Monday, July 27, 2015

The Last Annual Volunteer State Road Race 500K

Music inspired me for the first half of the race, particularly St Vincent.

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Image by Joshua Holmes / RUN IT FAST

Thirty-six hours since I made it to the Rock, I showed up to the band hall. Everyone asked if I’d ran there from Tennessee, having shown up with all my gear still on. Natürlich, I went with it and told them I had. What I’d learned during the race was true: if you already have a reputation for doing such things as this, then you could as easily say you went two thousand miles as you did three hundred, or a hundred, or fifty, and you don’t necessarily illicit any stronger of a response. At a certain point, people just seem to think you can do whatever you set your mind to, they figure, and are totally capable of magical feats of endurance and are mostly impervious to pain. I too do this same 2-D flattening to other, better ultra runners, so I can understand the impulse. Saying a number like 314, really anything above 70 or thereabouts is already so beyond their lived experience as to be past some magical threshold. And yet one reason I’ve been attracted to ultra distances is in the quest to see beyond the magic of such a number and instead to be able to gain an appreciation for what such a distance means, what the lived experience instead truly is. To try and see if I can fit that into my head.


This race was long enough that you could severely screw up, more than once, and be able to recover and salvage your quest. For this race, when I got past two and a half days, I had a very tangible amount that I could latch on to. I was more than a quarter of the way, closing in on a third of the way, and so I knew I had to repeat this a little less than three times again. Later, it was a joyous text sent to my girlfriend Mina: “I’ve finished 200 KMs! 300 more to go!” At that point I had gained that sense of how far this thing truly is, though whether I’d make it all the way or not, I didn’t know.

Backing up now to the few minutes after finishing. We were there. Laz had written on a post that he hoped most to be able to see Terrie come up the mountain to the Rock, and to see her face as she stood there, hundreds of feet above the valley. She was surprised at how people had taken notice of her persistence, she told me, even the while using people’s prejudices to fuel her own efforts to upset those expectations. All of us at the end felt similarly, trying all the harder to make it when we knew there were likely people who had seen the standings and had written us off. In a moment of inspiration, I looked into my bag to see a copy of THE PERSIAN EXPEDITION by Xenophon, and the lines “The sea, the sea!” rang through my head, words shouted two thousand years ago to the Greeks at the rear signifying that those at the front had spotted their salvation. 
Having made it to the Rock, against the odds and after a similarly epic voyage through steep mountains and endless valleys, the same such thrill as that pounded in my chest with each heartbeat. Terrie in her race report mentions how it took a few days for her to realize that the support crew for the race was truly rooting for her, a reversal that resembled a discovery of my own, back during boot camp, as to how—once red phase was over—the drill sergeants no longer seemed to be actively sabotaging our efforts but were instead mutely hoping to see each of us succeed.

Los Tres Amigos at The Rock
    This was both what we came for and yet was not what we came for. Rather, we came for the Getting There. The act of getting there was the recombinant forge that would leave us wholly altered, the four people wandering that last quarter mile now far different than the ones who had been on the bus headed across the state to the starting line ten and a half days earlier. Crossing the gate into Castle Rock, we decided that the four of us were Dorothy (Diane), the Tin Man (me), the Scarecrow (Jay) and Toto (Terrie). Seeing that last clearing open before us and the handful of people there beginning to clap, we sang the small bit we’d rehearsed a minute before, arms enfolded and the lines ringing out “We’re off to see the wizard, the Runderful Wizard of Laz”.

Diane, Ben and Jay

    Walking ahead of them through the beautiful and ethereal plantation’s row of trees and white fence, foggy at this early pre-dawn and the four of us now in Georgia, I recognized that the Tin Man was indeed my true counterpart. It seemed that so often in races my fatal flaw was less in my body and instead was too much a failure of desire, of not caring enough to push through when that was required of me. The irony being that the Tin Man is the one that feels the most deeply of all the rest, so much so that the reason he is ‘rusty’ is that he is maybe afraid to allow himself the indulgence of feeling something so strongly. 

The man Carl pointed to the Rock and said, “Stand there where the shadow is." When I did that, the darkness of the evening allowing the small abutment and the chasm below it to seem as if at no elevation at all, flattening my perspective and depriving me of the view while beneficially easing my concerns over the height, next thing I heard was Carl yelling out to the group,“Done!” I was in the ledger, I was a Finisher, nine days twenty hours into it. When it mattered, this time I cared enough to see it through. I came back to see Jay head out for his turn followed by Terrie. 

It was in these moments seated on the Thrown (an inside joke from Laz) that I recalled a conversation I had with Diane, sometime during an extended nap in a field a few feet from the highway and with our feet propped up on a wooden slat fence. 

Photo found online

   She’d spent twenty minutes telling me stories of the Bitter End 100 and the Bloody 11 W, accounts of Laz and Steve Durbin in action doing this same thing that we were doing now, "Vol State -style" as Naresh says. There now was Laz standing before me, having checked off the last of the runners for this year’s Vol State. In that field, days earlier, the stories she shared helped give me an historical sense of where I was in time and place in relation to many others and in different years, all having done just this very same thing. “Really what we are doing here is, for some days we are given the opportunity to participate in the great passion of someone else (Laz).” I told him this same thought in person once I got to the Rock. Those that call him sadistic are missing the point - we aren’t doing anything he hasn’t put himself through already. He wants us to enjoy the same rewards, insights and joys as he has experienced. He is the one, after all, who wrote the post about how he has ‘asphalt in the blood’, a great fever to get out there in each part of Tennessee and wander the roads. That he calls it a chance to know what it is like to be homeless for a week is maybe snarky but can also be as profoundly true an experience of that as the person’s empathetical sense will allow them to comprehend. 

