Relentless Forward Progress

There is the stroll. The dog walk. The power walk. The jog. The 5K. 10K. Half. The marathon.

Then there is the Ultra. I married one.

Wait. Scratch that. When I met and eventually married Don, he was a laid back kind of guy who rolled into work at 10am and rolled out at about 4:30, eager for the best bar seat at happy hour. I distinctly remember calling a friend to say, “I met a great guy. But he has zero ambition. He just likes to kick back.”

Of course, much living was done in the years between designated barstool and state-of-the-art running shoes. A marriage, a house, a career, kids, a dog. But still.

An Ultra Runner is someone who runs more than a marathon, more than 26.2 miles. All at one time. They use this expression: Relentless Forward Progress. Because for an Ultra Runner, the trail never seems to end.

SMH, as my son would say. Shaking My Head.

Although you can run long distances on the roads, true Ultra Runners do it off road, on the trails. They do not run for speed. To finish an Ultra is to win. In fact, there are few monetary prizes for first place in races of this length. A 100 mile Ultra finisher receives a really ugly belt buckle. Anyone who runs a sub-100 Ultra might receive a t-shirt, but in most cases, they’ll need to buy it.

Christopher McDougall, author of Born to Run, describes an ancient tribe of Ultra Runners, the Tarahumara Indians. For centuries, the Tarahumara have existed in a lifestyle of running hundreds of miles, in pursuit of animals, in quest of water and shelter, but mostly for the pure joy of it. McDougall writes about pack running, and about how we, as a species, probably used this technique to chase down our food before we started using weapons.

By pulling together, old and young, men and women, ancient humans were able to run an animal to exhaustion, overpower it, and make it lunch. But more than simply for survival, McDougall suggests that ancients ran for fun, for the freedom.

Don’s Ultra Running pack uses this philosophy to inspire each other in their running pursuits. Not only do they run together, but they encourage each other on and off the trails. They call this “crewing,” essentially support in any way needed. They swap recipes and chiropractors. They trade books and articles. They have inside jokes that I’ll never understand. They snicker about mythical creatures encountered after too many miles. They supply each other with Guinness at the end of an especially hard training run. And they love to laugh about poop. Ick.

I think Don came to this sport gradually. I cannot remember. He must have run a few five mile races before jumping into the big distances. But honestly, did he? It seems likes forever. He wakes up, he runs. The weekend rolls around, he runs even more. Many times, he runs 20 miles before I have my second coffee.

SMH.

I will never run an Ultra. I leave that to my crazier, stronger, fitter, better half. I do, however, have my own ultra challenge. After 20 years, OK, more than 20 years, as a writer for hire, I am finally, finally taking a writing risk. Writing essays about my life, my loves, my childhood, my children, continues to be a scary, grueling, sometimes lonely journey. And cracking open a Guinness mid-story is not an option I’m willing to explore.

Recently, Don came home from crewing his good friend Gary’s quest to run a 100 mile race. A race that took him more than 21 hours of constant motion to complete. Crewing a race of this distance takes many people, many friends, many committed to the success of another. Not just Don, but Tara and Rick and Jen and Jeff. And Mary, Gary’s wife. Even Gary’s sons, Charlie and Will.

The crew supplies the food, when the runner needs it, at rest stops along the way. They provide the clean, dry socks when the trail gets muddy. They crack jokes, about unicorns and trail poop, when no one feels like laughing. And in Don’s case, crewing includes running the last 32 miles with Gary. Because his friend needs the support to cross that finish line. And because Gary, and any other member of the crew, would do the same thing for Don, without hesitation.

When he returns from this 100 mile achievement, Don is overcome with emotion and respect for his friend. Coincidentally, I have received yet another rejection letter. For yet another essay that I am certain should be published. “Should I quit?,” I ask him. “Am I no good?” He does not answer. He does not know.

Instead, he tells me about mile 79 of Gary’s 100. In the dark of night, on what they think is a mountain crest, they turn off their headlamps. They look at the vastness of the world around them. And they continue on.

I am on week 19 of my 52 week challenge of writing one essay per week. I am not halfway. I am tired and frustrated and should probably change my socks. I have faced failure. I have been discouraged. But I have a crew. They are you, my readers, my listeners. You feed me with your kindness and encourage me with your smiles, your tears. I thank you.

Relentless Forward Progress. Fingers crossed there will be a belt buckle at the finish.

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