The race was the Big Brad Ultra back in October of 2013 and it was a beautiful fall morning, the kind of day that runner's really dream of. The trees were full of color, the sun was warming the air just enough so that waiting around for the start was comfortable without any extra layers. I had trained well, and knew the course really well as this was my training ground and having completed the fifty mile distance the year before. Everything was perfect. Except for that four chambered organ on the left side of my chest. I didn't know it, even the best doctor in the world wouldn't have known at the time, that it was broken.
Runners at all levels will say that your mind can overcome any defaults of your body during a race. I do believe that your brain is a very important organ for running, but if your heart isn't enjoying the thrills of moving your feet over this planet of ours, than your race is pretty much done.
The trouble with my heart that day didn't happen suddenly in one unforeseen moment. It had begun breaking late that summer with the passing of my grandmother. Elizabeth "Bamie" Pease Whitaker was born on May 1, 1913 in a world much different than the one most of us know. She lived until August 14, 2013 seeing the world change in how we communicate, how we travel, how we entertain ourselves, how our families are made and how we seek out adventure. Babe Ruth was still pitching for the Red Sox without yet hitting a home run, we didn't even have fifty states, the war to end all wars was happening in Europe and even her husband wasn't quite yet born.
She had made it to the century marker, a goal that many crazy ultra runners seek to reach. But after reaching that threshold, she didn't really want to go on any further. We had a family celebration a few days before her actual birthday but I was fortunate enough to go to lunch with her and my parents on her actual birthday. As we were leaving the restaurant, the waitress said she would see us next year, Bamie said that she hoped not. Her health was fine, if not good for someone 100 years old, she was still able to go on walks in the woods near where she lived. Her mind was sharp, still reading books, playing cards and enjoying watching golf on television. Truth is, she was just tired. Her husband, Pop, had passed away fourteen years prior, and she was losing more friends than most were making. When an ultra runner crosses a finish line they don't keep going. So after an accident in her apartment, breaking her hip and her body too sensitive to survive a surgery, one that she had actually overcome remarkably well five years prior, she decided that her race, her time to tread her feet across this orb floating through the universe, was to come to an end.
Nearly two months later, my family was able to gather once again to celebrate her life and to say our good byes. We gathered in Connecticut the day before the Big Brad in order to lay her remains next to her husband in a cemetery not far from where the two went to separate schools, one for the boys and one for the girls. It was a very informal ceremony for our small family, no church service, just a time for any of us to share any thoughts of the last family member of her generation. I had only been to this town previously for Pop's funeral when my niece and nephew were of similar age to my own children. Now my niece Emily was in college and even though she was outwardly the saddest of us all, I was happy to know that she loved and was loved by Bamie and that my own daughter, who was merely seven would be able to have her own memories of a woman that lived a life of virtue, principle and love.
Spending nearly seven hours in a car was certainly not what I wanted to do the day before attempting to run thirty one miles. There was no way I was not going to Connecticut and there was no way I was not going to give my best in the race. Despite the sadness of the day before, I did arrive at the race in a light mood. How could I not, given the race conditions and also upon meeting up with many running friends prior to the start of the race?
The race starts by going uphill for nearly a mile, some parts being quite steep when the trail isn't twisting and turning and I paced myself well knowing to save plenty of energy for the next thirty miles. I was feeling very good, and after I crossed a road and an aid station I found myself in a small group as we ran on the East side of the park. I was running faster than I should have, but I was feeling good, and enjoying the company. My thoughts were only of making wisecracks and marveling at what a blessing it was to be on the trails that day.
The group stayed together through two more aid stations but slowly began to disperse as we began to run follow a road for a little more than a mile. Even though the road allowed me to stop focusing on keeping my footing, it still had a long hard hill that made me slow my pace in order to save energy. It was here that I spoke more with the only one of the pack that was still close to me. His name was John, and this was his first ultra. We discovered we were very similar in that we both had young children and finding the time to train and have a family life was a great challenge.
John and I stayed close to one another over the next six miles, keeping our pace steady yet not exhausting us for the upcoming second loop of the course. In doing the rough math in my head, I was calculating that we might be able to finish somewhere near the five hour mark. I actually hadn't set a goal for the race as I had loftier goals for an upcoming trail marathon in a couple of weeks. I was pretty thrilled at the prospect of anything less than five and a half hours and as John and I came back down to the starting area I knew I really needed to slow myself down in order to reach my goal time in the upcoming marathon.
