“Dance to the beat of the livin dead, lose sleep, baby, and stay away from bed. Raw power is sure to come a-runnin’ to you.” –Raw Power, The Stooges
The words of Iggy Pop appropriately echoed in my ears as we took the first steps of the Playin’ Possum 50K.
For an ultramarathon, something more is needed than raw power. Raw power can get you through the hectic sprint of a 5K, but where does the power come from to run distances longer than a marathon? It comes from a place deeper than one’s physical ability.
It has often been said that ultra-running is 90 percent mental; and, I recently heard someone say that the other 10 percent is mental too.
This race proved that saying true.
I woke up the morning of the race feeling dejected. With Jennifer out of town to attend the college graduation of our nephew, I had not slept at all in two nights. Sleeplessness raised my insecurities. Less than a month ago I was rear-ended in a car accident and got whiplash that took away my peak training. My longest training run had been six weeks ago and my back and neck were still stiff from the accident.
For a moment, I considered not going to the race. But, I had used this race as a fundraiser for Community Development for All People’s Forward Together campaign and broadcast to the whole world that I was doing this. If I had not advertised this race, I might not have gone. I felt no power within myself and hoped that in going out there I would find it somewhere on the trail.
Every possum race begins with a special Olympics member leading us in the oath, “”Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” I did not know how my body would respond, but I could at least be brave in the attempt.
At Mark’s characteristically unceremonious instruction, we were off.
It was interesting to be back in the same woods where we ran the Seamus 30K two months ago. The sparse winter landscape had quickly blossomed in to a lush landscape, almost beyond recognition.
Knowing this part of the course, I began comfortably and strong. Four miles to the first fuel stop and then four miles back.
My “A” goal was to complete the race in under 6 hours. Over the first 8 miles, I was clicking off miles under pace. However, the heat (in the 70s) and the humidity (98 percent at the start) were making themselves known. As we ran back through the start line, I ditched my sweat-soaked shirt at the car and felt relieved to be a little less weighted.
The next few miles were equally familiar with a run through Delaware State Park, the crossing of an uncharacteristically low stream, and the run across the dam levee.
After the next aid station, the run included new ground for me, as we ran across and on the other side of the Delaware Lake Dam. Following a failed attempt of a pun with the word dam, the footing transitioned from a grass trail to a metal grate that stretched across the dam. With all the grace of a giraffe trying to jump rope, I tripped in the transition of the footing and found myself sprawled out on the grate. The Gatorade in my freshly filled water bottle spilled out in to the lake. The sound of my fall echoed and caught the attention of everyone around me.
I landed hard on my left knee, but did not want to acknowledge what that could mean. I got up as quickly as I could, gathered my bottle, and took off running. After we were off the dam, I looked down and was surprised I wasn’t bleeding from my knee. I got away with this one, and kept going.
For awhile, I ran with a pack of runners, with a man named Kevin holding court and sharing stores from his 108 ultramarathons. While this was a lot of fun, they were running about 30 seconds per mile faster than I wanted, so I started to hold back as the effects of the weather were becoming more apparent.
“Tryna rain, tryna rain on the thunder, Tell the storm I’m new.”–Beyonce, Freedom
As the opening beats of “Freedom” started pounding, welcomed sprinkles fell on my skin.
By the time the song hit its pace, the skies opened and it rained hard.
It was glorious and refreshing and the most exciting part of the race.
But as soon as Kendrick Lamar asked, “Is it truth that you seek?” the rain was gone, with only humidity left in its wake.
However, the next few miles went well as I ran with a construction worker from Cincinnati and we talked community development and our shared interest in building mixed income communities.
As I approached the aid station at 18 miles, the heat was having its effect on me and I asked if we could make this a 30K instead of a 50K. I was able to relatively keep my pace for the next four miles. However, around mile 22, I had to let go of the A goal, like a bully grabbing your wrist and ordering you to let go.
The next four miles were tough. I had gone from running for the length of songs and walking between songs, to walking more than running.
But one of the ironic truths of ultra running is that things don’t always get worse.
Around the marathon point of mile 26 I could feel my mojo return. The shaded path in the woods that led to a book we tore a page out of gave a break from the sun. While my “raw power” returned, by this point my calves were cramping. I had taken some electrolyte tabs on the run with me, but when I looked for them in my pockets they were gone. (Note to self, I need to get some kind of running belt. On this run I lost my gels, electrolyte tabs, and who knows what else fell out of my pockets).
When I got to the next aid station, a saint gave me a couple of electrolyte tabs that helped. Even better, a kid gave me two popsicles. As I walked away from the aid station I thought to myself, “How awesome is this? I am eating the most delicious popsicles I have ever had, on a beautiful trail in the woods, with cool people. I am a lucky man.”
As soon as I had that thought, a fellow runner came up next to me and said, “let’s finish this thing.” That was all I needed and I ran most of the next two miles. Not as fast as the first miles, but I was moving well.
Until I realized I had farther to go than my GPS watch led me to believe.
I moved with the idea that when we hit 31 miles we would be done. But I knew this trail well enough that when my watch said we were at 30 miles that we were more than a mile from the finish line. For some reason, this really bothered me, more than it should’ve. I don’t know if I ran an extra mile somewhere or if my GPS was off, but it demoralized me to know I was going to have to run farther than planned. An ultra brain is not necessarily a logical brain.
I finally came out in to a clearing. In my frustrated thinking I asked a volunteer where I was and she pointed to the familiar curve before the finish line.
“Hey ho, let’s go” –Blitzkrieg Bop, The Ramones
I “sprinted” the last quarter mile or so to the finish line. The dozens of people gathered roared like a stadium crowd. The race director congratulated me at the finish and I asked him if he was going to charge me for the extra mile.
We did it.
The raw power I needed did not come from myself or from the trail, but from “the communion of saints” that carried me.
The one instruction given before any possum race is that if you don’t make a new friend on the course, you are doing it wrong. I made about four or five new friends and found inspiration from many more. A woman named Shelly ran up on me around mile 27 looking like she just started with boundless energy. When I asked her what training plan she used, she said “what feels good.” I was awed by a man whose shoes literally fell apart and he went on and ran barefoot on a trail of roots and rocks. The generosity of volunteers and excitement of kids lifted me.
Every time a new song came on during this run, I prayed for someone. I prayed for those who donated to the run and for many more. I learned that as I think about someone else and the struggles they have overcome in their lives, it takes the focus off “me” and the inconveniences of being warm or having muscle cramps. It moved my focus off myself and reminded me that even in this most individual of sports, it is not all about me.