    Jay’s family volunteered to drive me down the mountain. It was only from driving the same path we had just climbed that the full magnitude of the distance started to hit me. It took a full half hour to reach the motel! If the way to eat an elephant is in small, measured bites, by this point I'd been so focused on each manageable morsel that to see even just its trunk in toto was awe-inspiring. Having spent so much time going just from this turn to that bend, to then seeing each piece connected, seamless and spread before me, flowing into each other and so achingly long, was an astonishing thing. “I realize that this is the first time I’ve been in a car in ten days”, I mention to the family. The ten kilometers down to the base of the mountain, I re-lived the grief and the many points where the pain had grown to be intolerable to the point where I’d find myself lying flat on concrete, a cursory brush of my hand to remove the most egregious debris poking into my back, waiting for the pressure in my feet to recede. Coming up, when a car would pass, I began to sense that these were our own, driving by to tally our numbers, to prognosticate and to diagnose. One kind RIFer even handed me a headlamp after failing to notice me when going the other way. Passing then through New Hope, the first point where we thought to use our iPhone to check how far we’d come from the Kimball Super 8, we saw we’d gone 4.7 miles, which somehow we’d managed in two hours. That fact more than any other helped to keep us moving with vigor and optimism. Having started with such an unfathomable mileage, and then to find ourselves finally in the single digits was galvanizing for us all. From there, it was 2.5 miles to that turn up the hill, then a simple 10K from there.


Lake Nickajack, photo found online.

    That turn, going up the hill, we recognized it from the bus: “When it gets pretty, that’s when you make the turn.” Coming up the hill from New Hope, seeing the sign for the train tracks before breasting the hill and seeing the lake, this was as close as we came to having our own “The sea! The sea!” moment. Still, we collected ourselves for twenty minutes before the serious climbing started, allowing the group to reform and enjoying some moments with Marv. Jay came a bit after me, later Terrie and Diane. I opened my eyes when I heard Diane ask, “Is that a train coming this way” and “How close are we to the tracks?”. Before I didn’t care how close I laid to the road, especially an hour before when, from my nausea, the many flashing lights from the runners and the bright lights of the oncoming traffic—as well as the fear that by having forgotten my GPS at the hotel, our best laid plans, “go two miles, rest ten minutes” repeat ad infinitum, would now be reduced to guess work and a terrible uncertainty over how far we had to go and whether we were moving at an acceptable pace—all this added up to my third and deepest period of doubt of the race. Somehow we’d passed the three-hundred mile mark and I still was on the edge of despair and fearful of finishing. We’d left the hotel knowing we had ten hours to go 14 miles, but flying blind, what did that even mean? Jan thought we were pushing our luck from having rested at the hotel until night had fully descended, though we needed it from having pushed hard for thirty-five miles on such little sleep.

The same pattern was reinforced that we’d come to know and expect. You do a thirty-mile day, though you still have ten miles left to make up in the nighttime in order to to make the mandatory cut-off at 7:30 AM. Showing up to the motel, feeling little more than an empty and burnt hull while standing fitfully at the check-in desk, reeking and resisting the urge to scream at the host for making registration last unbearably long, on a good day you’re able to take a cold bath, douse your legs in ice water and wring out your clothes to be somewhat more fresh, but on a bad day you just plop into the bed, elevate your feet and set the timer for 90 minutes or two hours from now, “as is”. And yet the same thing would happen, regardless. This is all part of the pattern. Because those two hours would feel like three times as long, even if you were in too much pain to drift fully into sleep. Upon awakening, you’d be startled to feel so much cooler and collected, impossibly fresh, or at least feeling enough so as to consider sustaining another concentrated effort of the sort that had a handful of hours ago reduced you to that same lilting, zombie state. Stepping outdoors again and the temperature would seem to be twenty degrees less. First, check and make sure you remembered to throw away trash, fill your water bottles, but also: do we need more food before we leave the town limits? Sometimes you’re fresh enough to remember all this, sometimes you wake up in a daze and stumble away far less prepared than you need to be. 

Once you get going, however, your mind clears. What I’d told Terrie had seemed to come true: this race is long enough that it teaches you incrementally the skills needed to overcome it. Even as it gets tougher and the challenges pile on top of each other, you’d have become better and would be able to handle it. It might seem like it starts hard and stays at that same hardness, but really it’s gotten tougher and so have you. I’d done very little research other than reading Naresh’s race report and skimming two or three others. I did have an intuitive sense that 1) this race would be tackled by breaking it into thirds. The first third would be all adrenaline and would pass without a great deal of struggle just from having been fresh. It was also the flattest. 2) The last third (~100 miles) would be similarly ‘easy’ just from the fact that the end is in sight and you are motivated to finish it. Also, you’d have gotten through so much that if you are still in the game there’s no reason your will would break unless you took a wrong turn and ventured too many miles off course. And 3) the middle third would be the hellish part, where the aches and pains have piled up, you’re no longer seeming to make any progress, and whether you are at mile 120 or mile 180, you still seem to have an incredibly far distance left to go. Also this is the section where the towns are farthest apart, all of them a good twenty miles distant from the other, six or seven towns like that in a row, all on the same unforgiving highway. To get to one of these towns only to stock up and head back out, you’re making a big commitment and the temptation is to stay longer and recover. 

Making it to that third section meant so much. After 215, it felt like the race was rapidly diminishing and a finish finally began to feel tangible rather than some strange abstract moment ahead in the future. It was around Wartrace where I made the first changes to my gear, something you are afraid to do but in my case it only made everything a great deal better. My trusty Army spandex had done so well for me in avoiding chafing, something that was my principal anxiety before the race began. But it felt like it was crushing my Vital Parts. Afraid of any permanent damage, I saw around day 8 that there were seams that would allow me to keep the structural integrity of them, and yet I could scissor away the crotch and be a great deal freer and more comfortable, so long as I took great pains to cover myself with my billowy hat when standing or sitting. Similarly I noticed my right foot had grown an enormous blister on the top of the foot, and there was my single most sore place on my foot in the same place. My preparation for the race had included a few barefoot runs each week, leading up to a 45 minute 5K barefoot run on asphalt to the Band hall and back. While that truly did a good deal of good in helping me cover the miles in my Hoka’s with minimal feet problems, I didn’t foresee that the effect would help prevent blisters from the bottom of my feet only. The sides and top didn’t benefit from the barefoot training and now the shoes were causing some bizarre and painful things there.

