I wrote an entire Race Report of the Keys 50 and then accidentally deleted it, because I wasn't getting enough glycogen to my brain and accidentally pressed the wrong 'x' button. This is a blessing in disguise, because you now get to read the far more crystalized version of what happened on May 17th, 2014.
On May 17th, 2014, I ran the Keys 50. It was one of the best days I've ever had. Literally, I started running at 9:45 in the morning and I stopped running ten hours and thirty-two minutes later. What happened in between was like a lifetime journey of lessons, ideas, realizations, ice baths, nausea, laughter, muscle cramps, heart explosions, and moments of glory. I left a lot of sweat and a lot of blood on the highway between Marathon, Florida and Key West. (I fell at Mile 10. A chunk of my hand and a chunk of my knee is on the shoulder near the bridge at mile marker 39.)
Here are three of the more important things I learned:
1. Running 50 miles is simple.
Running a 50k ultramarathon on a trail back in March was the hardest things I'd ever done. Running a 50-mile race from Marathon to Key West last weekend was one of the easiest things I've ever done. That may sound ridiculous, but it's true. It was easy. It felt good. And it was simple. All I had to do, all day, was run. I didn't answer my phone. I didn't formulate a careful response to anyone's question. I never once questioned whether I was doing something right. I never doubted myself. I never felt self-conscious. I just ran. All day. Until the sun dropped down.
Humans are the masters of doing a lot of shit at once, and even while we tackle multiple things our brains often wander into other spaces. It was Lao Tzu who said that if you have anxiety, you're living in the future, and if you have depression, you're living in the past. If you are calm, you are living in the present. I wanted to paraphrase Lao Tzu here because I was calm the entire race to Key West, except for one short twenty-minute span of time where a very lovely fellow runner tried having a conversation with me. I am one of those rare breeds of runners who can't chat and run. It's not the best recipe for making friends, but it's the honest truth. The conversation was lovely and heartfelt, but it took me away from the present and into all the billions of other worlds that were happening simultaneously to this world of 50-mile running, and that bred some serious anxiety and heart-racing in me. I had to wave goodbye to that lovely runner and hope that she understood my need to stay present in the moment of the running and not juggle it with other things. After all, that method had gotten me through the past nine hours. As my writing mentor Manette Ansay used to tell me, “If it ain't broke, don't fix it.”
What to take away: Maybe next time you tackle something like a marathon or dinner with your in-laws or a standardized test or a baseball game, try to be only in the world of that thing, in the moment, and don't preoccupy yourself with other worlds. You can't control them. It doesn't matter who's winning the ballgame, or what the stock market looks like, or what your friends are all doing while you run a marathon. It only matters that you are doing a thing, now, and now is your time to do that thing and nothing else. If you want to flow, you must enter the thing you are doing and stay there through the end.
The reason the Croom 50k in March was so difficult for me was that I wasn't sure I could do it. I went into the experience feeling testy and unsure. Because of that, I didn't allow myself to be fully "in it" until the last 10 miles, or so, when a rainstorm forced me to forget everything else except the trail in front of me. That rainstorm saved my race. It forced me to check into the world I was in, completely, and abandon all others.
I manufactured my own rainstorm going into the Keys 50 by setting my mind right before the race. I went into the Keys 50 feeling ownership of my goal. I knew I was going to finish that run, regardless of everything else on earth. I trained. I prepared. I visualized for weeks, and I only talked about the race to people who I trusted to keep my mind in a good place. It was a mental victory, not a physical one. I have the same body I had in March. All I did was keep conditioning it. What I changed was my mind.
2. Don't think about the finish line.
It is pointless to keep thinking about the finish line during a race. If you want to sit down and drink beer and laugh with your friends, you can do that without a race or a tent or a finish line or fifty miles. What you want – what I wanted – is to run 50 miles. At the beginning of the Keys 50, Bob Becker, the greatest race director who ever was, gave a sermon to the runners about course rules and expectations. One thing he spelled out from the beginning was that at the end of the overseas highway, runners would take a left onto Roosevelt and proceed all the way to Atlantic in that direction. It's sort of the opposite way you usually drive into Key West. “When you hit the stoplight at Roosevelt, you have four miles to run,” he said. That stuck in my head for the next ten hours.
I visualized the stoplight and left turn at Roosevelt the entire race, whenever I felt my mind drifting forward into the present. It gave me something to look forward to without the enticement of rest and the slowing of forward motion. I just kept thinking, turn left at Roosevelt, and run four more miles. This was sort of a two-fold psychological tool. First, I know myself well enough to understand that I get emotional during the last few miles of any race. The reasons are many, but one reason is the understanding that in a short time I'll be thrust out of this introverted flow of complete solitude and peace and into a rush of social activity, reaction, question-answering and self-consciousness. I'll be torn away from being fully inside myself, running, and thrust back into the world where I am conscious of how I'm perceived, careful about my body language, and analytical about my surroundings. These things aren't bad – they just are. We move through the world with a mixture of sensory and analytical intelligence. But sometimes, while we do repetitive activity or solitary exercise, we are allowed to fall into a dream-space of complete flow. To feel that coming to a close is always emotional for me. It is like waving goodbye to yourself at the airport. Have a nice flight. There's a limit to what you can carry with you once you cross that threshold. You've got to whip your boarding passes and your identification out. You've got to be a real person in a shared world that others validate and accept. The world in your head will still be there, but you'll have to have a return ticket to get back there. You'll have to register for another ultramarathon.
