The “Red Light” Option
I’m spending most of today preparing for the Ouray 50 coming up this Saturday – packing clothes and gear; buying food; memorizing the course map, mileage, and cut-offs. Part of my preparation is the mental aspect, too, as I consider the difficulties of the challenge (did someone say 23,500 feet of elevation gain?!?) and recognizing that I will have to fight through what will surely be a tremendous amount of suffering. I’m asking myself if I’m prepared mentally to deal with pummeling rain, afternoon heat, or overnight cold. If I can tolerate the growing weakness in my quadriceps and calves. The hunger and then nausea.
Gearing up for the mental struggle causes me to ask myself not only if I can handle all of this (the answer is “yes”) but why I want to. I’m considering – yet again – why I’m obsessed with mountain running and putting myself through all of this.
I proclaim to be addicted because my love for the mountains is a greedy one. No matter how many valleys or summits I get to explore, I simply want more. There’s also the physiological reason: endorphins help ease my chronic headache.
But I’ve long suspected there are psychological reasons that drive me to these extreme races which run far deeper than either of those two rationales. It’s peculiar that I, someone who has had chronic pain since I was 18, obsess over a sport that could be called the epitome of suffering, isn’t it?
This morning on my last jog before the race, I thought of a game my sister and I play when we trail run together. As we run single file, one of us says, “red light,” and we slow to a walk, then a few minutes later, one of us will call out, “green light,” a challenge to run again. The game is a way for the runner in front to prepare the one in back for a change of pace, and a way for the runner in back to have control too. When we were “running” the Grand Canyon (actually a run / walk), we did this for 46 miles. She’d say “green light” and I’d curse my sister-in-law (I know, above I called her my sister, but in this context when I hate her in an all-too-real way, she’s downgraded to an in-law), and I’d hang on as long as I could until I pleaded for mercy with a call for a red light.
This game is the reason I love ultras and hate road marathons (yes, I hate road marathons, even though sometimes I run them.) When you are going 26.2 on paved streets, the expectation is that you run nearly the entire course. There aren’t any breaks. No red lights. Even though marathons are far shorter, there’s a greater commitment in its intensity, to the pounding against your joints, the burning in your lungs, and the growing fatigue in your muscles.
Ultras let me set various paces. I’ll walk up steep inclines, jog shallow ones, and run many descents. Last year when I did Run Rabbit Run, a 100 miler, I ran perhaps 30 miles total. The trail was too steep or too technical, or I walked because I fucking could. When I make that choice to let up my pace, relief spreads through my lungs and my legs. I can wiggle my toes and un-cramp my feet.
“Red light” is a release from the suffering. A break. A reminder that the quantity and quality of the pain is all under my control. The respite is therapeutic.
In other words, maybe I make myself hurt so that I have the power to make the pain stop.
Very little about my headache is under my control. I have few tricks when I feel a migraine coming on, but nevertheless bad days happen without my consent. Even on a good day, there isn’t anything I can do to make it disappear entirely.
The headache I felt waking up this morning is the exact same I felt yesterday and the day before that and even on any random morning ten years ago.
But in ultra-running, the challenge constantly fluxes. To start it’s usually my lungs that burn. Later I’ll slow, and perhaps it’s hunger getting to me. When I pick up the pace, a knee might feel achy. In the afternoon I might bake, in the middle of the night, I might be shivering with cold. When I feel stronger, I push harder, when I feel weak, I take it easy.
And sometimes I do this. Just because I can.