Taking the time to pinpoint that the sore spot came from the side of my foot and not the bottom, I realized I could fix this with just taking my knife and drilling a hole in the side of my shoe. That was something I'd avoided until now, but Wartrace was a turning point: the same hellish two mile march into town that you find at the end of the Strolling Jim 40-miler likewise wrecked me here, but in a much more total way. Seated on a brick wall after a relentless push into town, the discomfort from my spandex, shoes, the heat and the terrible pressure in my body finally boiled over. Rocking back and forth, unable to suppress the pain, all I could do was throw myself into a heap on the grass and let it have its way with me. Recovering in the cool living room of a friend Sandy for a handful of hours before going out, the pain at its zenith, I knew that I couldn’t continue without being bold enough to make such changes in my gear, and from then on every such change worked well and I never reached as deep of a low point as that again.
I was glad that Jay and I rejoined for the last third. He told me the waypoints that he hoped to hit: make it halfway, that’s where his wife told him he needed to go in order for her to allow him to come back home. :) But beyond that was the Bench of Despair, which we arrived at together on our first night traveling together, and after that the only other one he hoped to get was mile 200. Prior to this, he’d be four or five hours ahead of me, would reserve a room and by the time I got there he was on his way out. 

In hindsight, the timing of when we got to the Bench of Despair was a big help. It was five miles or so from our start for that day, leaving Shelbyville, the city which seems to last the longest and whose lengthy exurbs Jay said mentally destroyed him. Had he gone on to the Bench of Despair at that moment, he feels it would have been too great of a temptation for him to call for the Meat Wagon. He’d been eyeing that for some time, he told me. Instead, he rested a good deal longer than normal, maybe up to 6 hours, and we all headed out in the middle of the night. In the daylight those five miles would have been hot, hard, endless and totally exposed. This led me to see the wisdom of the answer I got from Paul the Astrophysicist, who gave this answer to the question, “Which parts up ahead are the hardest?” “That all depends on who you are, when you get there and in what state.”



This video reminds me way too much of the race, especially sleeping right on the pavement.   "Who’ll help the tired soldier / Far from his own hometown / Carry these men and women / Who get lost when the Sun goes down"

As it was, after a twenty minute nap on the wide shoulder of the road, somewhat dangerous but reasonable considering the lights of oncoming cars were visible from a mile away, we got into the town, got our obligatory photos strewn despondent across the Bench and some ten minutes later set out. “After 200, I don’t have any more goals that I’ve been aiming for.” Jay told me. The last hundred miles is a great deal more dense in population, and having gotten up from the Bench of Despair, there was always a landmark ten miles away or less with which to bolster our concentration and keep us motivated, whether that be a mileage landmark like hitting 250 and 300 (high five!) or else checking off one of the remaining challenges, like the climb up Monteagle. A lot of this run was showing up somewhere only to spend a handful of minutes glancing about as the faint impression of something that we caught out the window of the bus rose through our minds to meet and overlay itself onto the view before us. That happened a great deal, and the feeling of exhausting these memories, of having passed through all the landmarks that there were to be remembered, allowed us to further foster the hopes that we might get to that final landmark, the Rock, our departure point of the bus ride and our terminus of the run, and to get there sooner rather than later. It was great to get up from the Bench of Despair with the words of John Price echoing in my mind: “If you can lie down there and then get up, you will go on to finish. It’s a very small percentage of people that get past the Bench and don’t finish.” 

Other such landmarks that stand out was the town that had road construction on a part of the course near the town square—this obstacle was solved by waiting for a break in the traffic then “sprinting” up the side of the road past the workers—as well as the town that had the movie theatre. That stuck out because I remembered the British man asking John Price if people routinely went there to watch a movie, take a nap in the air condition darkness, or both. “It’s cheaper than a motel! And you’ll stay about the same amount of time.” Then there was the two steep roads going down (down from Castle Rock and Monteagle), both of which would now be Ups for us. The steep uphill on which the bus bottomed out and seemingly broke would be the Big Downhill to Jasper. Other ones included the small handful of turns that we took, or a random business whose sign stuck out in our minds. All were very welcome. 


...To The Place I Belong
One motivator was the fact that my maps were laminated, hole-punched and hooked on a carabiner. Getting to each town, I had the satisfaction of pulling off that page and throwing it away. As the ten days progressed, this thick stack of more than thirty sheets grew less and less, visual confirmation that all was going to plan. Just now as I write this, I diced an onion, put it in a skillet with just a small amount of olive oil and salt. Five minutes later, entering the kitchen to stir and check my pasta, I was amazed at how the atmosphere was rich with this wholesome, earthy scent. What had been our stale and sanitized barracks had converted to the rich warmth of a hearth at home, with this one ingredient cooking away on the stovetop all that it took for such a transformation to be worked. Small moments of anger or despair in this race, which above all is a referendum on the person’s patience and self-knowledge, would flee as quick seemingly as they came over similarly small gestures. Tearing a page off of the ring was one such worker of magic, but there were many others. These were name games, telling stories, walking in formation and shouting cadence. I couldn’t remember much other than the one that goes “When my granny was 91, she did PT just for fun/ when my granny was 92, she did PT better than you/ …93, she did PT better than me/ …. 94, she did PT more and more/ …95, she did PT, best alive/ …96, she did PT just for kicks/ …97, she up, she died, she went to heaven/ …98 she did PT at the Peary Gates.” 



   I’d have liked to have played some of the ones I had on Spotify (“When I get to heaven, St Peter going to say, how’d you make your living boy, how’d you make your pay") but at that point my smart phone had been exchanged for a flip-phone. What I could remember, though, helped: on my GPS when doing these games or shouting cadence we’d cut a minute off our pace and everyone was a great deal less mopish.

