Essays on Mind, Meditation and Ultramarathons

One Hundred Miles in Head Land: Running the Headlands 100 Ultramarathon


The Marin Headlands, Northern California

I Somewhere in the Marin Headlands.  3AM, Sunday August 8th

The big toe on my left foot is bruised and sore. My stomach is aching. I feel nauseous to the verge of vomiting.  I am light-headed. When I bend to the ground, I almost lose my balance and fall as I stand up again. The night air is soundless but for my own groans. It is so dark under the dense fog cover that when we turn off our headlamps in an attempt to spot the lamps of other runners on the trail snaking down the hill behind us, it is hard to discern any difference in texture between the obscured hills and the obsidian sky. “You remember coming down a wide fire trail like this on one of the earlier loops?” my pacer asks, in an effort to regain our bearings. “It didn’t have this many turns,” I say. We keep jogging downhill. I see no course markings. I want to believe that this section of the course is badly marked, because the other interpretation of the evidence would be too hard to take. We keep running, pushing the pace a little, as if increased velocity has a higher chance of extricating us from the reality of our disorientation rather than getting us more lost, faster. I have been running for over 20 hours and 80 miles. The trail winds further downhill. I spot two eucalyptus trees standing either side of the trail. I have seen these trees before. There is no use trying to delude myself anymore that the Marincello trail somehow mysteriously got longer and windier and stripped of its course markings and other runners in the nighttime. “Is this the Bobcat trail?” I wonder out loud. Half a mile later we reach a sign that says: Bobcat Trail. We have run off course down a steep three mile hill. We know the route back to the course. And my level of exhaustion is not yet so intense that I feel physically unable to continue. But at this darkest hour of the night, after losing our way, I am starting to doubt the purpose of putting myself through such intense demands. Why am I enduring so much hardship to complete such an absurdly literal challenge as run 100 miles when there are so many other worthy and less self-centered endeavors I could otherwise be pursuing? I am too tired to know the answer, even to think about the question. The only answerable question that presents itself is whether to take the first step back up the Bobcat trail…

II Prologue

In The Dark Glow of the Mountains, Werner Herzog’s 1984 documentary about Reinhold Messner, the first climber to ascend all fourteen of the Earth’s peaks over eight thousand meters, Messner compares his relationship to the mountains with a painter’s connection to a canvas: climbing is a creative act, says Messner, in which the line of his ascent remains etched not only in his memory of the climb, but somehow even upon the mountain itself, even if — unlike the painter’s brush — his crampons and ice axe leave no visible trace on the rock and ice of the peak. Messner’s vision of his adventures as a melding of the outer, physical world with the inner, mental world has many parallels in other cultures (eg. the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, the Buddhist ritual circumambulation of Mount Kailash, medieval Christian journeys to the Holy Land.) The indigenous people of the Australian continent believe that their land is enmeshed by a network of energy currents, the Songlines, representing the paths across which the original creative spirits of the universe travelled as they sang the rocks, plants and animals of the world into existence, and that they are able to navigate vast areas of land through retracing the steps of these primordial trajectories while repeating the words of the correct songs in the appropriate sequence, thus connecting them from one location to the next and from the reality of the present fleeting conscious moment to the timeless domain of the “Dreamtime” in which the spirits created (and continue to create) the natural world.

Upon that natural world we have now overlaid the artifice of civilization. It has brought us antibiotics, comfortable shelters and plentiful food (well, for some of us). But if civilization’s objectives were solely to provide reliable satisfaction of basic material requirements – the lower tiers of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – there would be no Twitter, no KFC DoubleDown.  As humans we are different from Ayer’s Rock and kangaroos because we have consciousness. Once we have satisfied our needs for food and shelter, unlike kangaroos we face the existential question of what to do with this peerless capacity of awareness.  Distract ourselves from loneliness, the knowledge of time’s inexorable forward march and the certainty of death, or what? In lives of deadlines, dishes, laundry and bills, how do we step outside the immediate stresses of daily life to confront the bigger questions?  There are meditation retreats. There is art.  And throughout history there have been pilgrimages — vehicles through which we return to a simpler mode of existence (moving forward, eating, drinking) – and allowing the microcosm of the journey to become a lens through the meaning of our life’s macrocosm can reveal itself. An ultramarathon is perhaps a secular version of this ancient form, connecting our bodies to the land; the present reality of the race to the journeys of ancestors stretching back to the earliest origins of the human race, meshing the outer physical challenge of miles and hills with the inner contemplation of past, present and future; of how I got here, where I’m going, and what really matters.

