January 17, 2005

Happy Birthday To My Favorite Kurt Vonnegut Character!

If you don't get the title, this post isn't for you.

From today's Washington Post:

50 Miles, 12 Hours and Desire
By Jonathan E. KaplanSpecial to The Washington Post Monday, January 17, 2005; Page C12

At 5 o'clock in the morning, more than 800 runners gathered in downtown Boonsboro, Md., in late November to start the John F. Kennedy 50-mile ultramarathon.

Started in 1962, the JFK 50-miler is the oldest ultramarathon in the nation. It starts with a nine-mile ascent to the Appalachian Trail and is followed by a six-mile descent over sharp rocks and slippery wet leaves.

The next 26 miles trace the gravelly flat C&O Canal along the Potomac River. If marathons start at Mile 20, a 50-miler begins at Mile 30. Even at this distance, my goals came down to minutes and seconds per mile.

I had run the first 16 miles in four hours. So much for finishing in 10 hours. It took me seven hours to run 30 miles. So much for breaking 11 hours. All that remained was to finish 50 miles in less than 12 hours.

Growing up and in college, I swam competitively. I was not very good, but the simplicity of the sport was appealing: choose a goal, train and race. For several years in my twenties, I ran marathons and triathlons. In 2000, I finished the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon. In 2001, two weeks after Sept. 11, I ran a 50-mile race in Vermont's mountains, but did not finish it.

Then, the training was a staple of my life. I loved my bikes and running shoes the way I loved playing with Legos as a kid. I loved being in the water, on a bike or running where nobody could bother you. Training and racing helped simplify my life by organizing it.

But I was not a professional and never would be. The time spent exercising started interfering with my career and maybe my marriage. Plus, after Sept. 11, endurance sports seemed trivial when so many had died and thousands of servicemen and women faced real, deadly adventure in Afghanistan and Iraq.

I sold my bikes and poured myself into my work. I tried to be a decent husband. I tried living the way I imagined emotionally well-adjusted people live, by exercising in moderation. I even tried other outlets for adventure, such as traveling to Iraq and Venezuela.

But the year had been tumultuous. My wife said she was unhappy being married because I had become self-absorbed. Reporting on Congress just wasn't as exhilarating as it had been at first. So I turned to my old emotional crutch and decided to run the JFK.

The standard response when you tell someone you're going to run 50 miles is always the same: "You're crazy!" or "Are you insane?" But for me and others, training is a way to sort out feelings.
At least subconsciously, race day -- Nov. 20 -- was significant because it is the anniversary of my sister's death in 1981. (The race memorializes President Kennedy, who was killed Nov. 22, 1963.)

If I was running from my past grief, I was not alone. I heard a woman tell someone she had "hooked up with a guy at my 10th-year high school reunion, got married, had kids, got divorced, and started running."

A male runner talked about his failed marriage. The winner was quoted in The Washington Post saying that he started running after his relationship with a longtime girlfriend ended. As I regained my endurance while preparing for the race, I stopped caring what other people might think. This felt good! I lost 20 pounds, ate and slept better, and was more disciplined. I felt saner even if what I was doing was crazy.

But around Mile 30, I had my doubts as physical pain turned emotional despite the presence of my cheering wife and two friends. I placed several cell phone calls to other friends, but spent the next 14 miles battling to regain my composure from feeling hungry, sore and despondent.
Finally, with eight miles to go, I turned onto the road leading to the finish line. I had 60 minutes to break the 12-hour mark. In real life, at work, or in a relationship, it's tough to push aside anguish or discomfort and home in on one goal. Out there, amid the rain, the grime and the fatigue, all I could do was to tap into that emotional pain lurking in me.

That combination of emotional and physical pain yields clarity. Tears welled up in my eyes. Yet I reeled off those miles faster than I had run all day. The fluorescent orange placards counted the miles. Six. Five. Four. Williamsport's water tower emerged in the distance. Three. Two. One. With 600 meters left, I was running as hard as I could. Eleven hours and 52 minutes later, I hugged my wife and cried from relief.


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