As we embraced at church, Matt whispered the following into my ear: “You fucking asshole…”
Not your typical Sunday morning greeting, no.
What elicited Matt’s observation was his realization I initiated the hug just to dig my finger into his right quadricep where he ached the most. At least that’s where I guessed he hurt, having done a little jaunt with him the day before. Well, it wasn’t a jaunt exactly, and one could better describe the soreness in our legs as throbbing pain.
We took on the Fuzzy Fandango 50k, a 32-mile trail run through the hills of the Mohican-Memorial State Forest. With a starting line aiming us straight up the ski slope of Clear Fork Adventure Resort and more than 4,000 feet of total elevation gain, the Fuzzy took us eight hours, fourteen minutes, and change to complete. If you imagine running from San Diego, California to Tijuana, Mexico while climbing up and down all 102 stories of the Empire State building nearly four times, that should give you a sense of the challenge we and 66 other runners paid to face on November 10, 2018. That also happens to be the first day we got snow this season as the temperature only climbed to a touch above 30 degrees Fahrenheit.
If this sounds miserable to you, don’t stop reading. I tell you this not to alienate you, but to get you to understand that choosing to go through that pain and cold for all those hours while moving over that distance was one of the worst experiences of my life.
It sucked so much!
It was also transcendent.
Mohican-Memorial forest is one of my favorite places. At 4,525 acres, this preserved woodland in Ashland County would easily swallow up the nearby county seat; Ashland, Ohio. For whatever reason, upon hearing the word, ‘forest,’ my mind retrieves an image of a flat plain with trees. Probably because I grew up in the glaciated portion of Ohio.
Mohican is unglaciated, which means the topography rolls like a bowling ball with one flattened side. We’re not talking hills and valleys with whispering streams. Yeah, it’s got those, but it also has towering granite formations, drop-offs that’ll kill you, channels of water large enough to sweep you away, and an aid station where the guy handed me a shot of bourbon. It’s a wondrous place, and when we ran it, the forest floor was blanketed with newly-fallen leaves beneath trees still ablaze with color. In other areas, even as the scent of pine pricked your nose, your ears strained to pick up familiar sounds now dampened by the brown needles below and the green ones everywhere else. We passed boulders adorned with icicles and a waterfall plummeting more than two stories. I know, because I climbed the several flights of steps that took you from the base of the cascade to its pinnacle.
Laura, wife-for-life, wanted to have two children, a girl and a boy, but desired twins, so she would only have to experience pregnancy once. She knew the toll it would take on her body, that it would be one of the most difficult things she’d ever choose to do, and she was correct.
We did have two children, a girl and a boy, but they weren’t twins. Laura went through pregnancy twice to get what she wanted. As one incapable of sacrificing my life to allow another to gestate within, I can’t describe the discomfort, emotional trauma, and pain my wife went through to allow our children to live. I can communicate what I witnessed her face and what she shared with me, sometimes in tears. And it was hard, soul-wrenching, tearing pain. But then each time it was over, and she held this helpless, wailing, flailing life that needed her like no one else. And there was healing in the holding — all the pain forgotten in joy. Even ten years later, there’s nothing Laura wouldn’t do for Maggie. To keep Asher safe, Laura will fight anyone and anything to her dying breath.
No, I’m not comparing running an ultra-marathon to giving birth. Are you nuts?!? I’m just illustrating how going through pain and sacrificing for something you desire changes you, creating unbreakable bonds.
Think about your closest friends. Likely, you know them from work or school. Maybe you grew up with them. I challenge you to identify one friend with whom you did not go through some shit. Name someone you hold dear that did not see you through difficulty in your life.
Please. Allow me to go one step further. Identify someone you hold dear, your best friend or even the family member you love the most, and think about all the trauma the two of you faced together. Is it a significant amount? I bet so.
My best friends are the people with whom I run on a regular basis. When you spend hours at a time with someone on the trail, you end up sharing what’s going on in your life. Not only do you face the miles and the hills and the temperatures and the weather and the sleep deprivation together, you face the trouble you’re having at work. You share how you’re trying to fix the condo after the pipes backed up and sewage flooded your basement. You share trying to get your MFA while working full-time and how you’re not sure you’re going to make it. You ask if it’s normal to yell at your wife about weeding the flower beds then breaking down in tears. That is normal, right?
Running the Fuzzy Fandango 50k showed me I can do something most perceive as impossible, but I did it with my good friend, Matt, pictured above, who cussed me out in church. He’s my friend who’s seen me through all the moments I listed above along with innumerable others over the last five years.
Yeah, there were points in the race where we descended slopes like little kids, allowing gravity to pull us forward, arms windmilling, trying to step fast enough so we didn’t fall and giggling as our stomachs achieved weightlessness. There were other moments, though, where we hit a series of switchbacks ascending a slope we thought would never end. These weren’t amiable switchbacks either. They were the sort where you put your head down and dig into it like a kid trying to get through a plate of brussel sprouts, the only option being to keep trudging.
I could say I took up running nearly a decade ago because I hit my early thirties, and they hit me with a slowed metabolism. That was a motivating factor, but the SOLE reason I took up running was because my friend, Josh, challenged me to run a half-marathon with him. This hobby that’s now core to my identity started as a challenge from a friend with whom I still see multiple times a week to accumulate mileage.
Having spent the majority of my existence running from challenges, my pursuit of ultra-running makes little sense. Teenage me thought it quite clever to tell others I was “allergic to pain.” Afraid I wasn’t good enough to do them well, I always put off assignments until the last minute, making them that much more difficult. Despite this, I got good grades, graduating summa cum lauda and going on to earn two master’s degrees.
I’m good at running. It’s one of the few things in my life I no longer put off or avoid, and I keep elevating my goals, such as breaking a four hour marathon or choosing tougher races and longer distances. Maybe I’m still trying to prove to myself I am good enough. Maybe I enjoy doing my best when things get toughest. Maybe I only like to do what I’m good at, and I use running to avoid areas in which I think I’ll fail. You know what? Let’s go with Option D: All of the above.
Matt and I spent all day traversing the trail. Day dawned as they bussed us to the starting line, and dusk settled as we crossed the finish line. Our saving grace? The aid stations where volunteers greeted us with cheers and the smell of hot ramen noodles. They refilled our hydration packs and made us PB & J, grilled cheese sammiches, and quesadillas so fresh, they were too hot to eat. At one stop, I enjoyed a Gatorade slushy.
Crossing the finish line, friends offered celebratory beer and pats on the back. Inside the warm lodge, a stranger bought me a sticker featuring an illustration of the race’s mascot in red; a smiling, cartoon puffball with hand lifted in greeting and fairy wings. We ate warm chili heaped high with corn chips, shredded cheddar, and sour cream. I downed one beer while walking the ten steps to get my chili, then enjoyed another as I replenished my calories. Friends we’d just met, known for months, and acquired on the trail regaled each other with stories. I changed into warm clothes and headed back outside to join the impromptu finish line party gathered around a fire pit. We cheered the last of the runners then met up for dinner later that evening.
At one point along the course, Matt’s stomach turned sour, and he told me to go on ahead. I refused and slowed to match his pace, as we had agreed to run the Fuzzy together weeks before, so we walked several miles through the pines before arriving at the aid station with the grilled cheese. Both of us ate, and Matt bounced back, running through the finish.
Friends help see each other through the shit, and Lord willing, we’re going to face even more together, because moving forward with friends strengthens your heart, and the more confidence you gain through putting one foot in front of the other, the more of life you can face, heads held high.