There was a moment when I could’ve said “No.” Maybe last February when Chad first suggested we should run the Rockledge Rumble 50K in Grapevine, Texas, on November 13th.
I was a bit nervous about running 31 miles, since I’d never run past the 26-mile marathon distance, but I was also convinced I could go any distance given enough time. I’d also never run a trail race before. Chad proved to be a good friend who not only talked me into attempting this challenging race, he reminded me I had always wanted to run an ultramarathon, but even more, he agreed to wait for me at the finish line. That was not a small commitment on his part since he runs much faster than I do and he knew he might have to wait hours for me to finish.
What Chad did was tap into a long-standing dream I’ve had since I started reading Runner’s World Magazine and books by George Sheehan, back about 1980. I’ve always wanted to run long on dirt trails; there is something about having my feet on dirt that makes my heart happy. It seems ironic that God would put that love in my heart yet plant my life in West Texas where there are few opportunities for trail running.
The start of the Rockledge Rumble was very casual. The race director told us all to raise our right hands to take the Rumble oath: We swore to have fun; pick up our feet; do no littering: if the runner in front falls down, jump over him (no stepping on his back); if we fall down, know it’s our own fault and don’t whine. We stood in a group in the parking lot talking and joking, and then we took off. There was no toeing the line or sprinting away at the gun.
The aid stations were casual, too. There were no expectations that someone would grab water and keep going like in a road race. They were set up with expectations we would linger a while. They were stocked with a variety of snacks and drinks and smiling, serving faces.
However, there was nothing casual about the trail. It was narrow and confined the entire way. There was never room to run beside someone and it took deliberate squeezing to one side or the other to pass. And we could seldom see more than 100 feet ahead down the trail. It was great – just what I’d hoped it would be like.
However, I had absolutely no feel for my pace. I thought I was running my regular marathon pace but I was surprised to learn I was much slower. I’d left my GPS watch at home because I knew the charge would run out before I could finish, but I should have brought it to keep track of my distance and pace. Especially since there were no mile markers in the woods.
The course was basically a 30K out-and-back, then a 20K out-and-back. Curiously, I could tell when I was approaching the 30K turnaround because I smelled peanut butter in the air as returning runners passed by. Apparently they were serving PB&J sandwiches at the turnaround aid station, and they must’ve been good, since all the runners had peanut butter on their breath.
After the turnaround I was surprised to notice how many runners were behind me. I thought I was in last place. And then I ran for almost 1-1/2 hours without seeing one single person, runner or volunteer or tourist. It was just me and the woods. I was happy they’d gone to great lengths to mark the trail so I wouldn’t get lost.
There was an element of sensory deprivation (from watching nothing but the ground in front of me) but also sensory overload (from concentrating on every step and rock and root). It was surprisingly soothing to be so focused. In a road race I am usually disengaged from the actual surface I am running on.
I finished the first 30K out-and-back and was moving through the aid station and in the process of leaving for the next 20K when the race director quietly told me he didn’t think I would finish under the time limit. He gave me the choice to keep going but kindly reminded me that the race officials would have to pull me off the course at the next aid station, 6 miles away, if I didn’t get there in less than 30 minutes. I wanted to keep running, but he was correct. If I had been capable of running 6 miles in 30 minutes I would’ve finished the entire race long before. It was time to call it a day. I told myself I didn’t run out of running, I just ran out of time.
Later, after I was back home, it occurred to me that it took me as long to finish the 30K (18.6 miles) as it took me to finish a marathon (26.2 miles) a month ago. I guess it was the effect of running on the winding trail. If the race director had let me go out for another 20K, it would’ve taken me another 4 hours to finish, in the dark. He did the right thing, and I did the right thing. If I’d forced the day and pushed on to the full 50K I might’ve had a bad experience or injury that set me back for years. Instead, I am ready to try again as soon as possible.
Saturday afternoon as we drove away from the finish area in Chad’s pickup we were already tossing around ideas for our next attempt on the trails. And later at dinner when my daughter Katie asked, “What do you think about Cowtown?” I didn’t flinch. I had already started mentally counting the weeks.
My post-race damage assessment: no blisters (thanks to toe socks); no black toenails; no bloody knees since I never fell all the way down to the ground (in spite of multiple stumbles over the rocks and roots - and some spectacular saves); the only scratches I brought home were on the outside of my right leg, which I suppose I got when I moved over to let other runners pass. Sunday morning my quads and hips were tight and sore and quite cranky. And strangely, my ribs were sore (where did that come from). On Monday, it was my hamstrings that wouldn’t move; Tuesday it was my shins and hips. That was all fine with me. As long as the pains kept moving around I knew I didn’t have any permanent injuries.
Since February, when Chad’s suggestion to run the Rockledge Rumble found a home in my brain, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I would never be younger, and odds were I would never be much fitter, so what was I waiting for? Why was I waiting year after year to fulfill this dream? I suppose I was waiting for a good friend who’d drag me into it and wait for me to finish.
I find myself using the phrase “not yet” with my 8-year-old nephew Kevin a lot these days. Not in the way I would’ve thought I would use it, as in: “Uncle Berry, can I go outside?” (Not yet). Rather, I used it when he says, “I can’t whistle” (Not yet), or “I can’t ride my bike as fast as you do” (Not yet), or “Uncle Berry can you run as fast as Aunt Cyndi?” (Not yet). I use the phrase to hint there are better days ahead.
I’ll admit I was slow to adopt this philosophy of “not yet.” It’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned so far in my 50s: don’t wait for perfect conditions. I can’t always wait until I am ready before starting something new. I can’t wait until I am good enough or trained enough or equipped enough to get started. I have to start now and get ready along the way. It’s like something Bill Bryson wrote in A Walk in the Woods, when a friend asked him how he was training to through-hike the Appalachian Trail, said: You can’t train for something like that; you just have to let the trail itself do the training.
I don’t mean to be naïve or stupid. I would not encourage anyone to do something like run a 50K without preparation and training. But I will suggest they stop waiting for perfect alignment and start today. I remember my friend Norm who wanted to run a marathon but vowed to wait until he was fit enough to run a sub-4:00, then died of bone cancer before trying. Don’t let that happen. Start today, and train on-the-fly.
As I wrote in the beginning of this piece, there were many times in this process when I could’ve said “No.” When Chad first mentioned it last February, or when I registered for the race in October, or even when I worked up my 2010 goals last December (that included running an ultra). However, I’m happy I never said “No.”
I’ve learned a few things in 32 years of running, and one of them is this: just because I didn’t doesn’t mean I won’t. I have a lot of “not yets” still to come.
“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32
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