I had a pretty shitty day at Finger Lakes Fifties on Saturday, which was only heightened by the fact that it’s one of my favorite races and I had a bunch of friends/ fans/ supporters there. I feel I need to write about if just to unpack it for myself.
I didn’t have a promising week leading up to the race. On Monday, driving back from working on a record in Virginia with a friend, I had a blowout going about 85 on the New Jersey Turnpike. I had to wrestle my van across three lanes of heavy traffic in order to get over to the side of the highway to safety. I came as close as I ever have to rolling it and I’m not going to lie to you, it was pretty scary. Nothing like a brush with a banal death to make you appreciate the life you have.
Long story short, I got home at 8pm, a full 8 hours later than I’d hoped, out several hundred bucks for the tows and getting overcharged for a couple of used, dryrotted tires to replace the new-ish one that had blown out and the spare that had gotten stolen. Ugh. I was running late on the next Kindle Single so I stayed up till 8am to get an extremely rough first draft off to my editor.
I ended up staying two extra days in NYC before leaving town and I have a (very understanding) subletter, so then I spent two nights on air mattresses, one at home and one in Aaron’s guest room (thanks, pal!) I booked a hotel room in Ithaca the night before the race in hopes of getting one good night’s sleep but, of course, I can never sleep the night before a race.
It hasn’t been a great year for running for me. I haven’t been excited about running for a while. I signed up for 2 other ultras before Finger Lakes and didn’t even make it to the starting line. I managed to get a little re-energized by befriending ultra-triathlete Rich Roll and doing a marathon for Boston and actually ended up doing more training for Finger Lakes this year than I did last year.
Still, once the pack thinned out Saturday morning and I got out there on the trail alone, I found myself getting bored and dreading my second and third lap. I’d trained in minimalist shoes to strengthen my lower legs but chose to race in my Montrails, which soaked up all the water and held on to all the mud we ran through, so my feet were wet and heavy. Nothing I haven’t dealt with before, though. As I approached the end of the first lap, I started to consider dropping. My left hip and my right knee were bothering me and, after 15 miles, I was running as ragged as I usually do after 40 miles. Again: nothing I haven’t dealt with before. Running 50 miles is difficult by design.
When I came to the turnaround, I sat down for a minute, talked to some friends… and then tore off my tag and sadly slipped it to Chris Reynolds, the hard-working race director.
I told myself one of the reasons I quit was because I wanted to hang out with my ultrabuddies, many of whom I haven’t seen for a year, but after dropping after just one lap, I felt so shitty about myself that I split as soon as I could. I felt bad about it the whole day and then, when I woke up the day after the race and wasn’t sore at all, I just felt worse. I totally could have done it, and I totally pussed out.
What went wrong? Lots, but little of it had to do with my body. Sure, I was tired and hadn’t slept well in a week and I wore the wrong shoes and should have stretched/ warmed up more. But those are pretty common mistakes for me– I’ve made those mistakes and still gone out and had great races, even run PRs. What’s wrong is in my head: I’m just not emotionally invested in running anymore.
When I started running, my life was pretty empty. Band practice, work a couple nights a week, not much else. I had a lot to figure out and nothing to do and a ton of new, restless energy. Running was a means of escape: it filled up my hollow, newly sober days, it gave me a sense of forward momentum so I panicked less about the uncertain future ahead of me, it gave me a physical outlet for my anxiety. Yes, running is a means of escape. This aspect of running has been given plenty of attention– too much, in fact. Because running is also a means of CONFRONTING your issues.
When I quit drinking, I was in horrible shape– both fat and skinny. Running meant dealing with that head-on. I had shitty relationships with my family, many of my friends, a couple of women… okay, let’s just say I had a shitty relationship with the world in general. When I ran, my body was occupied but my mind was idle, so I was forced to reflect on the decisions I’d made, the grudges I held and the grudges held against me. So running meant dealing with those issues head-on. But at the very core of my beef with the world was fear. I was so afraid of failing that I was afraid of trying. Running when I was sorely out of shape meant both trying and failing, again and again, and out in public, in the world I resented and hated and feared. Maybe running is an escape for some people but for me, running was all about confronting the shit that I hated and feared the most.