A hundred miles is so far that it feels like several distinct experiences consecutively aligned, rather than a single contiguous event –  a phenomenon, indeed, not unlike a lifetime, comprised of several interlocking although developmentally singular phases, as Jaques famously describes human life’s arc in Shakespeare’s As You Like It[1]. Erik Erikson built upon the well-established psychological idea of development as a progression of stages by proposing that it continues throughout the lifespan (rather than concluding at the end of physical maturation in adulthood) with a unique theme and growth objective for each stage. And so, loosely adapting Erikson’s model of psychosocial development, the “lifetime” of my hundred mile ultramarathon could be said to have unfolded in the following six phases[2]

III A Life in a Hundred Miles

(i) Infancy (Miles 0-3)

There were several moments in the two weeks prior to the race when I wondered if I was really ready for such an extreme mental and physical challenge; and also whether the race was even going to happen.  Fatherhood to a four year-old daughter and a two month-old son was wonderful but tiring. I had produced dark brown urine after three training runs, leading me to wonder if my muscles had started to break down from months of progressively demanding exertion in a dangerous condition known as rhabdomyolysis. When my doctor’s blood work and urinalysis fortunately revealed normal liver and kidney function, I earned a medical green light to proceed with the race. But what race?  Even eight days before the scheduled start, the organizers hadn’t posted the course map or list of entrants. The internet rumor mill spun anxious speculation of insuperable logistical snafus; I feared cancellation. I woke every morning exhausted and aching. After finally allowing myself to rest in the last week’s pre-race taper, was I healing, or breaking down? Erikson defines the question of the infant’s developmental task as “trust versus mistrust” (will Mom and Dad feed me and love me, or will I be abandoned and die?) As sixty runners assemble at the Headlands Hundred start line in the gray foggy dawn on Rodeo Beach on Saturday August 7th, a parallel question of trust starts to characterize my thinking. After months of preparation, my pre-race self now gives birth to an infant hundred-miler, forced to trust in my “parent” that I have done everything necessary to survive the long trail ahead…

I take in the scene. The race field (so small it feels more like a running club’s weekly group outing than an organized race) is roughly 75 percent male and 15 percent female. Most runners appear to be in their thirties and forties, although the group’s demographic span extends to one lady only a year shy of seventy. One younger, fast-looking male runner is shirtless despite the low-50 degree overcast, windy weather. There is a man who has packed extendable trekking poles, which he intends to use on this course in training for the Tor Des Geants, a 200 mile race in the Italian Alps in September. Sarah, one of two race directors, calls us to the start line.  I hear a countdown from five to one. At the stroke of 7AM we set off jogging and then hiking the first 800 foot climb of the 20,000 feet of vertical ascent that awaits us.

(ii) Childhood (Miles 3-10)

The shirtless leader is long gone, presumably miles ahead. I have set a very conservative early pace, hiking all the uphills to conserve energy for the inevitable rigors of the race’s later stages. I am running and chatting with Matt Schmidt, a fellow first time hundred miler and also a father of two, with whom I have shared several training runs, including a 30 mile outing in the Headlands six weeks ago. I am acutely aware of my energy level and degree of exertion. I do not feel as fresh and peppy as I would like to be. Matt and I have not planned to run together necessarily, but it seems to be working out that way – though, even at this fledgling phase, he seems more inclined than I do to immediately pick up the pace from hiking back to running at the crest of the ascents. Our conversation darts in free associative tangents across past races, future races, training, speculation about what we will experience in the latter half of the race as we enter the terra incognita beyond the furthest distance we have ever run (50 miles in my case; 62 miles in Matt’s), and thence from running topics (quickly exhausted: there really isn’t that much to say) to current affairs — the global financial crisis, the impact of that crisis on our relationship to debt — eventually leading me via further associative hops to reminisce about Edward Marks, my wife’s late stepfather, a humanitarian who lived through the Great Depression, an experience of chronic material deprivation so startling it inspired a lifelong habit of frugality stringent to the extent that his refrigerator shelf once stocked a half-eaten sandwich saved from an airline meal weeks earlier. Erikson defines the question of the child’s developmental task as “industry versus inferiority,” meaning that the child starts to measure his self-worth against the expectations of parents and other significant adults (am I successful or worthless?)  Ed is sadly not here to offer his kind gentlemanly blessing, but my own parents have given encouraging words via email before the race, in an echo of their cheers at the finish line when I won the 80 yard dash as a ten year-old at primary school in England, the only race I have ever won, a race in which through the Dreamtime pilgrimage of the ultramarathon the line of the Coastal trail down to Muir Beach intersects with my childhood former self’s sprint to the 80 yard finish line.