3. Accept love, help, motivation, kindness, inspiration, and support.
When I was a child, I was famous in my family for saying, “I do myself.” No, I wasn't trying to be uni-sexual. I was trying to express, at every waking chance, that I could see something through from start to finish without anyone's dreadful help.
If I had been in a Shake-n-Bake commercial, I would have looked at the camera and said, “It's Shake'n'Bake, and I did it all my damn self.”
If I was asked to cover a Beatles song for the fifth grade talent show, the song would have been, I Get By with Absolutely No Help from My Friends.
But something inside me has changed as I've learned, through running, the art of patience and the beauty of viewing the self as a force driven from within but supported by community and environment. Sure, you can do a lot on your own, but you don't exactly get points for that in the way that my childish self imagined you did. Like, no one's standing at the gates of heaven or hell checking off all the times you made it through something with no help. I was unfortunate to grow up around a pathology where if you asked for help or received something from someone, it all went down on this long list which would later be read to you to show just how much of a burden you really were. I've always been terrified to ask people to show up for me, support me, provide, help, encourage, or assist. It makes me feel like a burden. I now see how dumb that is. When we all feed our energy toward a positive purpose, we all win. Winning isn't doing everything yourself. Winning is seeing through your goals to the end.
As I was approaching mile 20 or so, one very spectacular Andrei Nana appeared on the side of the road with bright red shorts and a white shirt and a very delightful smile. For the next thirty miles, in three to seven mile increments, he appeared in the heat-wave distance like a victory flag, holding out water, Ibuprofen, a snack. He was on course crewing his wife, Claire, a beautiful and talented ultra-runner. Both have more specific knowledge about running than God and Google and Jeff Galloway. Three times, Andrei sat me in a chair and doused me with ice, something I never thought I'd be so grateful for. Ice cubes were a saving grace for continued running without heat exhaustion or vomiting. When I had cramps, Andrei took a handful of ice and wrenched it into my calf muscles. I almost sailed straight off the tailgate of his truck. It was the most painful thing I'd ever experienced. Then I ran the next four miles like a kangaroo, bouncing across the pavement like I had fresh legs. Who knew?
It's okay to accept help. It's actually intelligent. The crews and pacers at the Keys 50 were amazing people who spent their whole day in service to the runners' goals. That's pretty spectacular human work. I look forward to the experience of crewing someone and being crewed. Without the help of Andrei and some of the crew teams out there that voluntarily handed me ice, refilled my water, or through me a frozen rag as I ran past, the experience that day would have been much different. Without the mental and emotional preparation from a few very special people in the weeks prior to the race, I wouldn't have walked toward that start line with such a proud chest and a no-sweat attitude. I probably would have begun to visualize the finish line halfway through. I probably would have wanted to be over. Instead, I didn't want it to end.
I didn't want it to end, and when I hit Atlantic Blvd and realized that Higgs Beach was only a mile and a half away, I felt a rush of overwhelming resolve. This was it. This was the end of the journey. Up ahead, a wedding was taking place on the beach. It hit me that all over the world, for the past ten hours, life had been carrying on in a magnitude of directions. I had just run for more than ten hours straight. A couple was about to be married. Somewhere on Duval street, bartenders were collecting tips. Somewhere back in Alabama, my father was probably taking something off the grill, smiling to himself. A couple was breaking up. A flight was landing. A soldier was coming home from deployment. A bird was eating her young. A hurricane was forming. It all hit me at once – how small our lives are, how specific they are. How we owe it to ourselves to live the life right in front of us, to give this small airshell of time and space its due diligence. We owe it to ourselves to, as John Updike says, find the magnificent in the mundane.
I found the magnificent in the mundane on the Overseas Highway to Key West. All I could think about as a loosely ran that last mile was: Who fucking gets to do this? Who gets to run for ten hours straight, past silver waves and caribbean blue spans of ocean. Diving birds. Lush swamps. Rainbow causeways. Who gets the luxury of diving into an experience so challenging, so raw, and so real. And at the end of it, there's a tent full of people who have just gone through the same thing, in their own specific way, and there is a common understanding of what a day everyone has had. There is no competitive edginess, no narrowed eye, no pie to divide. The graph of human experience is infinitely dividable and ever-expandable.
It's almost hard to write. The plot is simple. I ran for ten hours and thirty two minutes. But the arc of change that occurred, the character transformation, the foils that assisted in the rising action, and the gorgeous denouement that fell on me in that last mile: It was the greatest story ever run. It was a dream-space. I can't get back there fast enough.
Thank you deeply – everyone who made this 50-mile race a beautiful crescendo in my life. I had more support than the Brooklyn Bridge. I had people holding me up before, during, and now after the race. I had so much spirit – way more than could ever come from one soul and one body. I ran with the weight of so many kind words written up and down my arms, so many high fives imprinted on my hands. I more than survived it. I thrived it. I glowed through it. Thank you.
Where To Catch Me