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November 28, 2005


Several years ago I picked up an obscure book called Bone Games from Daedalus Books. The copy I have is subtitled "One Man's Search for the Ultimate Athletic High", although it now has been reissued with the subtitle "Extreme Sports, Shamanism, Zen, and the Search for Transcendence." The book is about a quest that the author, Rob Schultheis, went on to recapture a magical feeling he experienced after falling off Neva, a mountain in the Colorado Rockies, and having to descend, injured, on his own:

Something happened on that descent, something I have tried to figure out ever since, so inexplicable and powerful it was. I found myself very simply doing impossible things: dozens, scores of them, as I down-climbed Neva's lethal slopes. Shattered, in shock, I climbed with the impeccable sureness of a snow leopard, a mountain goat. I crossed disintegrating chutes of rock holdes vanishing from under my hands and feet as I moved, a dance in which a single missed beat would have been fatal. I used bits of rime clinging to granite as fingerholds. They rattled away into space but I Was already gone, away....it was like certain dreams I have had in which my body is light as a feather, lighter, and I leap off one foot, effortlessly, and drift ten, twenty, thirty feet into the air.".

When I go on long runs, after a while (it usually takes about 90 minutes) I can achieve a pale shadow of something like the sensation that Schultheis describes. There was an article in "Runner's World" a few months ago that captured some of the same feeling: it's about the Tarahumara Indians from the Copper Canyon region of north-western Mexico. The Tarahumara, somewhat inexplicably given their lifestyle, excel at long distance running -- really long distances, like 100-mile ultra-marathons. The article is about Caballo Blanco, fka Micah True, an American who went to live among the Tarahumara to learn their secrets. The sense you get from this article is of not so much running above the ground as flowing over it -- of being able, essentially, to run forever.

Inspired by the article, I thought about training for this year's Seattle Marathon. The final nudge was an article in the Seattle Times, three months ago, about how anyone could run a marathon. I pulled out a calendar and decided that having run a half-marathon in July, I could just about build up a series of longer runs that would almost constitute a legitimate training plan for a marathon. And failing that, being a guy and all, I could just show up and gut it out.

So I embarked on a series of long runs, and I really started looking forward to them. I didn't quite get the sense that I could run forever, but I did feel, at the end of each one, that I could have kept going. Unfortunately I got sick for a couple of weeks which scotched my longest run (planned for 3 hours and 15 minutes), so the longest I did was 2:45. Four hours is a pretty good goal for a marathon but I thought that would be too aggressive, so I penciled in a rough goal of 4:15 and figured I would settle for 4:30, although 4:22 (which is ten minutes per mile) was also in my mind.

The race was yesterday, and things looked good at the outset. The weather cooperated, it was cold, 36 degrees at the start, but the rain stopped and it wasn't too windy. On my way to the race I drove over the I-90 bridge, where the carpool lanes were blocked off for the course, and saw two volunteers huddled together in the cold; the sight of them, in the gloomy, directionless light that attends a Seattle sunrise this time of year, moved me to near-tears.

There has been a bit of a trend in recent years to run barefoot, it being deemed healthier because humans evolved barefoot etc, and I did see a few barefoot runners, including one guy wearing only running shorts. Another recent trend is the "Rock 'n' Roll Marathon", in which a band plays every mile; Seattle's race instead starts out as the "Monorail Accident Marathon", in which you begin right by the EMP where there was a fire last year, and about a mile later we arrived at the site of Saturday's monorail mash-up, which I got to check out from directly underneath while running by.

But the rest of the race...well, dreams of achieving satori were gradually shunted aside on my trek through hilly Seattle. I reached the halfway point in 2:03, which isn't bad, except it was 7 minutes slower than my time from July, and I wasn't trying to pace myself. As I ran on my brain (or the little dude with the pitchfork hovering over my right shoulder) started sending me not-so-subtle messages that walking for a while might be a good idea (one goal that runners tend to have, beyond beating a certain time, is running the entire distance without stopping). I told myself no, that I should keep running, and eventually reach a compromise that I would run until mile 20, then talk a walking break. When I saw the mile marker I had to hustle to reach it in 3:20 (ten minute miles), which I had for some reason decided was a worthwhile goal -- and which I did make by 12 seconds.

So I had run the previous from mile 13 through mile 20 in about 78 minutes, or just slower than 11 minutes miles, and since I was slowing down I knew I wasn't going to hit 4:22, or probably even 4:30. At that point I figured I just had to finish, which I didn't really doubt I would be able to. I took walking breaks at mile 22 and 24 (I probably walked for 12 minutes total during the race), and hit the finish line in 4:44, which is just under 11 minutes per mile--it's nice to finish "just under" something, even if it's a bit far from your original goal. My last 6.2 miles took an hour and 24 minutes, about 13.5 minutes per mile. Which is pretty slow, I guess. Going up some of the hills I had to look down at the lane markers to make sure I was still moving forward.

So that's my marathon story, and I think I even will run another one soon (they say that after childbirth a woman's body releases some chemicals that block their memory of just how painful it was, an evolutionary adaptation that encourages more children; 24 hours after the race, I may be under a similar affect). The first time I ran the Seattle Half-Marathon, in 1998, I similarly failed to run the whole way; now I can knock off that distance with relative ease. A few longer training runs, lose about 10 pounds, have the psychological edge of having done it before...no problem!

Posted by AdamBa at November 28, 2005 11:26 AM

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Wow, congrads man - thats amazing, good write up too. I was just talking to a friend of mine who ran it as well.

Posted by: anonymouse at November 28, 2005 07:25 PM


This is caballo blanco, writing from las barrancas del cobre en la sierra madre de mexico.
hermano, you are invited to come run with us on March 5, 2006, or anytime! andale y que le vaya bien.

Micah True
Caballo Blanco http://caballoblanco.com

Posted by: caballo blanco at December 27, 2005 04:12 PM