(iii) Adolescence (Miles 10-20)

Knee: This hurts.

Ego: No it doesn’t – not really. Just ignore it. The pain will go away.

Knee: Ow. Yes, it really hurts.

Ego: But this is mile fifteen. You can’t possibly hurt this early. Or at least if you do – please tell me this is nothing serious, okay?  Because this is MILE FIFTEEN.

These two opposing voices form my inner dialogue as I chase Matt along the SCA and Coastal trails through a series of sharp switchbacks down to the Golden Gate Bridge, only fifteen percent of the race behind me: the statistically equivalent experience in a regular 26.2 mile marathon would be to start feeling leg pain before I got to the mile four marker. Erikson defined the question of adolescence as the tension between “identity versus role confusion.” It is unsettling to accept – perhaps I cannot yet accept – that I am feeling little shocks of pain on the right side of my right kneecap so early in a race. Stopping to stretch out my quadriceps muscle relieves the pain for a while. The pain only flares on the downhills. But there is 20,000 feet of downhill in this race! And with each descent, the knee pain resurges a little more powerfully. Surely the twinge can only deteriorate over the next 85 miles into intolerable agony I will be powerless to transcend? At first I am reluctant even to mention my concern to Matt: naming the problem means accepting it is real. When I do mention it he graciously stops to let me stretch. I take some acetaminophen to mask the pain (ibuprofen might reduce any inflammation more effectively, but I am wary of taking that drug because it has been known to increase the risk of rhabdomyolysis in ultras.) I keep moving, and keep stopping to stretch my quads on the descents: I have no choice but to keep moving, and adapt to changing circumstances. On the spectrum of “identity crises”, this shift from the carefree early miles of my race’s “childhood” phase to the surprise-onset self-doubt of knee pain at mile 15 is trivial in comparison with the family disruption and depression that characterized my actual adolescence. Back then, running was the (re)discovery which game me a physical and emotional escape route from the pain of a troubled home: a new identity, purely of my own design, that marked health, strength, freedom, and a sense of communion with nature. Right now, knee pain is hardly a crisis, but in order to conserve my knees for the long trail ahead, I try to let go of any identification with the idea of a pace I thought should have easily been sustainable this early in the race. I tell Matt he should go ahead without me if he wants to.

(iv) Young Adulthood (Miles 20-50)

I continue running with Matt through the end of the first of the course’s four 25 mile loops. I am immensely grateful for the cool weather – the dense cloud cover has not lifted, and even as we run through the middle of the day the temperature does not feel like it exceeds the mid-60s Farenheit, with perhaps a mild increase in humidity. At the start/finish of the loop, I had expected to see Vivian, but she is stuck in traffic. My friend Shelby is there, though, smiling and cheering. I grab a few snacks from the aid station and we head out on the second loop, traveling counter-clockwise this time (the loop’s direction reverses each time). Half a mile down the road I find Vivian, Esther and baby Moss standing by our car at the side of the road. I give them sweaty kisses. Esther gives me a card she has made. It says, “I Love You.” I fold up the card and put it in the back pocket of my shorts, thinking it might help speed me on my way. Midway through this second loop Matt and I finally agree to go our separate ways as I struggle down a steep section of the Coastal trail towards Muir Beach. A lady in the Muir Beach parking lot asks me, “Are you guys running all the way up that hill?”  She points towards the Coastal trail.  I state my goal.  She is either impressed or bemused – I can’t tell.

At the Muir Beach aid station I drink some coke and pull out my iPod for the first time in the race. After five hours of running without music, the combined jolt of the coke’s sugar and caffeine with the pounding trance music in my iPod earbuds inspires a sudden rush of energy that propels me in an almost effortless power hike back up the Coastal trail,  and then running at what feels close to 7:30/mile pace or faster down past the dramatic cliffs of Pirate’s Cove, via Tennessee Valley, where I am thrilled to find Vivian and Moss waiting for me (Esther is napping in the car). “I can’t believe how much fun this is!” Vivian says. My friend and fellow PacWest runner Diane Perun is also there to meet me at the Tennessee Valley aid station. I am amazed how much of a mental boost I get from the support of family and friends – I feel as if they are with me along the way. Erikson defined the developmental task of young adulthood as the tension between intimacy and isolation – the challenge of establishing a long-term relationship, without which we face life alone – but in this race, although I am now running solo with Matt running strongly ahead of me, the support of my family and friends feels very intimate; I am enveloped in their warmth and encouragement even when running alone these past few miles. As I head onwards in a swift hike/run rhythm through to the end of the second loop, my knee pain completely disappears. Erikson defines “young adulthood” ending at the age of 34, but as I bound into the aid station at mile 50 (in 9:50) I am still very much feeling still within the race’s “youthful” phase. Eric Pacenta, my pacer for the third loop (miles 50-75), says he is surprised to see me reach mile 50 so quickly, which only bolsters my renewed sense of confidence.

