"The goal is to become the unique, awesome, never to be repeated human being that we were called to be." -Patricia Deegan

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Emu 18 (not 48) Hour: When the Mystery is Complete

I cried. But I didn't cry right away.

At 4.50am Saturday, nearly 19 hours after starting the Emu 48 hour race, I stood in front of one of my crew persons. He handed me my usual bottle of Hammer Perpetuem. Instead of moving back into the darkness for another lap, I looked him in the eye and quietly said, "I think I'm done."

48 hour race start - a small, strong, and encouraging tribe to be amongst.

Only about 30 minutes before, I'd talked to my partner via Skype. I had wanted another opinion - someone outside of myself or crew, to provide another view of things for me. And I wanted some "Dr Google" advice.

From the moment the race started, I'd been a peeing machine. By every second lap (roughly 12 minutes), I'd have the urge to go. Sometimes I'd hold on as long as 5 laps, before I felt like a 3 year old about to wee their pants. We reduced my fluid intake from 500ml/hr to 400ml/hr or less. We stopped electrolytes (I wasn't taking much anyway), in case my body was trying to pee out excess it didn't need. There was nothing else I could think to do.

As I ran along in the dark, I started to reflect on the fact that the problem had actually started a few weeks prior. But I'd kept making excuses to explain it. Needing to pee 3 times during a 1 hour taper run, I'd try telling myself, "Oh, I must have had too much coffee - and it's cold out." I was sure that if I'd been out running longer, my body would have stabilised. But I also recalled how every time I walked up to town for groceries or another errand, I'd be looking for a public toilet within an hour. Urgently.

So I Skyped my partner back in Perth and explained what was happening in the race and over the past two weeks.

Early hours - the hand-off of fuel at the crew table

The problem was menopause. My pelvic floor muscles have changed due to decreased oestrogen. I had no idea this was a thing.

For the next 20 minutes, I went around the park and contemplated. In an ultra, we can expect that things will change. Get better, get worse, get better, get worse. Change. But this was not going to change. I could no longer hold my pace, as the stops took 45-60 seconds. Once the body gets a little fatigued (say after 14 hours of running), it's necessary to change from running to standing still in a gradual manner. Stop too quickly and one can get dizzy. Similarly, to get moving again after a stop requires a gradual speeding up, as the muscles loosen again. And mentally, the feeling of urgency was killing me. Ten minutes after going to the loo, I'd have the feeling back and then have to start "holding." You know the feeling. Like really holding. Like you've waited way too long. It's that feeling. I was often eyeing off the darker spots on the course, wondering if I might have to make an "emergency" stop. Everyone noticed my fondness for the toilet block.

I now knew that I could continue and nothing sinister would happen to me. I wasn't sick or injured. I had over 150km done. I had just started falling short of my plan. I calculated that even at a walk I could break at least one of the national 48 hour records I was aiming for. I had 29 hours to do less than 130km. If nothing terrible happened, I'd almost surely at least get over 300km by race end.

When you reach milestones like this, they punish you by making you carry a big stick for a lap ;)

But that number wouldn't reflect anything near what I would be capable of otherwise. Sure, these were the cards I was dealt with on the day. Some argue that an ultra runner should persevere no matter what. But I don't need to do that. I know I could. I'm heaps strong :-) For me, the magic is not in just grabbing at a record, but in finding the true potential of my endurance. Exploring. Whether it's running 6 hours, running the 1000 km Bibbulmun Track, walking across the sub-Arctic in the winter pulling a pulk, or running 48 hours.

I was not interested to know how much I could run in 48 hours with a menopausal peeing urgency. In fact, I'd kind of done the math and pretty much knew. There was no magic mystery left. I had my pot of gold for this adventure.

Before the race, I had the image of a mandala come to me. I felt that my race preparation had been like the creation of a mandala. Like it was a thoughtful, detailed, beautiful, attentive effort. A mysterious beauty unfolding. To continue running felt somehow disingenuous to my body and to the spirit of my 48 hour run. Grace could only be found in honouring what was present. Humbly bowing down before it and accepting that the mandala was complete. It was time to dissolve the mandala.

Tibetan Buddhist monks dismantle a sand mandala once complete and pour the sand into a river.

At 5am, my crew person and I went into our trackside cabin. I laid on the kitchen bench in my race gear, shoes on. I wanted to give myself time to change my mind. I didn't. A few times, the longing to be back out there would fill me. I would feel it viscerally in my gut. The craving. I love running. I love the mystery. But neither of those were really on offer. Stop-start running isn't running. I was craving an experience that wasn't on offer. I wanted to make something more out of something that was already complete.

On Sunday at 10am, the race ended for the others. As I walked along the now-still course towards my car, pulling my suitcase, the tears came suddenly and surprisingly. I was mourning, but I couldn't name it exactly. I just let it come. I didn't try to think about it, as I hadn't really slept yet. I was in no mind for deep reflective thinking.

On Monday, I climbed Triglav mountain, the highest peak in Slovenia on a perfect blue sky day. She's a beautiful peak, surrounded by so many others. I could see easily well over 120km from the top. It was a rather ambitious outing after running 153km two days prior. I still hadn't slept much. Occasionally, I felt a sadness/grief/disappointment arise, but didn't dwell on it. I just noted it and moved on.

30km + 2000m two days after a 153k run? Sure! Let's go up there! (Silly girl)

On Wednesday night, back in Switzerland, I finally felt ready to analyse my race and take away all the lessons I could. Other than learning about oestrogen-related pelvic floor muscle issues (which can be either too weak or too tight, for starters), I learned more about the amount of fuel I need when I run so slowly and the impact my body feels on asphalt in my favourite minimal shoes. I was also reminded that I should always, always read my race-debrief notes from previous races for tips going into another race.

I also learned why I cried. I cried for the loss of the mystery. And for the realisation that the mandala was complete and I had thought I could build upon the perfection of grace.