It’s a strange thing to have left something you love so much for so long. This likely holds true whether that separation was by choice or by external imposition, but regardless of the cause, when you’re about to be reunited, that anticipatory period is maddening and exciting and scary and beautiful and just so totally and completely wrought with anxiety. Will the relationship, the experience, the fit be the same? Is it as great as I lionized it to have been? Was it worth the separation, the fight for reunion?
The answer to those questions are likely “No”, “Probably not”, and “Hopefully”. We change, things change, and our selectively memories have an amazing ability to filter out all bad stuff associated with something that brought us joy. That last bit is likely an evolutionary adaptation of the memory encoding process to keep us coming back to the good stuff, hopefully. And that’s the final piece, hope. We tend to trust that our instincts keep us striving for love that’s worth strife.
Why am I waxing romantic about relationships and separation? Well, on Saturday I’m racing an ultramarathon again. It’ll be the first time in 11 months. Those 11 months were riddled with injuries, hiccups, stress, and resentment towards the task at hand. For much of that time, I felt so distant from the person who could, just the year before, run so far so freely. I’ve been running and racing for nearly two decades, with plenty of injuries and disturbances, but never for so long and never with so much confusion and complexity regarding the etiology of the injury. The path to get back to that runner, that human, appeared to not exist. It felt like I had dug myself into a hole and covered it with a series of padlocks that changed combination every time an adjacent one was opened. I realized, after several failed rehab and reboots, that I just needed a long break. I stepped back and retooled. I accepted that nothing was going to change in the near future – not in a week or a month, and certainly not overnight. There was no knot that was going to come undone and relieve the pain, no single muscle group that could be strengthened to restore my stride. Only hope for improvement, and that if I improved enough from that wretched, impotent, unrunnable state, I could get back and eventually feel the groove I loved. As Mr. Harbaugh continually reminds us, “better today than yesterday, better tomorrow than today”. There was and is no end, no answer, no solution, just a hope and a goal for improvement. So, I am running again.
On Saturday, I’m going to Chicago for the Lakefront 50/50. 50 miles along the lakeshore path, broken into four 12-mile out-and-back segments. 50 miles along Lake Michigan. 50 miles in a city that has always held a strange magnetism for my psyche. Maybe it stemmed from the Wilco discography holding exclusive residence in my car stereo and correspondingly my imagination (and occasionally subletting its space only to Kanye West’s ‘Graduation’) throughout the high school years. Maybe it was because it was a tangible metropolis for a Northern Michigander, a sort of melancholy midwest mecca. Maybe it’s because I first fell in love with ultrarunning reading about Bernd Heinrich’s record-setting 100km race along this same lakeshore path. Heck, maybe it’s because it has the largest population of Polish people outside Poland, and though I have no heritage, there’s definitely a constant subconscious yearning for Bigos and Oscypek cheese. Oddly enough, I’ve never made it a point to spend much time in the Windy City since reaching adulthood and attaining the ability to travel there feely, and don’t really have much of a desire to do so anymore. Not out of malice or disinterest, just no need. Still, it has a hold on me as a place that gave life to so many things that felt close to me. So, I’m going to head there this weekend for a reawakening of sorts in the place about which Jeff Tweedy sang and Bern Heinrich wrote. I’ll be spending the morning running along its lakeshore; hopefully I’ll get 50 miles in on the day. 50 miles of joy? No. 50 miles of torture? Probably not. 50 miles of freedom? Hopefully.
I suspect my competition will be historic. Not in the sense of being a legendary field, but probably the opposite. That is, I’ll be racing against ghosts of ultrarunning’s past. Indeed, the main impetus to come run this race is that it’s the site where Barney Klecker set the still-standing American Record and then-World Record of 4 hours and 51 minutes back in 1980. That’s absurd. Klecker was a 2:15 marathoner, and there’s a reason that record hasn’t even been sniffed in 36 years. Moreover, it’s where the ultra legend and Comrades King Bruce Fordyce came to set the still-standing World Record of 4 hours and 50 minutes in 1984. Bruce dominated the Comrades Marathon, winning it 9 times, and there’s a reason that hasn’t been sniffed in 33 years.
Only 3 Americans have ever run under 5 hours and 10 minutes for 50 miles, and they all did it in 1980. Heinrich ran 5:10 during that 100km run in 1981. In fact, Zach Bitter was the first American since 1981 to run under 5 hours and 13 minutes. He set the Lakefront 50 course record in 2013 with a 5:12 mark. So, I may be racing against Zach and Bernd (and maybe even making Geoff-of-old nervous, as the unofficial 50 mile split from my 100km debut was 5:03), but I suspect Bruce and Barney will be a bit up the road… this time time around.
And the elephant in the room: the Sub-5 Hour 50 Mile. It’s the sub-4 minute-mile of ultras. The symmetry is so beautiful: sub-6:00 miles for 50 miles, 5 segments of 10 miles in under an hour each. Only 2 Americans have ever seen the other side. Before ever racing an ultra, I marveled about this feat of natural beauty and decided that an ultimate career goal was to get on the other side of 5 hours. I’m not sure if it’ll fall on Saturday. I don’t know if I’m back at that level of fitness yet. But I suspect if I ever want to do it in my career, it’ll be there in Chicago, so I might as well go give the course a whirl. What’s the goal for Saturday, then? Damn. Well, I’m going to try to run 50 miles as fast as I can.
“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man”.
Somewhere around 500 BC, Heraclitus gave us that astute observation. Coming back to something you loved, you can’t template the experience and expect to pick up where you left off. We weren’t the same person we were then; our love isn’t the same love we loved then. Experiences can’t be replicated. On Saturday, I’ll be putting on a race bib to dip my new toes in a new river. These new toes have seen a lot of weary times since they last got soaked, so regardless of the outcome, the bath is welcome. For, as hopefully many know, running – trying to cover the ground as fast as you can – is a unifying human experience. That joy of movement, when taken from us, is death, but when realized, is a pure expression of life. Another astute philosopher, this one a bit more modern and residing himself in Chicago, rightly told us, “You gotta learn how to die, if you wanna feel alive.”