In the crisp, dark morning I felt something. I felt like this run would be different, like I had turned some corner and after months of running up hill, the climb would yield and I'd finally start coasting down the other side.
The full moon, glimmering off the placid reservoir, illuminated the path with a mystical light. I love running in the dark:
"Its quieter, more peaceful, and even though you can't really see, the poor light illuminates your senses. You feel every breath of wind, hear every sound and eventually, as your eyes adjust, you can even see the road." - IronMan Lake Tahoe: Looking for AbraI took the first mile easy, loosening my muscles in the chilly air. Now acutely aware of every little pang, I listened to my legs. They were silent, turning over like a dream.
My watch beeped at mile one and the count was deer two, humans zero. The path wraps around the banks with trees arching overhead. Every few minutes you pop out into a clearing and the lake spreads out in front of you, misty hills in the background, a giant flying saucer-like moon hanging, suspended, just above the water.
I pushed it a bit, settling into a comfortable, but quick pace. I came out this morning just to run, to put in the miles. I had no expectations that I'd run particularly fast, all I wanted to do was finish and feel good. I focused on running efficiently, smooth, effortless as I sliced through the still morning air, silence interrupted by the occasional hum of the highway now drifting away behind me.
Two miles, three and still I couldn't feel my legs. Maybe they were still numb from the cold I thought, as the deer count swelled. I'd lose focus and let my mind wander into the trees, but it didn't stray far, so blissful was my place in space and time. An entire world to myself, and all I had to do was run through it.
As the path gradually turned up, adrenaline kicked in and I picked up the pace. That happens to me sometimes, I find myself running gradual ups faster than flats. I think subconsciously the incline forces me to run better, to use my core rather than my legs to drive me forward. And as a result, with the same effort I actually go faster up the hill. Turns ou my fourth mile was just a second slower than my fastest all day, and the fastest by far on a GAP (grade adjusted pace) basis, despite the rising grade.
Each time I came out from under the trees and into a clearing, the soft morning light glowed a bit brighter than before. And by the time I climbed up out of the canyon, I was greeted by a pink-hewed dawn, sunrise finally here.
One more climb and Sawyer Camp Trail was in the past, the rolling hills of San Andreas laid out in front of me. I felt strong, stronger than I have in months, so I kept up the pace. No matter how hard I tried to slow down, my natural rhythm took over and I sped back up. I conceded. Its only so often you feel like this, fighting it is exactly that and has no place here.
Sawyer Camp + San Andreas is just under 18 miles out and back, so I knew to hit 20 I'd need to extend it a bit. I momentarily considered just doing the 18, but I've now run enough marathons to know that something does happen at 18 and I wanted to remind myself what it feels like. There may not be an actual wall, but there's something.
I skipped out of the gate and onto Skyline, coasting down hill then back up the other side. Facing oncoming traffic, the cars whizzing past me were in stark contrast to the silent deer I passed, their wide round eyes glued to me, way back in the dark.
Up along the eucalyptus I had to veer into the suburbs until 10 miles clicked over. I gave myself a quick respite, walked a few steps and turned around.
In slowing, I felt my legs. But they felt more stiff than tired, so I pushed forward down the hill.
One of my favorite things about running long distances is how intimate you become with your body. You get to know every creak, every twitch and when heavy legs mean you just started a run, have been going too fast, or are about to bonk. But its hard to know what message your body is sending without logging the miles, so the more you run the better you get to know yourself, and in turn the better and further you can run without falling apart.
As I surged through the rolling hills of San Andreas Trail, I hardened myself to what I knew would be a painful finish. Still eight miles left to go, despite the net down I knew well enough that I hadn't run this hard, this far, in months. Running out of gas was inevitable. This wasn't defeatism, but experience telling me that I was more than welcome to keep pushing, so long as I knew I'd pay in the end.
Its OK -- running, like life, is suffering. And its wonderful.
Back through the gate onto Sawyer Camp, I coasted down the twisting hill to the levee, now full on morning. The deer had receded into the brush, morning walkers, joggers and bikers now dominated the trail. I wove between them, maintaining my strong pace.
There is something about seeing mile 15 on my watch that always makes me laugh with mixed emotion. On the one hand most people would think running 15 miles is a terrible idea -- and they may be right. But 15 miles is real distance, and when I reflect upon my fleeting thoughts of the past couple hours, how quickly the flash between two and 15 goes by, I wonder how far I can actually go.
At 18, the wheels started to come off. On one of our early trail runs, KJ once asked "What makes you stop being able to run? Is it your legs? Lungs? Mind? Or Other?" Neither of really knew what Other was. I do now.
Other is everything. Other is the connection between your mind and body breaking down. Your mind says go but your body isn't paying attention. Your legs actually feel OK, and your mind is still sharp, but you just don't have it. Physiologically you're just running out of gas. And you're skating on an increasingly thin sheet of mental ice. Its training that Other, and being willing to suffer enough to get there, that enables you to run far and (relatively) fast.
Or as Jurek puts it, striving to push yourself far enough to reach the Nirvana that only comes when you break through your limits so many times they actually disappear.
I struggled to maintain my pace as the path wove home. Endless turns, benches I hadn't seen since the silver-tinted morning, the moon now long since sunk behind the hills. I agonized over whether to pull over and pee. I just wanted to be done, but suffering and not having to pee is moderately preferable to suffering and having to pee, so I swung off the road for a break.
For an instant my legs felt fresh after the rest, but it didn't last. At least I didn't have to pee.
I've gotten into a bad habit of over-checking my watch when I start to get tired. Its a vicious cycle: the numbers are always worse than I expect (I am going slower, I have further to go) but I keep checking nonetheless. I wanted to stop, I really did. But I was training. And training is a lot more than just making your legs stronger.
20 clicked over and I ground to a halt. Water cashed, totally spent, I wandered towards a spot to sit down. Cheery weekend warriors were launching into their jogs all around me. We couldn't have been further apart. My mind spun a bit, like it does after a hard race. I smiled and was thankful that for whatever reason, I have the capacity to push myself at race pace on my weekend runs.
And what a run it was! My body felt amazing, legs tired but no trace of Achilles or calf pain beyond what was to be expected after the last two hours and twenty minutes. I held 7-minute pace for the entire run, and while a bit slower than my marathon goal pace, is respectable given the hills. My confidence, for the first time in a long time, swelled. And those morning moonlight miles were some of the most peaceful I've ever experienced.
Two weeks until New York and I'm healthy. I don't know how it happened, or why, but somehow I knew it would. I trust my body and know that if I take care of it, even a bit, it will reward me. For that I am blessed and now finally, after 34 years, actually appreciate it.