(v) Middle Adulthood (Miles 50-75)

Eric encourages me to change my shoes and socks as we pass through Tennessee Valley again early in the third loop. I feel like I have new feet. He also encourages me to eat a slice of pizza. It tastes ridiculously good. Soon the day is ending. Hikers and mountain bikers become sparser until we run alone on the trail. As the light fades, we run past a young woman volunteer from the race organization marking trail intersections with glow sticks. By 9PM the daylight is gone and the fog begun to thicken. We turn on our headlamps. The pink and green florescence of the glow sticks marking the intersections in the foggy dark is reminiscent of a similar scene I have encountered many times in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert in the dust storm-enveloped nights of the Burning Man festival. That mental association with an alternate reality, combined with the carbohydrate boost from a steadily metabolized pizza slice, inspires a mood of euphoria, almost to the extent of heedless disregard for the necessity of still restricting myself to a sustainable pace, a mere 65 miles into the race. Sudden intense wind gusts on the Coastal trail overlooking the fog-shrouded Golden Gate Bridge intensify an aura of enchantment; I find myself tap dancing down rocky gullies illuminated by my headlamp, accelerating over some flat and downhill sections to what feels like sub-7:00/mile pace, just because it feels good.  Erikson defined the developmental task of middle age as the struggle between “generativity” versus “stagnation” – that is, the question of whether we are capable of producing anything of genuine value to society in our most potentially productive years; as I surge downhill to an aid station beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, a line of lights on the Embarcadero across the Bay refracting through their shroud of fog like the battlements of a distant fairy citadel,  I could not feel more marvelously energized. I grab some food and head back the way we came. “Do you think we might catch up with Matt?” I ask Eric. “You will catch up with Matt,” says Eric. “But don’t think about it. Just keep going.” It is wise counsel – Matt will manage to sustain his sprightly pace all the way to the finish line, securing third place, in 21:18. Around mile 70, my wave of energy crests and breaks, and then I start feeling tired and nauseous.

(vi) Old Age (Miles 75-100)

“Nausea is masked hunger,” Eric says. “Try eating a gel.” The prospect of eating turns my stomach, but I decide to trust my pacer. Eric has paced a friend over the last 35 miles of the Western States, a storied 100 mile race in the Sierra, in addition to completing several 50 mile ultramarathons himself. I force down a packet of carbohydrate gel; within minutes, my fatigue and nausea have subsided.  We reach the end of loop three and meet Rajeev Patel, my pacer for the last 25 miles of the race. I say goodbye to Eric and hike down the road with Rajeev.  In my now deteriorating state, Rajeev’s big-hearted and voluble temperament feels like a human energy gel. I find myself pitifully incapable of reciprocating the generosity of his laughter and story-telling. Rajeev recounts a detailed narrative of his introduction to running in the 1980s; his early experience of ultramarathons; of managing to prevail for 38 hours through driving sleet in the mountainous Coyote Two Moon 100 mile race in Ojai, California; of dropping out of a 250 mile race England at mile 183 after experiencing a distressing perceptual distortion in which the earth appeared to be shaking and tilting beneath him; of the persistent anatomical sleuth work he conducted in order to diagnose and treat his injured Achilles tendon and related spinal nerve problem, thereby leading him to acquire an ever-widening repertoire of diagnostic tools to support the many recreational runners with whom he now works as a coach; of his plan next year to run the inaugural South Downs Way 100 mile race in England, which finishes in Winchester, where coincidentally I grew up; of the Urdu poet Ghalib, and of his own poetry, much of it penned on an ultramarathon theme. I respond to this conversational generosity with intermittent grunts and an occasional “uh, huh” or “oh”, the uncontrollable rudeness of my exhaustion-borne paucity of response leading me at times to feel not unlike an irascible aging parent submitting reluctantly to the care of his long-suffering adult progeny.