After making it past Shelbyville, we found ourselves reunited with Diane, who had somehow gotten ahead of us. Seemingly any time I felt like I was pulling away and forging ahead on my own, I’d make it only so far, become weary, and then I’d be leapfrogged. The three of us all realized this about our group--how breaking away was more illusion than reality--given that after a week we were all moving at the exact same speed, and this helped us focus on making the remainder of our Vol State a never-before-seen show of teamwork. A handful of the others would get ahead and stay ahead. Diane would read the names on her phone, mentioning how far ahead they’d gotten. Gary Price, Joshua Swink, Terrie, or the Astrophysicist in the floppy hat. The fact that she’s done this race five times before meant that she could tell where the people had likely spent the night and whether they were headed for a daytime finish or a nighttime one.
The leapfrogging continued but on a smaller scale. We began to call this our duck walk, both from how we were moving as well as how we’d stay in a line yet always changing out the leader. One of us would get hot and would be a quarter mile ahead of the others. Diane would get steely-eyed and would barrel forward, or Jay. I was the one with the GPS that was used to effect our self-imposed regime of two miles at a time, no stopping, then a ten or fifteen minute rest. Often it’d be me out front, dragging us further on in a death march, letting them know we had a half mile left, "so start looking for a good shade tree." We’d be going generally about 19-minute miles, sometimes better, sometimes worse, and at night that would slip to an occasional 17 minute mile, so even with a great deal of rest we’d average more than two miles an hour. We could count on being out there 16 hours a day, no matter what, and half of the remainder would be swallowed up in meals. Even if this was walking, it felt like a continual push.

Diane told us that for a month—maybe longer, maybe forever—we’d not go down a highway without scanning the horizon for the ecstatic combination of a well-manicured lawn and a shade tree. 
And every day the boy would come

   We’d be taking advantage of these occasions and would be happy to hear a car pull up with a recent finisher stopping by to check on us and offer their services if we wished to change from Screwed to Crewed. But there were others and they all gave us signs of life beyond the Rock, that of sleep without dreaded awakenings, of long cool afternoons with nowhere to go and nothing to do. Shoes other than mangled Hokas and garments other than athletic sweat-wickers.

Photo from Bill Baker
Family came out to see me as well, most of who did not know I was in Tennessee until some hours before they drove to see me. My step-sister, my mother and younger (of the two) sister. My beautiful niece. Later I enjoyed their surprise when they’d text me asking me how far I was, and it always seemed much further than they had anticipated. As slow as we went, we still went 100 kilometers every two days! I was glad to have shared the Tinyurl link with the race updates, and I knew there were people from Run it Fast and from the Band who were sending me messages online, though in the whole ten days I spent a maximum of twenty minutes being able to check them. Instead I was able to have the Corporal in charge of me share my number on the board during formation one day, so that for a good half of a week I received a trickle of supportive messages straight to my phone. This was especially good because I got most of them during that middle third which caused so much doubt and strain.

  While there is a great deal more that could be said, catalogued, imparted to others, the great joy from this race is to not know all the details ahead of time, but instead to show up and live it. To know more is worthless since this race is such that you can’t read and expect to have an idea of what it is like unless you are there trying it. As mentioned earlier, I came wanting to know, to cross to the other side of experience and to put myself there, continually, letting the process work itself upon me. One lady became very enthusiastic about the race when she saw the first runners came through, and she set up a great spread for the runners, with pink signs a quarter of a mile away alerting us to a Road Angel up ahead. Arriving there at five o’clock in the morning with the sun on its ascent, somewhere in the 190s mileage and not so far from the Bench of Despair, you got to her place and there was a large canopy, four coolers with everything from drinks to Body Glide, and really luxuriant camping chairs. Here Jay and I reunited with Diane, almost immediately after which the extremely kind and sporty young mom came out to chat with us and see what we needed. This was a person who had become captivated with the race and was on first name basis with each of us, knowing who would soon be there and where the rest had gotten thus far. To be offered use of her indoor plumbing was so unexpected and joyful that we could not contain our great shows of gratitude and enthusiasm. 

Interestingly enough, she remarked on how no person yet had been able to answer her question, “Why run this?” Given that I’m known as the poetic one of the bunch, with a facility for metaphor, the eyes turned to me and I raised my hand. “I’d venture to say that I’ve got a pretty coherent rationale for this craziness.” I told her how endurance sports for me are the best way to work the Coping Muscle. In my practice as an outreach counselor in middle school, all the problems kids went through could be traced back to the way they cope. Everyone copes, you ether cope well or you cope badly. A race such as this is like a controlled, an almost clinical laboratory environment where you have people watching over you as you seek to gain practice in coping. If things go awry, they are there to swoop in. That way, after a race like this you have a well-developed ability to cope, to handle what comes at you. So, in real life when you’re confronted with the unexpected, you can handle it.” She nodded. “That’s like saying, If I can handle something like the Vol State, I can handle anything. “ Exactly!

Some two hundred kilometers later we reunited with Terrie, and I was able to tell her that the single section we did together and in which we shared our observations and epiphanies was the highlight of my trip. “I’m glad that we are together again, here.” I told her. That night, close to a week before, we discussed many things but the comment that sticks with me the most was the fact that I compared this particular race to my favorite book, INFINITE JEST. “That book is written at such a higher difficulty level than anything else I’d ever read, it took six months just to read the first half. And somehow only three weeks to read the second half.


 

What I realized was that it’s not that the book got easier, but that the sheer length of the book had afforded me sufficient opportunity to improve as a reader. Because I stuck it out, it had raised me up to its level. This race does the same thing: the easier, flatter first part is the introduction, and it’s hard, it’s a long way, it’s hot. At this point you are exposed to these aspects but not the other more difficult things that come later. And you’re given enough time to learn how to manage them. Then in the middle you get some rolling hills, the towns are further apart, and you get introduced to the rumble strip. Each of these come gradually, and you have ample time to incorporate them into your repertoire. Later you’re more tired, you’re fighting the clock, there’s a lot more steep elevation. It’s throwing everything at you. But I can see that by the time we get there, we will have grown to the point that it doesn’t seem any harder than what we’re doing right now. Just like the book.”

