On Saturday, I completed 35K of the Niagara 50K Ultra. I ran the 35K barefoot. Though I didn’t make it to the finish line, the run was a significant one for me. In fact, it turned out to be a pivotal event in my life.
What happened on Saturday was like the awakening that happens when one resolves a Zen koan. After 62 years and one day of living on this earth, I finally heard the sound of one hand clapping.
If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you’ll know that the last month or so have been very tiring and stressful for me. My father had been very ill, and died on the Thursday evening before the ultra. The addition of a young greyhound to our household two weeks ago has meant a lot of disruption and adjustment. The result was that I went into the ultra having had only 10 hours of sleep in the previous 48 hours. Not the ideal lead up to a 50K, to say the least.
I decided to do the run anyway, knowing that I might not complete the distance, but also knowing that I needed to a long run so I could get things sorted out in my head and my heart.
Unfortunately, my wife – who normally acts as my support crew, cheerleader, and advisor for these long runs – wasn’t able to be with me for this one. I knew, though, that she would, in spirit, be with me every step of the way. Though not a runner, she knows me better than I know myself, and she knew that I needed to run.
The race started well. On the start line, I had the pleasure of meeting Hong, a reader of this blog, who was doing his first ultra. We all set off, and soon got onto the paved path which would take us to Niagara Falls and back. The temperature and the humidity rose very quickly, and runners soon spread out as everyone found his or her pace. I had a number of good conversations with people about running barefoot. Some were curious, some were puzzled, and others were impressed. I also had a brief chat with a fellow who was running in VFF Bikilas. It was first time I’d seen Bikilas in the wild, so that was a real treat.
The first 25K (from the start in Niagara-on-the-Lake to the turnaround point at Niagara Falls itself) was easy running. The paved parkway trail was butter-smooth in most sections, and only slightly gnarly otherwise. Going into Niagara Falls itself was a different story. For one thing, the paved parkway trail ends at the city limits, and you have to run on sidewalks, not all of which are in good repair. Secondly, those sidewalks are full of tourists, so you have to do a lot of dodging around people.
I ran the first 28K of the ultra at my target ultra pace of a little over 7:00 mins/km. I drank HEED, Gatorade, and flat ginger ale at the aid stations (which came up at 5K intervals). I ate orange slices, banana slices, fig newtons, chocolate chip cookies, nachos, pretzels, and M&Ms. (You have to love ultras for the fuel choices alone!) My feet felt fine, my legs felt fine, and all that was in my mind was the ground beneath my feet, the sun on my body, and the sensation of moving. As the soles of my feet began to get a little tender, I began to alternate running on the rougher stretches of pavement with running on the grass beside the path.
(Though my photographer wasn’t with me for this race, you can see me in full flight at the 1:47 minute point of the video of this year’s Niagara 50K.)
At about 30K, the reality of too little sleep and too much stress began to tell. Shortly after 30K, I realized that I was running out of steam completely, and that, if I were to push myself much more, I was risking a major meltdown. That wasn’t a desirable option for me, so I simply decided that I’d achieved the goal I’d been after, and that I would bail at the next aid station.
And that’s when things got really interesting.
As I said earlier, I hadn’t really been thinking of much before this except running. After about 32K, though, when I began taking longer and longer walking breaks, I began to reflect on things. What happened then was that I got down to the bare bones of being alive. I was utterly exhausted. I was looking at what it meant to lose a parent I’d never been very close to. I was aware of being 62 years old and full of life. My soles of my feet, though I had no blisters or cuts, were very, very tender. I was hot, sweaty, and sore. And it all made sense. Unbelievably, it all made sense.
I heard the sound of one hand clapping.
My life changed at that point. From now on, it’s going to be much the same as it has been, but also very different. I’m already calmer, more grounded, perhaps a little more charitable than I had been. I don’t think I’m going to do any more organized running events, at least not for a while. I’m going to start doing short runs with my dog. I’m going to continue doing long barefoot runs by myself. I’m going to be alive.
And I’m going to keep on listening for the sound of one hand clapping.