Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Altered State

Way out there beyond the marathon, somewhere around the 50 miles mark, there is a world where things like cars, money and the Internet mean nothing, simple mental processes like addition and subtractions feel like advanced calculus and the only important things are food, pain and water. In this world, your day-to-day self that cares about and understands those things retreats and hides somewhere, waiting for the insanity to stop and those shiny things to come back.

 Entering that world is difficult, remaining in it a constant struggle which is only possible if the perceived reward is incredibly meaningful. If the persistence theory is correct, to our ancestors, that reward was food. To us, it's something that has to have some internal value that is important enough that we are willing to experience the pain that comes with the pursuit of that goal.

That world is not a better world, it's just different. It is a world where you can walk by a fellow human being who is puking his guts out five miles from any help, say "how're you doing?", and just keep on walking without giving it a second thought.

To some of us, this state is addictive. Maybe it comes from some atavistic need to live a simpler life that we fully understand and where we feel we are fully responsible for our destiny. All I know is that a few hours or days after a race, no matter how much I suffered, I already long for the next one.

One thing that makes Ultrarunning so difficult, is that problem solving skills are greatly hampered while in this altered state. Decisions like whether one is drinking enough or too much, or taking too much salt or too little, become mental struggles that are obsessed about for hours. I live in that world only a few dozen hours a year, so gaining experience is a slow and difficult process. Every race tends to be different, so applying lessons from a previous race doesn't always work. At some point, pain and anguish become such that the reward is not worth it even if the goal is attainable. The runner stops running.

 This is what happened to me at Laurel Highlands. I came into the 58 miles aid station at 9:30PM, with still a full 6 hours to finish the last 12 miles. Many things happened during the race, none of them taken individually would have been enough to end the race but as they added up, I just didn't care enough about finishing that particular race to finis those 12 miles even if I could have easily walked them. I signed my bib and DNF'd with a smile. As I sat down and drank some chicken noodle soup and calories started to feed my brain, I exited that alternate reality and my regular self came out of it's protective cocoon. Relief turned to regret, although the pain was still present enough that I still understood that I made the right choice. Maybe.

 Was it a failure of will? Maybe. I don't really care. I try not to think in absolute terms. To me, this race was a training run for Leadville. I would have loved to finish it, but that wasn't an end in itself. Too many things went slightly wrong and I went to a mental place where had I gone on, some of the darkness might have broken into my protective shell and taken Leadville away from me. There were some cracks already and I just couldn't let that go any further.

I know this was a weird race report but I think it depicts more clearly what I feel than a blow-by-blow of my various falls and nutrition issues. We've all had them and understand that sometimes, it's just not your day.

 Happy trail.