Well Ladies and Gentlemen, the Four Corners Quad Keyah Marathons are in the books. I ran 104.8 miles in 4 days in, around, and through some staggeringly beautiful territory. For the effort, I got loaded up with serious swag: 4 medals, 2 shirts, a fleece hat, a jacket, a baseball cap, a handmade sand painting with 4 hooks to display the medals, a handmade commemorative Christmas ornament, and a poster signed by one of the WWII Navajo Code Talkers. I also got a lot of intangibles: 3 black toenails, 2 swollen feet, and the knowledge that I beat The Wuss.
A fundamental truth of the human condition is the fact that we are weak. I want to hear from the person who has been stronger than every challenge he or she has faced and never felt betrayed by the weakness within. This happens to most of us nearly every day in matters of mind, body and soul. I, quite often, start off with the best intentions but end up falling short of the man I want to be. Whether it shows up as lazy parenting, loose moral footing for a difficult decision, or in a crisis of physical capitulation in a race; a group of weak tendencies inside me tend to overwhelm the more valorous leanings such as willpower, integrity, and finishing strong at a rate which makes me feel less than who I really believe myself to be, way down deep. So, what’s a boy to do about it? The same thing he does to eliminate athletic weakness- TRAIN! There is nothing quite like an Ironman Triathlon or a Quadzilla of marathons to wear you down to your weakest, most vulnerable state then allow you the opportunity to resist the weakness, refuse to surrender, and dig deep for that person you know you can and want to be.
Before the last 6.2 miles of Ironman Couer d’ Alene (IMCDA), I had never been honestly successful in what I’ve begun to call “Beating the Wuss”. “The Wuss” is the sum total of those factors in my flesh that have a gravitational pull toward stasis, pain avoidance, and “good enough”. The Wuss is what, quite loudly, reminds me that a marathon is hard, even when I am well rested and fresh… let alone when I’ve got to do it after already swimming 2.4 miles and riding 112 miles on the bike earlier that day or after running 3 just like it in the previous 3 days. Previous to my big breakthrough at IMCDA, The Wuss had won every time he showed up. Now, don’t get me wrong, I have never quit (DNF’d) a race that I’ve started, even with very good reasons to throw in the towel (things like a dislocated foot on mile 16 of the first of 2 marathons in a weekend or puking every 2 miles through the run in my first full Ironman). I’ve always had a rock solid “I will finish or die” mentality about any race I start. But, for me, The Wuss has always showed up in the more subtle form of what many call “The Wall” or “Bonk” or just a general loss of the will to push to ‘Compete’ instead of just ‘Complete’. The Wuss beats me at mile 21 when I decide to forget my goal finishing time and just take it easy to the finish line because I’m hurting. The Wuss encourages my aches and pains to scream so loudly that I can’t hear the call of the goal I had in mind when I started the race. The Wuss wants to settle for a finish instead of striving for a win (which can be defined internally or externally). The Wuss is very persuasive.
IMCDA was intended, from the beginning, to be my comeback race. Less than a month after finishing the 2015 Ironman Wisconsin (IMOO), I had major back surgery. Leading into the surgery I had some significant nerve damage from a blown disc in my lower back. Afterward, I was left with a condition called “foot drop” on my right foot. While it is not as severe and debilitating as it could be, I still can’t, for instance, lean back on my heels because my right forefoot won’t lift off the ground. However, as soon as I got released from the hospital, I went home and signed up for IMCDA… that night. The way I saw it, the surgery was my first preparation for the upcoming tri season and finishing it would be the catharsis I needed to move on to the next level, while not doing another Ironman would have been the same as a race a DNF. What I didn’t know then, was that by the time I got to the last 10K of IMCDA, that I would have finally developed the physical and mental fortitude to honestly overcome The Wuss. That day, the same internal voice that originally forced me up and out for a run every time I wanted nicotine in 2012, came back with the authority of a seasoned drill sergeant. Rather than let The Wuss coast in for a small PR, I was able to march double-time in that last 6.2 miles for my 2nd fastest ever marathon time and a 2 hour Ironman PR. A couple months later, I was again able to subdue The Wuss and complete the Rock n Roll Las Vegas Marathon for a 20 minute PR that included a very fast mile pacing Meb Keflezighi.
And that brings us back to Day 4 of the Quad Keyah Marathons on Sunday. I went into this race hurting and tired but also knowing that it was the last time I’d get the opportunity to train with this level of endurance stress before the big 777 event in just over 6 weeks. I needed to force myself to see this more as a race 4 of 7 or as my shot to see how fast I could run when it counts and I’m physically subpar. So, I went out at a respectable 11 min per mile pace (given the situation). The first half went ok- a few miles of pavement before heading out on a fairly challenging trail. During the paved part, I talked with Cliff, a 60-year-old who used to work for an endurance travel company and now works for a running store in Cincinnati. Cliff and I ran pretty similar times over the first 3 events and he had also evidently decided to see if he could push it up a notch since this was the last race of the series. Once we got out on the trail, I tried to focus on a running rhythm- blocking out the other racers, weather, and everything else aside from running. This was a mistake. When you block the world out, focus only on an external goal, and get lost in your own head, The Wuss gets mighty loud. At around mile 15, I ceased to be able to ignore the pain of my feet that were now so swollen that my shoes no longer fit. That hopeless pain feeling bled over into some pretty deep yearnings to see my family, which spiraled further into missing my Dad who died of Ideopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IPF) in 2007. As the mental anguish took hold of my body, I started to cry about Dad and how much he loved to take his boys for brisk hikes in the woods- bitter that he couldn’t be there with me. His hikes were always longer and faster than we thought we could handle and were ultimately successfully completed due to the distractions he provided in the form of teaching and parables about the surroundings, history, dendrology, and other nuggets from his reservoir of knowledge that seemed to be eternal. There I was, crying about Dad, barely keeping a 20 minute walking pace, and in the pit of despair that many ultra-endurance athletes call “The Dark Place”. The Dark Place is what Alcoholics would call Rock Bottom or old Blues musicians would call the Crossroads. This is where you must make a choice and it’s a very tough one that most people only have to make once or twice in a lifetime. You know what needs to be done, but it is, not coincidentally, the hardest possible thing to do. Either decide to capitulate to the pressure of The Wuss and refuse to do the work you gotta do to overcome, or fortify yourself from the ground up, refuse to take the beating, and start inflicting it on whatever is in your way.
For the 3rd time in 2016, the continued and progressive effort to seek out The Wuss and Beat him, produced fruit. With the prayer of a broken child, I asked for and received the Eternal Endurance needed to rally and reach for new heights. With 10K to go, I determined that I was going to be under 6 hours for the day and that was going to require a physical performance far greater than anything I’d been able to muster in the past 3 days, let alone during the first 20 miles of today’s race. So I leaned forward at the ankles, set the metronome in my mind, and pushed to the finish. With 1.2 miles left, I was still playing catch up and needed my fastest mile since Vegas to reach my goal. Right then, I swung with all the strength of Rocky’s left hook and knocked The Wuss flat on his back. I’m delighted to report that my fastest mile of all 104.8 was the very last one! So, as I crossed the finish line with my customary roar and got to meet John Kinsel, Sr- a 95 year old American WWII Hero Navajo Code Talker, I knew I’d once again found and beaten The Wuss. I can now use that victory to push further still toward becoming the Athlete, Father, Husband, Worker, Friend, Citizen, and Person I really want to be. These hard-fought victories inside of myself are, ultimately, what draw me to endurance sports and keep me on the life quest for Eternal Endurance.