"Nothing Short of Glorious"*
*This article by Scott B. Martin appears in the September 2013 issue of Ultrarunning magazine, p. 76, in the "Ultra Life" monthly section (copyright 2013 UltraRunning Media Group, LLC). I insert this photo, which didn't run with the article
I rounded the next to last curve toward the finish in Scott Park and there she was, my daughter Mihiret, three months shy of age three, erupting in shouts of "Papa," beside my smiling wife Esperanza. I grabbed her and we "ran" the last hundred yards or so to the finish, me alternatively holding her hand and carrying her. I had dreamed about this moment for years, and the official race photographer captured it nicely. Another run-of-the-mill story of a proud parent crossing a finish line with kid in tow, right? Well, not quite.
Many of us seem attracted to ultras in part by their ethos of perseverance, of remaining firm in the face of obstacles and long odds. Our very language reflects that. We seek to "survive" to the finish. To avoid being "cut off" or "crashing and burning." We wear our suffering like a badge of honor, and hope a stronger spirit gets forged in the cauldron of hills, rocks, distance, fatigue and even boredom that distances like 100 miles throw at us. And somehow, that inevitably gets tangled up with the stories of suffering and hope and perseverance and triumph in our personal and professional lives, far from the trails.
We all seem to have strange affinities for one particular race or another, ones we got back to year after year. Whether to see old friends, test ourselves against the same course in a sport where each course is unique, or just bask in the comfort and awe of familiar natural surroundings. In the case of this New Yorker, that race has come to be an annual sojourn through the majestic Bighorns of north-central Wyoming, where I've made and annually renewed great friendships, particularly with Diane and Rob from Laramie, who do one distance or another every year and even spontaneously crew me at the first big aid station and then cheer me on at the finish.
Somehow my own repeated struggles (2007, 2008, and 2010) to finish a mountainous course that thrice proved too much for a flatlander came to be a metaphor in my mind for ongoing challenges and seemingly insurmountable obstacles on the path to becoming a parent. You may be familiar with the tortured reasoning conflating apples and oranges we sometimes engage in, like "Life is cruel--it won't let my wife and me become parents, why won't it at least let me finish this amazingly hard and beautiful race I find so special?"
Well, I came back to Bighorn in 2011, a newly minted yet still expectant parent, and zero for three at my favorite race in the ultra universe. DNFs marked all but one of my first seven 100-mile starts, all in mountain races that I seem to masochistically embrace, despite a few visits to a sports psychologist to think through my "issues" prior to my 2010 Bighorn debacle.
Ten years of trying to become parents, and five years of endless waiting for an international adoption, had finally borne fruit by the time of Bighorn's 2011 edition--we had just gotten back the week prior from Ethiopia, where we had gone to meet our nine-month-old daughter-to-be, only to return home to wait two more months for paperwork to be finalized before we could bring her home. The joy of being a father at last (or was it also the benefits of two weeks living at altitude and training in the mountains of central Ethiopia, I wondered?) seemed to pull me on to my first Bighorn finish that June. I was on such a high on life in general, how could that not carry over to my race? I really felt like some greater force was carrying me forward, helping me overcome all my usual foibles and weak sections.
Then, in June 2012, five weeks after a redemptive finish at the Massanutten 100 (avenging a DNF on my first try there), I had a return date with the wildflower-studded Bighorns. Leaving the Cow Camp aid station at mile 76 I realized that I would be hard pressed to make the cutoff at mile 82.5, so I kept muttering "finish for Mahti, finish for Mahti" under my breath, invoking Mihiret's image and her nickname. That inspiration got me to the finish line fifteen minutes under the cutoff. Joy again, and now it's "Bighorn three and yours truly two," for those keeping score. And no altitude training assist this time or alternate course due to high country snow (which had felt like "asterisks" to my breakthrough finish in 2011).
And yet, last year a setback occurred during the post-race euphoria, as hip pain (which I first felt pushing Mihiret in the baby jogger to the daycare center, as I do daily) ended up being diagnosed as a stress fracture of the sacrum. Even when it lets me finish, glorious Bighorn seems to throw me a curve.
The 2013 Bighorn 100--my first 100-mile effort post-stress fracture--occasioned the first time the family gathered for any of my ultras. We organized a Wyoming vacation around the trip. It was wonderful hanging out with Mihiret at the playground in Scott Park during the pre-race briefing, and then in the spectacular Tongue River Canyon beside the raging river of the same name. But when it came time to say good-bye and start the race, I departed with a real lump in my throat. How does a two-year-old comprehend that "papa" isn't coming back for 33-34 hours? A big part of me just wanted to run back and hug her and just play tourist as the family would during my absence.
I worried in advance that the added pressure of family at the finish line might cause me to blow it and return to my DNF'ing ways. That I might use some blister problem, stomach issue, or just "power failure" on the nighttime climbs as an excuse for not making the grade. Would that ruin the perfect family vacation?
In the end, I did experience some of those things, and a few anxious moments where I thought I was behind the cutoff curve, only to realize it was fuzzy math and I was fine. But the lure of that much-anticipated finish line reunion with my daughter was stronger than all of that. Not to mention the accumulated quite confidence that neither this distance nor this course were beyond my reach. I may only have a first gear left as a runner, but I'm a survivor, I'm a finisher, and mountain races are what I do. They're what I've learned to do. And Mihiret helped me find that finishing spirit, strange as it sounds.
This year's race was as tough and beautiful as ever. The abundant wildflowers in the meadows--brilliant purples and yellows--were at their peak. In one clearing, the yellows in the bright afternoon sun were so vivid and dense, I thought I was either in a Van Gogh painting or maybe Dorothy entering Oz.
With this year's finish, I've evened the score--three finishes, three DNFs-with Bighorn, not to mention upping my 100-miler success rate to a somewhat less shameful five for eleven from the dismal one for seven where it stood two years ago. What gives with this sudden streak of finishes, I can't help but wonder--am I faster and fitter at 51, or am I still on a high as a new father, more relaxed, more confident, less anxious about failure? Maybe all I really needed was a good luck charm in the form of a bubbly little girl with an irresistible dimpled smile to get me through the tough times out there and not a pep talk from a sports psychologist (whose advice for mental strategies was admittedly quite helpful in the long run). It's better not to over-analyze how a vicious cycle of suffering and low self-confidence in racing and life has given way to a more virtuous one, and just hope it continues.
There are times when most of us feel it helps to run for something larger than ourselves. For some it's a cause or a charity. Or a recently departed friend or loved one. Or we throw ourselves into a run to just get out of a funk from our work or family lives. Maybe we need that higher calling sometimes because we know how self-indulgent and -referential these events are. How much they isolate us from those closest to us even as they bring us closer to others we encounter through the sport and on the trails. And that's true no matter how fulfilling and even life-defining we feel our time on the trails is. Perhaps we feel more complete, more whole, when we can bridge the distance between the sport that enriches but isolates us, and the larger social fabric of our lives: the family and friends who can't quite fathom our strange attraction to multi-hour and multi-day outings in the forests and mountains. The moments may be rare when these two aspects of our being meet, when they touch each other rather than pulling apart, but when they do come together, it's nothing short of glorious.