Getting Fuzzy: Our First Trail 50k

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.

Responding to the Mass Shooting in Vegas

At least 50 dead with over 500 injured? What possesses someone to check into a hotel, arsenal in tow, and fire into a crowd from an upper story window? Hearing about this atrocity feels like a gut punch, rocking us back on our heels to leave us on hands and knees, desperate to breathe normally again.

It hurts, but we’re going to be okay… We can do this… Just breathe… Take it slow. Together we’re going to get through this.

Yes, there’s a lot to deal with right now, and we’ve been through enough loss already without somebody deliberately firing assault rifles at a crowd. It’s one thing when a hurricane devastates several communities before another decimates entire islands, but when someone in the shadow of all the rest sprays bullets at innocents, you can’t help but struggle for purchase: What happened? Why would anybody do that? How bad is it? Oh, my God! Why is this happening? What are we going to do about it?

Some answers we’ll find, while others will elude us. Meanwhile, social media erupts with outrage and backbiting. People scream about gun control and the NRA, while others argue about why this man is not being called a terrorist. We want fixes for a problem we know exists but feel has no solution: How do you stop evil?

You overcome evil with good.

How does one counteract greed? With generosity. How do you stop injustice? By acting justly. Stealing is undone by restoration, and hate cannot stand in the presence of love. Fear loses its power in the face of courage, and there is no room for contention in the hearts of peacemakers. Yes, we humans have a huge capacity for doing wrong; we’ve seen it for centuries, but we have just as much capacity for doing good.

Open your hands to the poor and needy. Look for the helpers and join them in their work. Stand with those who mourn. Comfort the lonely and afflicted. Donate your time and money to efforts that drive the darkness away.

Turning strangers into friends may not absolutely solve the problem of evil, but it will stunt its growth, enriching the lives of others in the process. We see how misshapen this broken world has become, so let’s participate in the work of healing we all so desperately need.

Getting Past the Pain

Last week, the massage therapist reminded me of the truth of the movie quote, “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” Laying face up on the massage table, a clean, white sheet beneath, I slowed my breathing. The air, relieved of its outdoor duties, teased my nose with the aroma of cloves and other indistinguishable scents. With my shoes and socks paired in the corner and my shirt hanging from a hook on the closed door, I was ready to find some relief. Normally, we’d be listening to Chopin, but today a wooden flute rose, fell, and merged with cricket song above the bubbling of a stream. A Himalayan salt lamp cast a soft, pink glow, and that, combined with the few rays of sunlight slipping through the blinds, was sufficient to create a kind of twilight within the converted office.

Having taken the time to guide my legs through some stretches, bending and turning them along a few different planes, William started the real work, kneading my heal with the tips of his fingers and searching for the reflex zone associated with my lower back. As he probed, I sensed William nearing his goal, for the closer he got to one particular area, the more twitchy I became. William sensed it too, and when he’d pinpointed his objective, we both realized it, because as he applied the most pressure he could to this singularly sensitive area, I resisted the urge to jerk my leg away and commenced Lamaze. 

    The pain soon faded, no longer afflicting my heel or lower back, and William remarked, “Ahhh, Jake, you handle pain pretty well, don’tcha?”

“I suppose so.”

“If it were me, my friend, sitting in your place, I’d be wincing, cussing, and ready to get while the getting’s good. You savvy?” His last words transmuted into breathy laughter, escaping mostly through his nose and ascending the scale.

Growing up, I didn’t handle pain well. In fact, I avoided it as much as I could. With a father who could fix anything, we had cars that ran 300,000 miles or more and sinks that served us leak-free for decades. I vaguely recall a general contractor coming in to build a closet for me, but even then, Dad was at his elbow, framing and hanging drywall. That and the time when — sick of repainting the outside of the house each spring — Dad hired a company to hang vinyl siding, were the only instances I remember him paying someone to do the maintenance for him. Otherwise, Dad did the work himself. Mom often encouraged me to go give Dad a hand, but after watching for awhile with no real knowledge of what he was up to, I’d wander off. Worse were the times when he’d be lying under the car, a piece of cardboard between him and the driveway, and he’d ask me to hand him a particular tool.

“Jacob…Jacob…JACOB!”

I’d snap back to reality from wherever my mind had wandered. “Huh?”

“Don’t ‘huh’ me. Hand me that 15/17ths Jabberwocky spanner. And hurry up, this flange is threatening to invert on me.”

I’d look, mystified, over at his bucket of tools. “Which one?”

“I told you, the 15/17ths Jabberwocky spanner. You can’t miss it, it’s right there next to the Heimfleck calibrator.”

Eager to please, I’d pick a tool up at random. “This one?”

