The temperature was climbing. My fellow competitors were dropping off to the wayside, seeking shade and hydration, doing anything to escape the Texas sun. I just had to gut this out, I knew that if I fell off the hobbled pace I was at, I wouldn’t make the cut-off point. That would be it; that would mean that the last 11 hours were pointless. That would mean my pups and beautiful wife had wasted an entire day waiting for me to cross that finish line for nothing.
I was in the midst of my first ultra marathon when an old knee injury decided it was the opportune time to say hello, again. I was cruising. I was crushing each of the obstacles. Yeah, it was a Spartan Ultra Beast because why just run 50 kilometers? Why not throw in 60 obstacles? I had hit my stride and was carrying a 50-pound sandbag, thinking, “Wow, I really feel good!” A quarter mile later, during a downhill, my right quadricep and adductor began to seize. I knew that if I stopped, I would have been done. I just kept going, and it began to loosen up. A few steps later, going downhill, I felt a ‘ping’ in my left knee, and I knew exactly what had happened. My fibular head slipped backward, and my knee was about to lock. Fortunately, the gods were on my side that day, and my normal injury pattern didn’t occur, my knee never fully locked, but holy cow, was I in a ton of pain.
The course was laid out across an active ranch in central Texas. It consists of a single loop repeated with an area designated between loops for the ultra runners to refuel and rehydrate. After running/walking the 20k loop, I arrived at the Transition Area, where Erin was waiting for my arrival with Kona and Moxie. Once I arrived in the area, I realized that she was able to keep track of where I was on the course. She began to worry about an hour after that little ‘ping’ she could see through the course tracker that my pace was dramatically off and that the only way I was moving that slowly was if I was carrying another human or injured. The latter was true.
Erin asked me, “How bad?” And those of you who have known me for long enough know I had some pirate vocabulary to describe the situation as not particularly awesome. I did know one thing: I needed to keep moving if I was going to finish what I had started. I was 16 miles into the race, hours off my pace. I had to get going if I was going to beat the setting sun. I was in and out and back on the course in fifteen minutes.
That was right about the time I entered my pain cave. It was one thing to have the goal of making it to the transition. Another goal entirely of another loop of 16 miles, knowing how much it would hurt. I settled in. I hit my glacial pace and smiled. It was going to be a long, long afternoon.
I was in a race against the sun, against the clock, against myself, and how willing I was to continue the agony that I was enduring. I forged onward into the obstacles and miles that were ahead of me. The pain was unrelenting, and with each knee bend and each down step, it grew in its searing intensity. With about 5 miles remaining and much of the challenges left to overcome (because why not load the majority of the obstacles at the end of the race), I came upon the longest half-mile of my life. Running through the middle of the ranch are two creek beds, one of which is covered in two-inch thick football-sized pieces of shale strung across a space of about 10 feet. The walls of the creek bed are high enough that you can’t really scale them or have the ability to avoid the unstable footpath the race designers intend on us all passing through. I could only step with my left leg, my unstable leg, forward because to bend my knew was brutally painful. With each step forward, I covered the half-mile one tiny left foot forward step at a time, taking about 45 minutes or longer to cover that piece of the course. Of course, without fail, immediately following the baby steps it was a steep incline decline, incline decline back to back for me to get deeper into the focus required to overcome the absolute conundrum of each step forward toward my goal. I knew that once I came over the other side of that downhill, I was just a mile and a half from the finish. I trudged onward.
Some lessons are learned from our elders. Some lessons are taught in classrooms, seminars, or webinars. Some lessons are learned through reading books/ articles and some lessons need to be learned through good old-fashioned experience. There is the often quoted, “How do you eat an elephant? One bit at a time” (My frequent response is.. “I wouldn’t; they’re endangered.” ) When something appears insurmountable, it can be accomplished by breaking it down into bite-size goals to make it manageable for consumption or execution. You don’t write a novel all at once; you do it one sentence at a time. I learned this lesson the old-fashioned way- I finished an ultra marathon one step at a time.
One step at a time. One tiny goal at a time. A goal that, no matter how I changed my approach, did not make me more comfortable. The discomfort led to an achievement that I sought after with a tenacity that I dredged up from the depths of my being. I learned that I am powerful. My body is capable. My mind is unbreakable. When you play a long game, sometimes the immediate goals are not comfortable, sexy, fun, or exciting. We get caught up in our needs for immediate gratification, and when it doesn’t go our way immediately, we catastrophize that the world is imploding around us. I knew my knee was fine. I knew it was my body rebelling against me to try and break my mind. When my knee started talking to me, my mind started screaming as well. The mind chatter began with how unworthy I was, how much I hated myself, how I’m a quitter and always have been, how I never achieve anything, I fail constantly, and never finish what I start. I quickly realized that my knee injury was not merely a physical injury, but rather, the mental/emotional stories that I have locked inside trying to prove their validity. It was a race against my mind. The resistance to stepping into our greatness is often strongest when we are at the point just before the beauty of life presents us with the most delicious gifts.
When I crossed that finish line, I knew I had done something that, without willingly participating, I would never have experienced. I did not just achieve a medal, the hugs, pats on the backs, or congratulations. I achieved an up-leveling of self. Nothing can fortify a mind like going beyond the point of breaking, giving up, submitting, or cowering, stepping into your power, going deep within, and finding out what you are really truly made of.
The name of the race is Ultra Beast, and that is exactly what emerges from within. Everyday you do things that others think are very hard or impossible, but you have become comfortable doing them. The true growth occurs when you become uncomfortable. I challenge you to find a really hard thing that is uncomfortable for you and DO IT. I am not a runner, not at all. But I trained, got after it, and did my best.