A small group, perhaps 200 strong, toed the line at the makeshift start/finish area about a stones throw from 'race headquarters' - a cabin in the woods of Yankee Springs state park, a short drive south from Grand Rapids. The day was spectacular for the Yankee Springs Winter Challenge, considering the actual temps were sub-zero just the day before (with wind chills at -30°) and a storm promising to drop up to 18" inches of snow forecast to arrive that evening. With a shout from the race director we were off onto the 25k loop of the single track trails through the park.
Most from this group were in the 25k race, and a different smaller pack were already on the trail, having started in the early morning darkness for the 50 mile event. My fellow competitors and I started with the 25k crowd and would attempt two laps of the course for the 50k event.
There was a foot of snow on the ground, but the trail was fairly hard packed, making running 'manageable'. The climbs got pretty chewed up, however, so often it was akin to running in ankle deep sand on the way up the hills. This day was a glorified training run for me, so I went off without feeling the pressure to race and just sat at the back of the pack and enjoyed the beginnings of this journey.
Each ultra distance run (i.e. any run over the 26.2 mile mark of the marathon) has shown to have hidden truths out there, and it is part of the journey to find them and become a better person as a result of embracing the lessons. Honestly, though, I wasn't expecting such a discovery on what was a relatively short distance day, as ultra's go. Especially since it was "just a training run".
Six months removed from gallbladder surgery I continue to struggle to eat without experiencing 'distress'. As a result, I've developed a bad habit of not taking in calories on the run. Fast forward to mile 22 and what had been a beautiful (and challenging) day of running snowy trails in the woods quickly became a 'bonk fest'. In a flash I went from feeling good to getting a bit stupid in the head, and just completely ran out of gas. I slowed to a walk and found myself feeling negative about the entire experience.
It is in those moments that the lessons lurk. It is from that experience that I desired to share this post.
The five miles that followed 'bonking' were a slow walk/jog time of introspection and decision making. Reminding myself that quitting was not an option, that I would find a way out, and that this is just part of ultra running. I tried to get back to appreciating the beauty of the area and the blessing of just being out there competing. Over time, I did regain some energy and started moving a bit better.
It was about that time that I passed a couple of 50 milers struggling to get ahead of the curve before they were swept from that race for failing to make the prescribed cut-off times. While they were sober about their chances to make the finish, they were very positive about the experience in general (i.e. they were having fun!). They helped me to look again for the joy in my experience.
That's when it started snowing...
It was a beautiful snow. Big fluffy flakes. There was no wind to speak of, so they just slowly and gently fell to the earth. That simple turn of events gave me pause and refreshed my spirit. Race time and place on this day was meaningless. The simple satisfaction of completing the event would be my 'nugget' for that day, my way of tasting life that so few will ever know. Knowing my wife would be waiting at the finish line and would tell me she was proud of me hastened my steps (that is always enough for me to fight through about anything).
The finish line was indeed sweet. Even though I arrived forty minutes after my estimated time Pam was there to welcome me home, all the while turning white from the quickening rate of snowfall. She walked me over to the cabin where the fire was roaring, the chili was hot and fellow 'explorers' were gathered. She told me she was proud of me and even the dorky finish prize couldn't take away from the contentment of the moment.
Press on friends.