In the absence of moonlight or stars, under the dense fog, the terrain is barely visible even under both our headlamps. We miss a turning from the road connecting the start/finish at Rodeo Beach to the trailhead, and find ourselves backtracking in search of glow sticks marking the way. My nausea returns. “Do you like milk, Jason?” says Rajeev. “I hate milk,” I reply, almost amplifying my distaste, now really falling into the role of Care Recipient Expressing Unresolved Anger at Rapidly Diminishing Physical Capability through Hostility to Selfless Carer. “What about chocolate milk?” says Rajeev. “I guess I’ll give it a try.” The chocolate milk slips down easily and my nausea dissipates. On a climb around ten miles into this final loop, my right ankle starts aching intensely. Rajeev requests the exact location of the ache, correctly diagnoses the cause as a swollen foot, and prescribes a loosening of my shoe laces — a remedy that works in seconds. After seventeen hours of running, at a point when my body and mind are experiencing unprecedented stresses, I am now willing to surrender my decision-making capacity to a guide who has successfully navigated these psychological and physiological challenges many times before.

Soon we are heading down the Marincello trail – or what turns out to be the Bobcat trail – and now the challenge of the race truly becomes as much mental as physical. After losing, and then regaining, our way back on the course, I start facing in microcosm the equivalent of the developmental task Erikson defined as the central objective of old age: the challenge of retaining a sense of psychic integrity against the threat of despair. I do not doubt the possibility of finishing, but question the purpose of the event itself, even of running ever again. After an hour of this soul-searching trudge we reach the Tennessee Valley aid station, drink more chocolate milk, and then hike through what proves to be the absolute emotional nadir of the entire venture for me, between miles 88-92, between three and five in the morning. In my exhausted and sleep-deprived state, I trip and fall on a tiny undulation on pebble-strewn trail downhill towards Muir Beach. “Pinch yourself in the face three times, and shout!” Rajeev instructs. Once again the advice is effective. Rajeev then tells me that at this pace, I will not be likely to finish the race in less than 24 hours (an early goal). “Your body has done all this work for you, and now it is saying, ‘this is what we can do now’, and you must accept that,” says Rajeev.  The remark’s wisdom is undeniable: the reality of the work now at hand – simply moving forward, step by step – is so self-evidently unsusceptible to ego-driven designs on a faster pace, so nakedly worthy of gratitude purely for itself (I can still walk!) that acceptance of my depleted capacities involves no ambivalence or second-guessing: I am doing what I can now and it is enough.

“Jason, do me a favor,” says Rajeev. “Shuffle your feet like this.” He jostles forward. I gently shuffle my feet and soon we are jogging again, down past Pirate’s Cove, hiking up the steps. He breaks into a beautiful old Hindi song. After a final climb up Wolf Ridge, we reach a stretch of asphalt. Rajeev shows me a way of running in a snake-like series of curves that makes it possible to exert the sides of my thighs rather than my now-spent quadriceps muscles. We begin the final jog that will take up the last couple of miles to the finish line. “I couldn’t have done this without you,” I tell Rajeev. “Thank you – but this is your achievement. You had the courage, you overcame the obstacles. It was you. I helped you, Eric helped you, Vivian helped you, and you should thank everyone when you finish, but then you should celebrate yourself.” As the finish line looms into view, deserted but for the race director and a handful of volunteers, I spot Vivian, Esther and Moss in the parking lot. I tell Rajeev I have seen them. “Don’t hold back on your emotions,” says Rajeev. I am already crying.

Joyous and relieved at the finish line with Vivian, Esther and Moss (center, under towel)

IV Dreamtime

I left a line of several thousand footprints on the trails of the Marin Headlands during the 25 hours and 35 minutes of my first 100 mile ultramarathon on August 7-8.  At the same time, the experience itself imprinted a line in my heart and mind that binds me to those hills and to the people that supported me along the way: Vivian, Esther, Moss, Eric, Rajeev, Diane, Matt, Caren, Matt’s parents, Shelby, the race directors and volunteers and all my fellow runners, and all those friends and family members who have been so supportive and encouraging in the six months I have prepared for this adventure. I was never alone, even during the few miles when I ran solo; we did it together. The footprints and even the memories of this specific run will fade, just as the Headlands themselves will gradually erode, but the hidden trails through which we remain interconnected as people with each other and with the natural world await our perpetual rediscovery. Thank you for that connection.

[1] All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lin’d,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well sav’d, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion;
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

[2] The idea of framing a 100 mile ultramarathon as a microcosm of a lifetime is not original to me: I discovered a reference to this idea in a quotation from an elite female ultramarathoner. I have been unable to trace the reference; I seem to remember the author was either Anne Trason or Pam Reed. I will revise any future versions of this article with the correct source citation, should I manage to discover it.


August 27, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized

1 Comment »

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