In the past month, I've put myself through some difficult longish runs of 1.5-3 hours. In an 11 day stretch, I put in 6 runs of at least 2 hours including one nighttime 20 miler. Keep in mind I was running 0 miles for a 6 week stretch in October & November due to injury. All of these longer runs have been on trails and most have been in really challenging conditions (i.e. cold, snow & mountains). I've been lucky enough to get in 2 four day trips to the mountains in the past month, taking advantage of a 4 day weekend that ended yesterday.
I stayed with my parents in Beech Mountain around New Year's & one day was much colder & windier than the rest. My dad, a runner himself asked, "Why did you do your longest run of the week today when it's so bad out & why did you only run 45 minutes the other day when it was kinda nice out?" I was shocked he would ask such a thing. "Dad. It's BECAUSE it was miserable out that I did my longest run today. I planned it that way." He didn't understand as I explained how much I love days like that for several reasons: 1) The intrinsic value of knowing, "Yeah, I could've curled up on the couch by the fire, drank hot chocolate and watched college football all day, but I didn't. I had the will power to go out and suffer to achieve my goals & maybe in the process learn something about myself..." That's immense; 2) The confidence gained from knowing I got through such a hard run makes more pleasant conditions seem like a piece of cake; 3) There's something thrilling about not being certain I'll make it back alive. Call it masochistic, reckless, self-loathing, or whatever, but I really get something out of not knowing exactly where I am, not knowing if I have enough clothing on, not knowing if a wild animal will attack me, not knowing if I have enough food & water... Makes completing the run all that more of an accomplishment. It's not like I set myself up for failure by purposely going without water or anything, but the danger involved motivates me.
My dad responded, "You're a weird dude." My mom worries about her 39.5 year old baby. Neither will understand, but then again, I don't think many people would. It kind of goes against our basic desire for comfort. Oh well.
I'm not one to get all "quote-y" and dazzle people with my "book learnin'," but I stumbled across a book by a psychologist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl. Two quotes stuck out to me & I'm pretty sure he never ran for pleasure a day in his life but I think they have everything to do with running... and I'm paraphrasing here:
1) When we find meaning in suffering, it ceases to be suffering.
2) All that shines must endure burning.
I used these with the team I coach. Not sure it spoke to them, but that sums up running to me pretty much. For me, the meaning & lessons learned are not in the PR times run. Race day is almost insignificant to me. It's the process that matters to me. I can have good races & bad races. That's one day when, because I've paid my entry fee, I'm sort of forced to race at 8 AM on a particular day. Doesn't take into account how much I slept the night before, how my stomach feels that day, if I'm injured, how much training I've put into it... To define my running or myself on even a higher level, based on race performance is silly to me. To me, it's about what I did to get there. It's about the long, lonely days in the woods. It's about sacrifice, determination and hard work. When kids tell me, "I don't understand why I didn't do better in the race. I really tried," I kinda chuckle. Of course we try hard in the race. It's not about effort in the race. It's about effort leading up to it & the same goes for my personal running.
SOooo, yeah, I had a wonderful 4 day weekend this past week. It snowed maybe 4" in Boone and more at higher elevations. I ran twice for 2 hours each time at Moses Cone. Up to Rich Mountain was quite snowy. Down to Bass Lake was spotty. The 3rd day, I ran on the closed Blue Ridge Parkway to the Tanawha Trail. Conditions varied from dry road to extremely icy road & from 6" of snow on the trails to sections that were just a little muddy that I could move a little faster on.
The 4th day, I knew would be the most brutal conditions. When I got to Roan Mountain, it was 6 degrees with 40 mph winds. -22 wind chill. This is the coldest I've ever run in. Mt. Mitchell Challenge a couple of years ago was a close second and honestly felt more severe. Maybe it was because yesterday was sunny and clear but very, very harsh. The Roan Balds are one of my favorite places on Earth & I've been there in some really bad weather. The snow wasn't nearly as deep as I expected & I was able to run as much as I wanted. I ran up Round Bald, Jane Bald, Grassy Ridge Bald & then turned around and ran up the park entrance road once I got back to the car. 36 hours later, my face is still a little numb. Nothing else was particularly cold. Overall, I was colder the day before, finishing up at 30 degrees and windy but wearing shorts. I was bundled yesterday.
A couple of nights ago I talked to a young friend of mine. We talked about, you know, life stuff and I mentioned the running I'd done. She's wise beyond her years and though she doesn't run (or at least not much), she said some things that made me think... Why am I doing this? Why do I seek out the "worst" conditions possible? Is running 2+ hours a day for 4 days straight really the best thing for my body? Does the running define me or do I define it? Am I running towards something or away from something? Hmm...
Every 6 months or so, I put in a big chunk of mileage (for me at least, I know some people who put in much more than I do even during these weeks), run through incredible beauty and have a lot of time alone with my thoughts. Before this week, the last time was driving and running through Oregon by myself last summer. Often I figure stuff out. Sometimes I'm left with more questions. But I thought about what she said. Yeah, running helps me balance things out in my life, helps me gain perspective, gives me time to think, gives me a sense of accomplishment & reduces stress. But why am I doing it to the extremes that I do (again, not as extreme as some and I'm not bragging here)? At times, I have felt out of control. Most of 2011 was one of those times. In December of 2011, I was doing a track workout after several days of going hard and I was going absolutely as hard as I could, picking myself up off the ground after every interval. Why? To get better? That's what I said, but you don't run for decades and read shelves of books and still think training works that way. I'm no Gerry Lindgren (though I admire the training he put in). I think I have a healthy focus now and to be honest, just being healthy enough to run again makes me want to do all I can. I'm still too scared of "failure" to attempt anything faster than a tempo run and I suppose it's because I don't want to know how slow I'm running that I haven't run on roads or flat greenways lately, but it'll come... or not. At the moment, I'm more than satisfied. In 2008-09 when training for Rocky Raccoon 100 Miler, I overtrained and did so because I thought I had to. It was a bit of a chore. I think there was a 5 week period where I ran solo training runs of 30, 40 & 60 miles & ran a 50K race. I'm running long now because I want to. Big difference. It's fun.
Maybe my dad was right. Maybe there's something a little weird about someone who runs for hours in the snow with a huge smile on his face.