Not long before, we had been surprised when three or four trucks passed in quick succession, the middle one of which - too close! THWAP! - gave us a ringing hit to our elbows by its right-side mirror. Overcoming that and realizing we were OK, I told her how Naresh, both in his race report and in an email to everyone on the list-serv some days before the start of the race, mentioned how at a certain point the dream he harbored was to be hit by a truck, only slightly, and so have an honorable excuse by which to drop out. I told her that we now could do so, but we both came to the conclusion that we’d make it to the Rock and that to have been hit by a truck would only add more to our glory for having not given into the easy out. I mentioned that I’ll write to Naresh and share this tidbit with him. I feel the same is true for him, had that happened to him.

Another final note is that I should share the inspirational quote that I’d tell everyone that stopped to ask what we were doing and where we were going. This grew to be a bit tedious, especially as the time crunch started to affect us, and even more from the fact that during the second half of the race it started to feel less like they were curious and more as if they were cross-examining us. I could imagine them thinking, “I will ask them, and if they say something other than ‘Hickman Kentucky, on the way to Georgia’ then I’ll know that all of the others have been lying.” Ha!

The thing I would tell them was “It’s so easy to have a dream and to write it off. 'That’ll never happen, why even try.' But to me, half of the joy is just in the trying. When thinking about it that way, it becomes a lot easier to get out the door. Once you do that, who knows how far you’ll go!”

And that takes us further back, to that first third of the race, where the adrenaline kept you going and you first start to tackle the challenges unique to this race. You’re hoping to fatigue that Coping Muscle and to spur it on to grow. But that’s further on, and yes the joy comes from the moment after you’ve thought about quitting, but decide not to. The moment when you continue on as you had before, despite. But the joy also comes in the setting out, where it’s all still unknown and you venture forward into it. Of showing up at the airport and Sal and Caleb are there, your flight was an hour behind and your phone mysteriously stopped getting signal of any sort, but they know its you because you’re the one wearing the Scott Jurek pack and have on Spandex. Of that first dinner at the buffet in Kimball, trying to wrap your mind around who you will be and what you will have to do to make it back there, the 299 mile mark, which is at the top of the hill right before you go under the Interstate and cross the 300 mile mark. Or a day later, having eaten lunch and taken the slightly hilarious photos on the Bench of Despair, all fresh and clean, before showing up at the Last Supper, surrounded by a huge crowd of Fit, generally lean and lithe people who all have a story, often a turbulent one, and who all understand the allure and—at least here among us—need not give explanations. While it doesn't end up that way, at that moment we are all potential finishers, and later being behind so many of them, I gained comfort from the fact that we all joined and met in that room and we all tread the same path of highway, step for step.

As I told Terrie, whether you want to or not, the idea of this race is a fishing hook that gets lodged into your brain, and no matter the length of your initial incredulity, once it is there it starts to take root, to fester, and you begin to look at it from an ever changing viewpoint that over time continues to knock until you’ve at last shown up on the ferry, too. As Paul said in my brief encounter with him, “Everyone should do the impossible once. When you get there, that’s what it feels like.” My own turning point came from the realization that 1) Tennessee has the best races, 2) I want to do all the good races Tennessee has, and 3) Vol State is known as an especially good race, and an especially “Tennessee” -race, so in following that progression of thoughts I kind of elided in my brain over a lot of other gnarly facts and just accepted my fate that one day I’ll run Vol State, too.

And now I have! 

Thanks to everyone. Tennessee truly is a beautiful place, and I was blessed to be able to visit 24 of the most resplendent small towns in a ten day period. To get to cross it on foot, unsupported except for the dozen or so Road Angels that saved my butt—like once when I left a town, only to touch my water bottles and realize that I’d already gone a mile and had not filled up any of them, they were bone dry, but if you wouldn't know it as soon as I realized that, I looked up to see a mini-van had parked a mile ahead and a hipster girl with the most spotless porcelain skin was walking towards me with three water bottles in her hand!—is as transformative and joyful as they say, as well as every bit as difficult as they say. While we didn’t get the ferry this year, pretty much all of the iconic experiences wound their way into my path : sleeping in cemeteries, church welcome mats, being chased by hillbillies, screwing up terribly and having enough time to fix it. Nothing else like it!

Un gran bisou.


PERSONAL SIGNIFICANCE

A sense of wonderment; cultivation of the absurd*; acknowledgment of mortality and the undermining of it limits; rejection of our lifestyle of comfort. A rejection of the obesity epidemic found along its path; a rejoicing in movement and the outdoors; a taste of the epic alongside my gratitude for the small, wonderful things. Just as much a chance to eat all the biscuits and gravy that I could fit (not to mention double fisting the deathly delicious gas station corn dogs along the way), as a chance to go across 10% of the United States on foot in less than a week and a half; acknowledgement that for good or ill, I love ultra running and the ultra Lifestyle, and that this was a way to embrace my sport in a big way, so much so that I told Diane one day “I realize now that this race isn’t about numbers or suffering or any of that. Really it’s just an initiation into the Vol State family.” You then ask yourself, more than once, “do you belong here or not?” Proving to myself that yes, I did. For all the gory and untenable anguish that you might expect, there was just as much laughter, joking and storytelling. Something this all-encompassing delivered the goods on all accounts, whether harrowing and profane or sublime and jubilant.

A lot of this was even before the race, but the race offered it’s own significance that didn’t come until I was on the road. This was all point-to-point. After enough time, I realized that a great part of why I was continuing forward was from being powered by my own curiosity. To keep going at least until the next hill, some two miles away, and see what lies on the other side. To make it to the market and see the people there and whether there are any interesting characters to chat up. One man struck me as resembling a great deal Papa Hemingway, who I hope to emulate when I retire, moving to Cuba, fishing, writing and sharing rum and cigars with the locals (such things I’d tell myself, helping to give me a sense of my place on the timeline and to remind me that the two hundred miles left would someday end). The scenery maybe at first seemed to have that Flintstones quality, but before too long I began to see the subtle changes in the landscape, and how they grew more pronounced until the landscape was unrecognizable from that at the beginning. Watching such a change as that unfurl, almost like a time lapse photo, by that point I knew I was on the big gear of the clock. What do I mean?

