Friday, February 6, 2015

Uwharrie: Suffering is Inevitable

My boss asked me if I was doing anything "fun" this weekend.
After I described the Uwharrie 40 mile Mountain run, he said, "well, that doesn't sound like much fun". I had to agree, which made me question why I have signed up for this 5 times.

Sure, maybe the first 10 or 15 miles are fun. And if I can finish, then sitting down at the end, eating soup and comparing bloody knees with friends is fun. But at mile 30, I cannot say it is fun.

At that point my body has been pulverized by 6 hours of constant jarring as I drag it over jagged rocks. Extreme fatigue makes just following the trail a struggle in itself. I stand motionless for minutes, surveying the uniform blanket of leaf covered rocks and barren grey trees that stretch out endlessly in every direction, searching for some trace of a trail. Is that a white blaze? Or just a blotch of lichen?

Then comes the next steps of my cold, wet feet. My calves cramping, knees and hips aching. My quads tenderized. Only 10 miles to go, but it will be hours, and feel like an eternity.

It's like the old saying:
Pain Is Inevitable; Suffering Is... well, suffering is inevitable too.
But Signing Up Is Optional.
Uwharrie 40 miler vs. Iron Mountain 50 miler.
Guess which one is harder?

Well, I Think It's Hard
I remember reading an internet comment by some ultra runner on the other side of the country, scoffing at the elevation profile of Uwharrie. But the heights of the Uwharrie "Mountains" are not relevant to the difficulty of the trail. I have done the Iron Mountain 50 miler in VA, which dwarfs the Uwharrie 40 in elevation, but I can attest that the Uwharrie 40 is much, much harder.

It's like comparing "jumping on a trampoline" to "being beat with a baseball bat". One activity has more elevation gain, but the other is much more painful.

Obviously there are more difficult races out there. I am sure there is a 5000 mile foot race that starts in Antarctica, goes under the ocean and ends in an active volcano... and there is a lottery to get in.
But Uwharrie is more than enough for testing and exceeding my modest limits.

Not even Josh could find fun in Uwharrie
Wrong Side of The Curve
Over the past 5 years, my experience at Uwharrie have been a perfect representative sample of the state of my running ability and well being. (The word "microcosm" seems appropriate, but I think the word has been ruined by TV pundits).

  • 2010 - 6:33 - finished running fast and feeling good. (flood shortened course)
  • 2011 - 7:05 - crashed at mile 38. Took weeks to recover.
  • 2012 - 7:33 - destroyed at mile 35. Took months to recover.
  • 2013 - DNS - volunteered. Too wrecked to even sign up.
  • 2014 - DNF - vanquished by mile 20.
  • 2015 - Really? Again?
The first time I ran it, I wondered: "Will I finish?"
Then I became overconfident, and the question was: "Can I run it under 7 hours?"
Now, with some lingering hip problems, I am back to wondering "Will I finish?"

It seems Uwharrie is a barometer for my physical fitness, tracking my slow decline into decrepitude.
OR maybe instead of reflecting my decline, it is causing my decline.
Our wise friend Jim has run Uwharrie something like 87 times, and is still fast as ever. But he ONLY runs the 20 miler. At us 40 milers, he just shakes his head with pity.He has seen us come and go.

So every year I suffer more, and still come back. Why?
The rest of the year, my struggle to survive consists of challenges such as:
  • How will I stream The Daily Show from my computer to the TV?
  • How am I going to sleep after eating 4 bowls of Raisin Bran Crunch at 11pm?
  • Is that 96 roll pack of toilet paper at Costco really a good deal?
So maybe I go back to Uwharrie because of the suffering. That moment at mile 30, when I am wrecked and defeated, standing alone in the vast desolate forest, only wanting a hot meal and to lay down: it is a rare, brief escape from my modern American existence, with different challenges:
  • If I bend down to find out what is in my shoe, can I get back up?
  • That is really swelling up. Should I seek medical attention?
  • Was I supposed to cross that stream?
  • Can I make it up this hill without bending my knee?
This is a Test...
Bull City Running does an amazing job putting on this race and taking care of the runners. Well stocked aid stations are never more than a couple miles away.

But in the dead of winter, the Uwharrie trail has a raw, unforgiving feel to it. For me, setting out to run 40 miles on it is a cold, hard appraisal of my physical and mental strength.
Will 2015 continue my descent into infirmity?

I have resolved to finally, really, try to run the Umstead 100 this year; a mere 7 weeks away.
In preparation, I slogged hundreds of slow miles in November and December. I guess I will find out if it did me any good, or if it just gave me a chronic case of hip bursitis. I rested most of the past two weeks and took lots of ibuprofen. Fingers crossed.

I'll see some of you out there tomorrow.
Here's to suffering!

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