It's roughly 12:30 on a beautiful May Saturday in the Catskill Mountains. Theres a sole young male walking shirtless down a windy country road through a farm carrying a water bottle. His sunglasses and iPod are in his hand, he doesn't want any distractions. He wants to remember this moment. The grass is the most brilliant green imaginable, and there's a light breeze in the air spinning a creaking windmill off in the distance. In a postcard, it would look perfect.
However, if you watch him move, you'll notice he's limping. Every minute or so he takes a few strides, his face immediately contorts and he grabs at his left knee. If you look closer, you'll see salt residue around the edge of his face, sweat dripping down his chest. And if you look really close, you'll see a tear running down the side of his face. A woman wearing overalls, dirt-stained from a morning in the garden, emerges from within a patch of herbs and yells across the yard, "Great job, you're the second runner through here today."
The young man grunts, he's focusing on maximizing his power-walking stride. He looks up, there's an American flag blowing in the air on top of an old gatehouse, just barely visible in the distance. The finish line. The woman has now made her way toward the edge of the road and is fast walking next to the man.
The man looks at her and mutters, "I can't run. My knee gave out. How far to the gatehouse do you think?"
"Hon, there's just about a mile to the gatehouse. Is there anything I can get you?" the woman replies.
The man nods no, and quickens his walking pace. The woman stops and turns to walk back toward her garden. Moments pass. There's a stillness to the air. A car drives down a dirt road somewhere on the other side of the field, a cloud of dust marking its progress.
If you look close, there are tears now in both the man's eyes. He looks up at the American flag billowing just visible in the distance, a short mile away. He lifts his head toward the heavens and screams. His words puncturing the quaint farm landscape. "I am tougher than I think I am. I will finish, and I will finish with no regrets."
And again it's silent, the only noise the creaking of an old windmill and wind rustling through the leaves.
The woman shouts back, "Great run, number two."
I know about this interaction because I am the man. It's roughly 12:30 on a beautiful May Saturday in the Catskill Mountains. The sun is bright, barely a cloud is in the sky. I've been running for the past 6.5 hours. I've had sporadic conversations with my parents as they leapfrog me, aid station to aid station, and runners going the opposite direction and race directors have been yelling out to me, "Looking strong, Dylan, you're six minutes back... eight minutes back..." etc. But largely I have been alone, following white flour arrows and signs through the Catskill Mountains. I've run along cliff ledges, lakes, waterfalls, and woods.
This weekend I completed my first 50-mile race, Rock the Ridge. My goal from the start was just to finish, yet somehow along the way I found myself competing against not only myself, but also for a finisher's prize.
Maybe it was running too fast from the start, or not tapering for long enough, or a lack of nutrition, or maybe it was simply the distance, but I had run into a problem. As I rounded a ridge at nearly 1,200 feet, the finish line was visible way off in the distance, just about four miles away. Four miles all downhill. The path took a sudden downward plunge, what should have been the start to a gravity-aided trip to the finish. Instead, my left knee gave out. I stumbled, shooting pain much worse than the 45 miles' worth of pounding that my legs were already feeling ricocheted through my body.
The finish line was four miles in front of me, the nearest aid station was three miles behind me. To say that there even was a decision to be made would be a lie. I had set out to travel 50 miles on foot as fast as I was capable. I had learned this lesson at mile 25 when suddenly I was faced with a never-ending vertical climb and learned that power-hiking was simply more efficient than running. I had learned this lesson again around mile 37 when I was suddenly hit with a combination of fatigue, exhaustion, and dehydration that left me walking the inclines, and running the flats and downhills. I had already made the decision that no matter what, I would not stop and I would not quit. No matter what, I would keep moving forward.
I suppose I should say that I became an ultrarunner the moment I crossed the finish line, or the moment I first ran past 26.2 miles -- but that would be a lie. As ironic as it sounds, somewhere in those last four miles, as I walked as fast as I possibly could with my head held high, I became an ultrarunner. And so, with a battered and broken body walking down a dirt road in front of a farmhouse surrounded by the most vivid green fields I can ever imagine, and the brightest bluest sky overhead, I became an ultrarunner.
I wish that I could say that becoming an ultrarunner came with some poetic philosophical realization, and I'm sure there's a lesson to be found somewhere. But, I'm not going to dig for it. I'm just going to take a deep breath, and keep on putting one foot in front of the other.
And if you must know, I did cross the finish in 7:03:55. I took second place overall. All in all, a perfect day to become an ultrarunner.
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