I’d talked with Jay and Remi at the beginning of the race on the bus, about how a person’s feeling of time operates in the same way as the gears of a watch. You begin on the smallest gear, watching the minutes slowly tick by. Eventually you’re moving and an hour has passed, though that first hour seems to take a long time. Once a few hours pass, though, each hour after that seems to be here and gone even faster than the one before it. That first three hour segment likewise, which from other races I’ve done I see is the next bigger gear. Once your mind moves up to that level and gets through the first revolution of it, the three-hour segments afterwards move all the quicker. At a fifty-miler, then, it takes a good while to get from the 3rd hour to the 6th hour, but next thing you know one time you check your watch it’s 8 hours in, and seemingly the next time you look at it it’s now already at 12 or 13. I had a suspicion that there were more, larger gears beyond that and in a race like this I’d be able to have my mind drift even further upwards into their realm. Having now gone through it, I can remember a point in the race when I reflected back on breakfast only to have realized that the breakfast I was remembering was from a day earlier, close to 40 hours before. It felt rather more like 12.


*re: the Absurd. In some ineffable way the race kept reminding me of WAITING FOR GODOT, which Diane and I would bring up before both laughing like lunatics. “It’s the only play where nothing happens, twice!”

During our late night / early morning jaunt past Parsons, talking with Terrie I mentioned how I was able to gain a greater peace of mind about my race prospects from having surrendered to the idea that “I will be out here for the whole ten allotted days.” Whether I make it to the Rock or not, now there was no equivocation about whether I call the meat wagon or not. All too often in races longer than 100K, I’d throw in the towel rather than trudge forward, and much of the time from having feared that I was now moving slower than the minimum. Especially having joined the Army, there’d no longer be any DNF’s, though you might get the occasional DQ on time. We never quit.

Having resigned myself to being out there helped to ease some of the mental anxiety. But furthermore, the next thought that comes is “Well, if I’m going to be out here for that amount of time, might as well take advantage of it and give what is necessary to get to the Rock.” This became the new standard. I consoled myself whenever doubts began to creep up by shouting (usually in my head, sometimes out loud) “Progress, progress” at each new footfall. Hitting each 50 mile marker, especially the later ones, gave me the kind of adrenaline surges that you see in professional wrestlers. If I were close enough to a concrete block I probably could have ripped through them with my face. On the bus when we were driving, so many were trying to think of better ways to consider the race, things that seemed more manageable to them. “It’s like a double Badwater, but you get so much more time to do it.” I went for the opposite tack, just to make light of it, albeit it in a darker way: “Yeah, you know, it’s really like just a million steps and then you’re there!” Coming to terms with both the length and the shortness, often jumping between the two, emotionally helped whenever I was in a rut. When the miles didn’t seem to come quickly enough, I focused on how in such a short time span I’d already covered so much. When they came so fast, I’d fuel myself further with wonder in thinking how far I was going. 

Also talking to Terrie, I mentioned how at a certain point you ask yourself, “If not now, when?” Sure we were suffering, but physically I was in as good of a position to finish as anyone, or as I'd ever likely to be in the future. It’d only be a matter of willpower then, or a failure of such, that would decide the fate of the race. Such reminders of mortality and the fact that you only get a limited number of tries helped push me on. I’m not one to let opportunities go by and don’t have a great deal of regrets, but of those that I do they are some real doozies that ache still to this day. This could easily be a lasting bruise or a real ‘shiner’**, I told myself. 


You must imagine Sisyphus happy.
The hours or days of feeling alone in your torment before the ecstatic moment of recall: you’re not alone in this suffering. There’s Jay—especially Jay—and Diane right there, taking their shoes off and elevating them on the scrubby bit of hill where we’ve decamped. Ten minute warning before we start off again. Finding that you’re not alone, what more fundamental and basic form of coping than that? 

**This is the only metaphor I could find where both results sounded really painful, whichever way it goes. 


 Really, I wasn't alone, I had the whole 10th Mountain Division watching me. SFC Joshua Swink, also from there and finishing two days ahead of me, made sure of that! "Now we've got ten thousand eyes watching us" I told him. "That's why, that'll help!" he responded when he told me that this photo of us together (below) was now on the 10th Mountain Light Infantry Facebook page. While that certainly helped, I most looked forward to the day when I'd be back in my own formation, that of the Army Band, and how proud I'd feel in being able to tell them that I did it. Having already come back and experienced that very same moment, it was worth it. 



 Climb to glory! To the top!

In fact, one of my motivating talks I gave myself whenever I started hurting was "This is a small price to pay." That's maybe the biggest secret of all, and now looking past this time in my life, the 9 months since I signed up where I've had this hanging over my head, I hope I have the strength to apply that same perspective to other things that I care about.  

FUN FACTS

All that was promised came true:
-I slept in a cemetery on a beautiful gazebo.
-Slept on the welcome mats of a church repeatedly
-Nice people welcomed me into their fold for a little while.
-I drank from a river more than once, using a 0.1 micron filter on my water bottles.
-Between 900,000 and 1.2 million steps were taken.
-A drunk hillbilly chased me with his dogs at 2 AM. After some days of not running, I ran.
-80 Starters, 20 DNF's, four countries or more represented.
-I never did a training run longer than ten miles. I was at military training until May, ran a 50 miler, three weeks rest, ran a second 50-miler, three weeks rest, and then off to Chatanooga for Vol State.  Not the ideal training, but what I did instead was follow my platoon sergeants at music school who led us in a bunch of this:

Conditioning Drill 3, the fifth video on the list, can make people sweat just from thinking about it.
Doing enough CD 3 at 10 reps and I made it across Tennessee.

-It hurt less to run down to Jasper than to walk, so run I did. Those that know, know.
-Bill Baker and I shared a moment when I learned that Joshua Holmes never did this uncrewed. "So that means if I finish Screwed, I will have one-upped the great Joshua Holmes?"  Dream that is of Bill Baker's, he got a glint in his eye and nodded. "I'd suppose so."