Ironically, now that I’ve written an ebook about running that’s garnered me all this attention, I run less than I did before I wrote it. I run less because my life is full now. I have great friends and every single one of my relationships with my family members is dramatically better than it was before I stopped drinking and before I started running. Also, I have a career now, which is awesome, but it seems like there’s always an email I am late in responding to or a phone call I haven’t returned. I bought a house, which is also awesome, but man, that is a buttload of work and it seems like I’m just getting into the thick of it now. I’m doing lots of other awesome crap like going to Ireland and England and Canada and building guitars and teaching a bootcamp and that’s great… but it means I have less time for running.
Which may be okay. Because I need running less than I used to. For one thing, I’ve taken a lot of steps to resolve conflict in my life… which means I don’t have entertaining worries to obsess over when I’m on my feet. Yeah, there are definitely some days when I wake up feeling angry or depressed and I have to go out and run till I’m exhausted. But that happens less frequently now than it used to. Often, when I do feel like that, I can’t go because I have too much other shit to do– usually good shit, like writing or making a record, but still shit that prevents me from running. I’m not okay with that. But I have to get okay with that, as it’s not going to go away.
I’m going running today. I hope that I will always run. But if I don’t, that’s alright. Running doesn’t define who I am. I define who I am. At the end of the day, running is a completely selfish action that I undertook to save my life. It has to stay something I do for selfish reasons.
When I bailed after just one lap at Finger Lakes, part of the reason I felt like shit is because I felt like I was letting my readers down. I hate letting anyone down but I especially hate the thought of letting my readers down, many of whom are fighting battles similar to mine. But here’s the thing: I didn’t write The Long Run for you. If it’s inspired you or helped you, that’s great… but I didn’t write it to help anyone and I certainly didn’t think it was going to inspire anyone. I thought it was an ugly story of an ugly man trying to become less ugly and I only hoped that it did as well as Shipwrecked. In fact, I wanted to put a warning label on it: ANY INSPIRATION YOU MAY RECEIVE FROM THIS STORY IS PURELY ACCIDENTAL. READER RELEASES THE AUTHOR FROM ALL LIABILITY.
I didn’t even write The Long Run for me, I didn’t want to write it at all! My editor Dave said “Your next Kindle Single will be about your transition from druggie/ drunk to ultrarunner and it will be called The Long Run. I have spoken.” I protested a bit but I relented because we’d already been through a bunch of shit together and I trusted him and, well, I didn’t know what else to do.
Am I glad I wrote it? You betcha. There is no other way of saying it: it changed my life. Oh, okay, at the end of the day, yes, I’m glad that it may have helped or inspired people because I do care about people and I want everyone to be okay. But here’s what made me stop at Finger Lakes: I realized that I was running for other people and that I wasn’t running for me. Call me naïve, but I still feel strongly about authorial honesty. I don’t make shit up– everything I write about, whether it’s horrifying or accidentally inspiring, is absolutely true, it actually happened in the real world. If I’m doing anything just to fulfill someone’s expectation of me, well, I’m not being true to myself. And I gotta be me.
My running buddies have said “You’ll get it the next time!” I love Finger Lakes 50s and I’m indebted to Chris and Joe Reynolds for putting it on… but there may not be a next time, there or anywhere else. That’s okay. Running was there for me when I needed it and I’m incredibly grateful for that. It makes me really sad to think about giving up distance running, even for a little while. But the reason why I’m able to give it up is the same thing that is so fantastic about running, why I will always sing its praises as the cheapest and most effective therapy around: running loves troubled souls unconditionally, and running will always be there for you when you need it.