As I refueled my body at the aid station, John's children enthusiastically greeted their father. I looked on in jealousy. My son Quinn was attending a birthday party driving slot cars and my wife was getting alone time with Maggie. I didn't ask them or expect them to spend a lovely day cheering me on. It seemed rather selfish of me to ask that of them. I do get a thrill seeing them at the finish line or anytime along a course but in no way do I make those demands. And I'm sure that John made no such demands either. But as we started back up the long hill I really wanted to see joy and happiness from my own children, and so slowly my race and my heart began to break apart.
There was a little tweak in my right hamstring that gave me the excuse to let John jump ahead of me and let him take advantage of his new found energy. As I reached the summit alone and looking out to the ocean I wondered why I wanted to go on. Why did I need to finish this race? I moved on, that's all, not sure why other than telling myself there was no reason to stop. Unsure there was reason to go on.
As I was about to come back out of the woods near the aid station approaching the East side, I recognized among a group of hikers a man I used to coach soccer against. Despite being rivals, we were always very friendly and so when the race forced me only to say a quick and friendly hello, I was slightly bummed I couldn't take more time to catch up. I began to wonder what he may have thought of me being partially demented for running through these woods instead of taking more time to savor the miraculous splendor of nature. Thus, I began to wonder this myself. I thought of Bamie taking walks and how much she knew of nature's surroundings. She would tell us about the trees, plants and flowers she would see changing through the seasons. If we didn't recognize or know about some of the floral or fauna she would always say incredulously, "You don't know tha?t" Kind of like the way a teenager might talk to their parent about the latest musician or Youtube video. But Bamie knew more about things that were here well before our species ever existed and hopefully after us as well. Even despite all my hours and miles spent in the same setting I am lucky to be able to tell the difference between a pine and birch tree. Was I missing something by moving at my pace? Was I not appreciating this world? And even more important, was I missing the blossoming and flowering of my children?
I took in nourishment at the aid station before crossing to the East side being rather quiet thinking back to the year before when I witnessed another runner drop from the race at the same place. I thought this might be the time to drop. But I couldn't really come up with a reason why I actually should. The hamstring was a little tight but not disabling me. The race director's wife was acting as a crossing guard and when she said her husband was only a couple minutes ahead of me, I crossed the road at a light pace, where normally I usually set my sights on being as close to or ahead of him in a race. Now, I really couldn't have cared less if he was able to somehow lap me. Understanding that motivation was missing, I searched my soul for a reason to finish.
My mind raced faster than my feet searching for the motivation. I thought of being strong and finishing in memory of my grandmother. But the more I thought about her, the more I felt the grief I felt back in August visiting her in her final days. Finishing this race wasn't going to ever move that grief away. I'm not going to carry it with me every moment, but it's a part of life, it's part of loving someone.
Ironically, in close to the same place on the trail where I decided to quit my only other race ever, I sat down. I just flat out stopped running, I didn't start walking to keep moving, I just sat my skinny, white butt down on a rock. My previous withdrawal from a race was at the inaugural Bradbury Bruiser 12 miler in 2007 after I took a bad fall cutting open both knees, bruising my upper thigh bone and quitting only because running or walking was more painful than brushing my teeth with a cheese grater. The worst part after sitting on this rock for a few moments was that I realized that I couldn't just quit this race. It wasn't like I was out on the Boston Marathon course where I could just walk onto a sidewalk and arrange a ride. I was in the middle of the woods now really all by myself when I instead wanted to be with Quinn racing go karts, or having Maggie read to me. This gave me more grief as I had to get off my skinny, white butt and get home.
There were only about nine miles left in the race as I got back to the aid station. It seemed so stupid to quit with only nine miles left. I was uncharacteristically quiet at the station, eating some M & M's staring out to the trail that lay ahead. "Oh screw it," I thought to myself and forged ahead. I didn't want to run, but I didn't want to quit. I couldn't find reason to try and track down runners ahead of me who may be getting weak, and I didn't care that runners might catch up with me. The beauty of the day only seemed to piss me off even more as I just couldn't find anymore joy in it.
Still struggling to find motivation, I found another rock to sit down upon. Why couldn't I be somewhere in the forests or mountains with my family. Hopefully in a few more years Mo and I would have a hard time keeping up with the kids along a trail. How will I be able to find a balance between their future extra-ciriccular activities and my running? As that question popped into my mind, I got up, figuring I should go on while I still could.