If you haven't yet, please visit my donation page for the New York Road Runner's Team for Kids, and pitch in $10. Thank you.   https://www.runwithtfk.org/Profile/PublicPage/21251  


 We had fun at the back of the pack! 



Saturday, June 29, 2013

**For FUTURE MOROCCO PCVs**

Are you going to serve in Morocco with the Peace Corps?  GREAT.  It's the best.

Here's the advice I've given to a future trainee.  I hope you find it useful. I once tried not to give too much advice--its better for you to discover it on your own--but I've come to see that most of this is meaningless to you, even if you read it many times UNTIL YOU'RE ACTUALLY THERE.

Q: Thanks, Ben.  What can I do to get ready for the language? Do you know of any online tools to get ahead in learning their dialect of Arabic?

You're welcome, this is good for me, it's helping me to relive the process. I'm probably going to post this info to my blog, in order to help other people too. But I'm unemployed at the moment since my job at a school has gotten out for the summer, so I have lots of empty hours.

To summarize my advice, given that you have half a year to get ready :
-learn Arabic script
-learn the basics of French (especially numbers, their alphabet, and simple questions). People will hear you speak Arabic to them, but will respond in French, especially in markets. Also, learning French is something you can do throughout the time you are there. Some volunteers set goals of reading all the Harry Potter and Hunger Games books in French while they are there. I read a magazine each week called Tel Quel, and it was both a way to keep up with national news in Morocco and to practice French.
-looking at the onlince PC Arabic textbook (link below) will help, give it a little bit of time everyday, but they'll still make you go through training. I wouldn't worry about trying to figure out the grammar, and instead would focus on vocabulary.  You can start making your flash cards now! The grammar is pretty easy but you need a teacher for that to make sense.

-make vocabulary cards NOW with the verbs in the back of the book and from different sections that highlight grammar.

