins. Man oh man, are they the best drugs on earth! And at that moment, I was higher than a kite.
These are the runs we live for. The ones that allow you to feel good about having shitty performance in all those cold, clammy, crappy runs. The ones that make you feel like all the pain and recovery from an injury pay off eventually. The ones that make you feel home again in body and spirit.
And finally being irrationally jubilant in No-Man’s land, I recounted all the not-so-wonderful feelings and things I did during the dark days of November and December. It wasn’t a mule out on No-Man’s land, but an ass. Me. That being said, I was provoked for sure. I had fair reason to be angry and depressed. But I didn’t react as well as I could have. And some of the toxic people and circumstances were deliberately removed from my life. And, as usual for me, when I recover from life’s kicks in the groin, I usually recover big. It may take longer than I want with more gnashing of teeth, but I usually roar back stronger than before. It was Patton that said “it is not how far a man falls but how high he bounces back that matters.”
I have a new job I like (so far). I removed toxic people. I managed to get back on track financially after months of unemployment. My calf injury was healing nice. I found comfort in those that stuck with me during all the rough months. My research is progressing as well as can be expected considering that doctoral work is an exercise in survival in the wilderness in many ways. And, at last, it was spring. I never so looked forward to spring as this year.
Eventually, I started uphill on the final stretch towards home. Weeks of doing the Thursday night Maple Hill run were paying off. The hills were easy, relatively speaking, and I was still feeling good although I was approaching the wall. Around mile 18, I felt the last of my glycogen leave and my walk breaks became more frequent. But I was happy. Irrationally so. Had I been hit by a car, I could imagine the doctors saying, “we did everything we could but it took us two hours just to get the smile off his face.”
I wanted to sing loud. I wanted to jump in the air, tired as I was, I didn’t. I wanted to mend broken relationships but of course knew it was futile. What it meant was that I was finally at peace with the crap that transpired since last autumn. Screw it. I couldn’t change what happened and I certainly didn’t deserve the raw deal but I dropped my own depth charges and torpedoes in return. But I was past it. Poisoned water under the bridge. More important things were waiting. My research, my race, and looking forward to the rest of spring.
Irrational jubilance is not my thing, usually. But when it comes, I take it and enjoy it. Just like running. We take what the trail delivers. Sometimes it is pain and misery and sometimes it is the best part of nature and ourselves we rediscover.