Despite finding a little motivation, it wasn't enough. I barely moved my feet. My mind had gotten my body moving again, but my heart couldn't make it move anywhere near a pace I was capable of running. Then I heard someone behind me. I looked back and saw a guy who I didn't recognize from the 50K field, and figured he must be on his final lap of the fifty miler. He looked more like a sponsored runner from the West more than a father who struggles to find time to train and race. Despite his appearance, it seemed like it took him forever to catch up to me as we wound around many curves while going uphill. I just wanted him to get past me so I could continue on with my pity party. He commented to me on the ruggedness of the course, which I took as a compliment from a Western looking runner as I was one the few runners to complete the course the previous year.
As I thought back to the joy I felt finishing last year's race, I came to the conclusion that I was not going to find the same joy finishing the race this year. I didn't foresee any joy, any happiness crossing the finish line. I looked more forward to being home with my family. Crossing the finish line was not going to feed my ego or id. I didn't look forward to snuggling up with a new hoodie sweatshirt, the prize given to finishers. I looked forward to snuggling up on the couch reading a book with my kids or playing with legos. With this realization, I finally stepped off the course, turning uphill towards the summit versus turning downhill. To have to quit by going uphill seemed like justice to me, and I actually stepped up my pace in order to get home as quick as possible.
There were runners coming toward me as I now made my way downhill back to the starting area. I cheered them all on and wished them well as I respected each and every one of them. I couldn't do what they were doing that day. It bothered me greatly not to be one of them but I would soon be home. I was hoping to be able to take a side trail to stay out of view coming into the starting area. Instead a fellow Trail Monster runner, Jamie Anderson, had positioned himself in the woods to cheer on runners. As he began to cheer for me, I let him know that I was done, I was quitting. He lead me to race officials so I could officially quit and have my race numbers removed so they wouldn't be looking for me later in the day. He and the officials were questioning me to see if I was physically alright and needed any medical help. When asked if I needed anything, I replied, "Yah, a shrink," and I walked off to my car and headed home.
It should have been a scene from the Walton's or Family Ties, when the family is so happy to have the family patriarch coming home. Instead, I was faced with the question on why was I home so early. It was hard to answer those questions not only to my young children and beautiful wife, but also to myself. I didn't give any great or totally honest answers and did my best to just engage in some outside family activities. I may have just run twenty three miles, but I still had plenty of energy to grab some tennis rackets and head over to the nearby court. The picture of domestic tranquility I had in my mind became further distorted as the kids didn't really want to do anything outside, and practically had to be bribed into playing tennis despite the fact that Maggie has been asking to play so much. Their lack of skill at the sport and my inability to teach them how to hit a ball made for an unpleasant and frustrating time at the court.
Back at home, I figured watching the Patriots rack up another victory might have some bonding experience, and I also just really wanted to catch the second half. Instead, the Pats lost to the Jets on a bogus call on a field goal attempt. What else could go wrong on this beautiful day?
Finally, I got the chance to talk with Mo about the race. And to be honest with her. I shared my thoughts on how I might be missing and neglecting our family. How I hated missing being with Quinn racing cars that morning. How I came to the realization of this while looking back at Bamie's life and how she raised my father to sacrifice some of his own ambitions so that my brother and I could seek out ours, with my mother offering all she could to us as well. Mo assured me that I was not absent from our children's lives. That my ambitions of running crazy distances through the woods was not going to result in our children having long mental therapy sessions wondering if their father loved them more than bashed toenails and chaffing in unmentionable places. No. Mo assured me this was not happening. Together we had found a balance to it all, or at least as best as we could. It wasn't going to be perfect, some sacrifices had and would be made.
Crossing that finish line that day would not have had me realize the joy I do have from running silly distances in silly places. I would have been happy to finish. People would have been proud of me as I finished. I can picture how Bamie would have reacted to me telling her that I didn't finish. She would have just lightly frowned, shrugged her shoulders a little bit and give a slight moan. It didn't really matter. Life would go on. Her opinion of me wouldn't change. She was a constant, part of a generation that knew what mattered most and did whatever it took to achieve success. My success isn't crossing a finish line. My success is to be there as a happy and healthy individual supporting my family. Running helps me to do that. I needed to drop out of the race that day to learn that.
Bloggers note: I was able to get back on that proverbial horse and finish a trail marathon two weeks later. Look back at my blog to November 2013.