For language, you can download the book now :
On this site, it says : download the new 2011 darija book and then 'associate audio files'. Darija is the language of Morocco, it's part Berber, part Arabic, part French. It's very different than Modern Arabic. There's not a lot of use for studying 'Arabic' like you get in college textbooks until after you've been in Peace Corps. However, DO LEARN the script. For me, their Arabic is like that of a person that didn't know how to read Arabic trying to speak Arabic. "real" Arabic has lots of 'short' vowel signs that aren't written. Moroccan Arabic sounds like someone trying to speak Arabic that doesn't know what those vowels are, so they just run the consonants together with the occasional 'long' vowel, that IS written. So, the word 'accept' for them is this : qbl. Yes, Q B L, with nothing in between. Learning Moroccan Arabic then hearing someone speak Classical Arabic, you hear the same stuff but with 10x the vowels, and so the words flow more beautifully and sound twice as long. Standard Arabic for 'accept' sounds like : qu-bi-la.  (Even though written it would look the same for both).  And I'm not being critical, this is just a natural thing that occurs linguistically.  And it ends up taking on a life of its own.  
My feeling this happened because of people not having highly developed schooling and literacy for hundreds of years. The same thing kind of with our English and the different accepts that developed because our country was a bunch of frontier land settled far from England. You have the words in front of you but dont know how to pronounce something, so then you decide on your own way and everyone around you follows that.
Before I went, all I studied was the arabic script, and that was a very good thing that helped me a lot (signs and things are written in French and Arabic almost always, sometimes just Arabic, so being able to look at a road sign and know what it says is important). PC when I was there did not teach script, and they went through great pains to create their own romanization of it. You'll see this is in the book. I think it was the wrong way to do it, when people spend nearly as much time on learning the PC roman alphabet way as it takes to learn the real script. For me, the roman way was more confusing, and it made the pronunciation harder to remember, as well as missing out on having any kind of long-term skill (being able to read Arabic) that you can use after you leave Peace Corps.
The best book for learning the alphabet script is Alif-Ba. You can buy it online, and it comes with a DVD. One month with that and I was fine. It's really fun to be able to write your friends and relatives names (or the occasional tourist that you have a crush on) using Arabic.
The PC alphabet is like this :
capital H means one thing, (the sound of aHHHHHH, or aspirated H).
little h means a different thing.
the 3 is the letter they use for the "ayn" sound, which is the sound of a goat.
if the letters S, D or T have a dot above them, then it means you accent the sound of that letter.
It gets confusing when you have all of the letters written together, because then you start reading it like its English, and its not.
Last bit of advice, language wise : if you're placed in a Berber town, where they speak Tashleheet or Tamazight, make the appearance of trying to learn it.
One reason I wouldn't invest too much time right now is the fact that you're not really there until the plane touches down. People break a leg, and then they get deferred to another country later on, or who-knows-what.
I'm having so much fun writing all of this to you, maybe I'll get to work on those memoirs that I've been meaning to write. I promised my Moroccan family not to write about them, so this will be just for me to enjoy and keep. In fact, if you want a good project to work on once you're there, I'd like to write kids books that feature a Western character and a Moroccan character. I've got one that I'm going to do and I'll send it your way. But it'd be fun to make that into a cultural outreach project.
Tala f rask! (its a saying they have that means, Take care of your head) Broken down it means
Tala : take care
f : of
ras : head
k: your.
But you say it all together : tala frask.
*I know with Rosetta Stone, they used to have one month subscriptions to languages for 50 bucks.  I'd plan on doing that with French.  Especially if you hope to visit other parts of Africa, French will be a major help.  It's also worthwhile studying it because 1)  it's like a 2-for-1 deal, being able to learn both while you are there,  and 2) you will make a lot more progress very very quickly with French because of all of the cognates.  So you will feel more confidence early on.  And also because you may end up working with government people in the ministry, and in government there is a bias for French over Arabic.  Also, with its bilingual nature, pamphlets and forms are printed in French and classical Arabic, so its worth it to be able to read the French side and understand what people are talking about that way.
#2
  • Ben,
  • I saw your posted on the FPCV page about being a volunteer in Morocco, and I got to take a look at your blog! I have two questions I was wondering about:
    1. How tough will it be to be a vegetarian there?
    and 2. What were your free time activities like/did you do any side projects?
  • Hey,
  • Depends a bit how strict of a vegetarian you are. Usually eating with another Moroccan, you'll be sharing a giant plate and picking what you want to eat from that plate, often by dipping bread into it and picking up what you want with that bread. So a big dish of lentils, and you are all making a claw out of bread and grabbing stuff like that. If you are fine with meat being cooked with vegetables, and you just pick the vegetables, it'll be no problem at all. I went through my two years like that, since I stayed with a host family the whole time. Vegetarians are not unheard of there, with so many European tourists that have interesting demands. Also, you can use a tradition they already understand as Muslims (not eating pork) and then just tell them that you take the same idea but apply that to all kinds of meat.
    It's harder if you hate the idea of stuff being cooked together, but not impossible. Probably easier there than in most other Peace Corps countries. In my case, my not eating meat became a joke. Humor can help diffuse any tension. During training I was more picky, so the family cooked an extra plate of eggs just for me. Training, we usually ate with other volunteers, so a lady was contracte to cook HUGE salads. I dont think you'll have much worry.
    Once training is over, there's a second mandatory home stay with a family lasting two months. This might be the hardest time as a vegetarian, since you're probably in a small town that has less exposure to tourists and also because you're not eating half of your meals with other trainees. BUT after those two months, most people end up moving out and living completely on their own, cooking their own meals 3x a day and so they are able to be hardcore vegans with little trouble at all. You'll like it: all your produce you'll get at farmer's markets and it's all fresh. Eating in Morocco was a never-ending joy, though a bit repetitive. Some stuff I didn't know was not vegetarian until after I'd been there more than a year: the 'berber pizza', is a kind of bread with a spicy interior, but it's really made using lard smeared on the inside of the bread, enough for the spices to stick. Or how the dates were especially yummy, but I learned to not look at them too closely because you could find insects crawling inside some of them (so, to spare myself I'd just eat them without a whole lot of scrutiny). Also the cous cous is made with lard.
    Foodwise, lots and lots of bread, olive oil, vegetarian tajines, big plates of almonds and dates.
    As far as activities and my life outside of work, a big part was traveling all over the country. I was in Bolivia for 8 months and rarely left my town, but in Morocco I made it a game to try and visit all of the people in my staj ("cohort", you might say). That really was fun and enlightening, too, because I saw how different the experience was for everyone, as well as the enormous variety in how Moroccans are and how they live. I saw everyone that made it through the whole two years (close to 30 ppl), though not the towns of the people that left early. I lived in the South, and so there were lots of chances for outdoor fun, hiking, random bike rides, marathon training. I read five hours a day (two in the morning, three at night) without feeling like it negatively impacted my service. Especially in Ramadan, it was fun to try to be invited to random people's homes for tea.
    Morocco is a very good country for its proximity to other places. I flew to Spain several times, to Italy twice, and after my service I flew to Mali then overlanded it back to Morocco, through Senegal and Mauritania. To be able to fly to Spain (60 dollars round trip) just to see a concert was awesome.
    Peace Corps is a good time to develop new interests and talents. Learning guitar, or an Arabic instrument (I tried to take lessons for the Oud, but the music teacher got shuffled to a different region and I lost that possibility). Writing, too, is especially good to do. I put a lot of effort into my blog, though I was told not to mention my host family at all.
    If you get into a region with people you like, then that really makes the experience. There was always a get-together for someone's birthday, or a chance meeting in a city like Ourzazate just to decompress and eat good international food. Once a month I'd go just to buy nice groceries, including a tube of Pringles and hole myself up in a hotel room for a night.
    The way I got to see so many volunteers' sites was because I'd try to volunteer on helping their projects getting up and going. With Youth Development, there were camps a couple of times a year, and I'd always sign up for the most remote one from my area, since that allowed me a couple of days going and a couple of days coming back where I could make a giant loop of the country and stay with volunteers along the way. Other people would just do the ccamps near them, because only a certain amount of funds were given for travel, but I thought that was a mistake. There's no reason to hoard lots of dirhams, it'd take forever for them to add up to what one paycheck in the States would be, so with that in mind I'd splurge when the opportunity presented itself.
    Well, you can probably tell I really liked my time there. It was mentally hard, but your enjoyment rises and falls just like your confidence level, and lots of the challenges can be postponed til the moment when you feel up for it.
    I wish you luck, and don't hesitate to ask me more questions!
  • Friday


  • Hey man,
    I thought of another thing : there's no dating in Morocco. Doesn't exist outside of Casablanca and Rabat the capital. This led to two pretty lonely years. As beautiful as the girls were, with some exceptions somehow psychologically I couldn't get past the fact that they started seeming to me to be more like sisters and cousins. My advice to a guy would be to bring a Fleshlight, or some such thing.
    Some other things I thought of : in Morocco, there is a giant mountain called Toubkal that is fun to do, and you can snow ski AND surf, plus the touristy things like riding camels. If you run, there's an epic race called the Marathon des Sables, and that can be a good opportunity to race it and raise money for charities . I did it and loved it. Also, some volunteers started a health outreach program where 10-15 volunteers and Moroccan health people ride bicycles for a weekend from town to town into the mountains, and you get to camp out on an island and have a barbecue. This was one of my favorite things.
    Lifestyle things, I enjoyed sleeping under the stars in the summertime when it was too hot to sleep inside the adobe casbahs. The first few nights I was so excited and in awe of the innumerable stars that I had to return inside in order to calm down enough to sleep. Lots of hours watching Barcelona and Madrid matches with full-to-capacity cafes of my Moroccan friends. Plus all the great Islamic holidays where everyone empties out into the streets.
    What's your story? Did you get an invite to Morocco? Or somewehre else?
    This is a great song : 

    As much fun as it is that I'm describing, there's an equal balance of despair and doubt. And I mean EQUAL, 50/50.
**VIEWS EXPRESSED ARE INDEPENDENT OF
PEACE CORPS OR THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT**
This blog is mine alone, and I am responsible for all content.