“No! the Jabberwocky spanner. To your right.” I’d have to take a minute to call up which hand I used to write with. Before I could, I’d hear the anger in his voice. “Jacob, did you hear me? It’s just to your right. Right there.” I could feel him pointing from behind me, but since I was facing the tools, I never saw which one he indicated. That’s when panic set in. I’d drop the tool I was holding and begin reaching for another. “What are you doing? I said to your right!” As though the metal shone with heat, I’d drop the new tool and fumble toward some others. “That’s an 11/36ths!” By then, he was reaching past me, one hand still holding the flange in place, two fingers of the other attempting to reach the desired tool.

I hope I had enough sense to finally realize which tool he wanted and hand it to him, but I’ll bet more than once, mortified at my incompetence, I just watched him struggle until he snagged the right tool for the job.

If I stuck around long enough, I’d also see what cost my father paid doing the work himself. Squatting on my haunches, I could see his furrowed brow, his mouth opened as he panted and groaned with the effort of loosening a component seized by rust. The worst was when something would give way unexpectedly. There’d be a bang, the clash of metal striking the driveway, and Dad sucking in his breath then releasing it in a series of exclamations barely discernable. He’d slide out from under the car, cradling his skinned knuckles or touching where the new gash on his forehead had just begun to bleed. There’d be grease on his hands and dirt all over the back of his blue flannel shirt. Ten minutes later, sporting a few new bandages, he’d go right back to grunting and groaning under the car. Due to experiences like these, I so associate manual labor with struggle, pain, and unpleasantness that I haven’t changed my car’s oil since moving out of my parents’ house over a decade ago, and if anything needs repaired, assembled, or installed around the house, my wife’s the one to do it. She’s the son my father always wanted.

In elementary school, I claimed I was allergic to pain, using it to excuse myself from anything I deemed too intense. Slight of build and more likely to pick dandelions than catch pop flies, I seldom participated in sports, preferring my adventures packaged in pixels or printed on paper. Even in my 30’s I scoffed at the suggestion of doing a 5K; running for more than three miles sounded like torture.

Now, after running several marathons as well as the Niagra Ultra 50K, taking a 50 mile bike ride for fun, and signing up to do the Bourbon Chase, a 200 mile relay, with a team of only six guys, I can say I know pain in ways that not many do. Even as I sit here writing, my back throbs because just yesterday, I threw it out and spent all day in bed alternating Biofreeze and a heating pad. It may sound strange, but the kid who avoided pain at all costs has grown up to become an endurance athlete, one who voluntarily endures prolonged physical activity and all the pain that brings just for the sake of doing it. Sure I get shirts for entering the races and medals for completing them, but I don’t do it for the swag. I don’t do it to punish myself or because I derive pleasure from the pain. I do it for the experience of getting past the pain.

I remember training for the first race I ever ran, the 2011 Columbus Half Marathon. I remember that months before the race, the muscles in my legs hurt so bad, I thought I’d injured myself. I remember hobbling my way to the end of the 2012 Columbus Half Marathon while other runners tried to hurry me along because, “The finish line is right there!” I remember going out fast the first half of the 2014 Freedom’s Run Marathon and how badly my legs ached the last few miles of that race. I remember a man in his 70’s telling me I was too young to allow him to get by me, and I remember the sound of his approaching footsteps forcing me to push hard at the end. I remember falling and getting back up. I remember broken toes and black toe nails. I remember finishing a 20K with a twisted ankle; the feeling of the sun beating on my neck while the heat beat up at from the blacktop on 90° days with no wind and humidity through the roof where it feels the run will never end. I also remember the needling of frostnip hours after a run in sub-freezing temperatures with shoes too thin and socks too absorbent. I recall all those awful experiences and smile because I put up with all that pain, pushing through it and letting it go out my ears to find I am capable. I can accomplish feats I once considered impossible.

I wasn’t born this way. I wasn’t ever an athlete. A friend invited me to join him for a race one day, encouraged my training, and stood beside me in the starting corral. Josh knew I could do what I thought impossible, and I began believing him.

You too can do what you deem impossible. One woman opened the Cat Café in Columbus less than a year ago and has since seen 109 felines find new families. I have a friend who wrote his first novel this year, taking a little time each day to do it. My daughter can now ride her bike unaided, and Lu Chao of China recited 67,890 digits of pi. Is there something you want to do but feel intimidated by? Find someone already doing it and join them. Keep taking steps toward it. Start small. Do a little at a time. Avoiding it will only frustrate you, convincing you that you are less than you really are. All of us can achieve the impossible. “Life is pain.” Embrace it and take the next step.

Backache

Tangled fingers obscure the world

Pain transmutes the question of where do we begin

Into a gnashed plea crying when will it end

Focus funneled to the pinpricked point of light

A star mushrooming plasma down neurons swollen with the message

ThereispainYouarehurtDON’TMOVETHATWAY!

 

Fractured cerebral cortex, Overheated engine

Steams

Surrendered to the onslaught

Of glass-toothed mole rats

Burrowing deeper

Incisors clamp

Stopping the train at Lumbosacral Junction