The Challenges of the Tram Road Challenge

You have all heard the saying “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”. Wise words indeed considering that most of our great endeavors involve an initial “failure” and learning curve. But where are the great maxims that prepare us for those brilliant moments when at first we DO succeed? In my experience, it often goes as follows; “if at first you do suceed, make sure to throw an obstacle or two or six in your path to make things more interesting”. The past week and a half would serve as a textbook example of this latter statement.

Coming off of a series of big wins and record breaking performances, I was flying high. Perhaps too high. The wax on my wings was melting and I began to plummet back to earth. This manifested itself in the form of a mega toothache accompanied by mind altering headaches… The general feeling of malaise from the intense anti-biotics I was taking to fight the infection in my tooth… The craving to eat lots of really fatty, gooey raw foods late at night to ensure that I wouldn’t sleep properly… The inability to train adequately when I did wake up due to the large mass of unhappy food trapped somewhere in my gut… And let’s not forget the whirlwind tour of Los Angeles and related stressors. In other words, I was setting myself up to fail. But why?

Could it be that something as small as a tooth could affect my behavior so dramatically and so quickly? Or was there some deeper, possibly subconscious agenda jumping at the opportunity to rear it’s ugly head? I would have exactly thirty minutes and forty-four seconds to contemplate this burning question, as I ran for my life up the 2,100 foot incline of the Palm Springs Tram Road Challenge.

I arrived in Palm Springs thirty minutes before the race, with no expectations. I was here to run. I was here to learn. I was here to see what I’m made of when the odds are not stacked in my favor. At the registration table, I was excitedly informed that I was bib number “1” because I had won the race last year. Every one at the table looked up and congratulated me. A man at the table asked me “are you going to break thirty minutes again?” I smiled and silently shrugged my shoulders. Other registrants who overheard the conversation were also lauding me. I didn’t much feel like being congratulated. I was hoping to just blend in and quietly do the best I could under the circumstances. There was no chance of that. It wasn’t long before my “Running Raw” jacket began to attract attention and I was swarmed by people saying things like “Dude, I watch your videos on YouTube”, or “you’re the raw food guy” etc, etc… This was one occasion where I didn’t feel very inspiring.

As I wandered over to the start line, I bumped into Jon Clark, who I had raced a month earlier at the Xterra Pt. Mugu trail race. Although I had beaten Jon in that race, I knew him to be a much better uphill runner than I. In fact, Jon is one the best uphill runners in the United States. We shared a few words and began to warm up. I could feel the voices in my head wanting to chime in and declare my defeat before the race had even begun. This race would not be against the mountain or Jon, but against my shadow self, and that was a race that I didn’t plan on losing today.

Moments before the start, the sun peaked it’s head over the horizon and began to illuminate the field of runners, 500 strong. The morning glow had been slowly lighting up the giant mass of Mt. San Jacinto for the past half hour. It’s imposing 10,890 foot height was painted pink and orange in the morning light. I took one last relaxed look at the mountain. It would serve as my only visual for the next half hour. I stood in amazement.

I stood on the line… breathing… grounding. I didn’t come to lose, but I also didn’t come to win. I was there because nothing ever happens if you don’t show up.

Suddenly we were moving. I bolted into the lead quickly, with Jon at my side. The pace was fast but comfortable. The low lying sun was casting long shadows of our bodies on the desert sage and tumbleweed on the side of the road. I was slightly ahead of three other shadows. For a few moments I took my eyes off the mountain in front of me and focused on the movement of the shadows playing with the vegetation at road’s edge. One of the shadows began to fade, now there were three. Uphill running produces much less impact, and is therefore much quieter than the pavement pounding footfalls of your average road race. It would have been a very peaceful experience had it not been for the heavy and tortured breathing of the shadow to my left. This poor gentleman was obviously running beyond his abilities and his toxically loud breathing reflected this. A sudden burst of movement to my right caught my attention. It was Jon making a very fast and aggressive break for the lead. Within no time he was twenty feet ahead of me. I responded and quickly made up the ground. The third shadow and his unpleasant symphony were now fading into memory. The quiet began to engulf us.

Jon and I charged through the first mile in a 7:32, which was thirty seconds faster than my average per mile pace for this race last year… but I felt comfortable and dismissed any warning bells that such a fast time might have set off. At several strategic points over the next two miles, Jon made breaks for the lead, but each time I answered with my own burst of speed. We ran much of the race shoulder to shoulder.

Midway through the third mile, the road straightens out and reveals the long and increasingly steep climb that awaits. I took this unsettling view as an opportunity to “show up” yet again. I slowed down the race in my mind and began to take inventory of the moment. First I focused on my breathing… it was relaxed and deep. Next I focused on my shoulders… which needed some work… so I shook them about. My quads were experiencing an “intensity”, that most would catagorize as extreme pain. I chose to feel the intensity but not judge it… just be with it… choose it. I checked in with my thoughts next… There was no negative self talk… no “when is this going to be over” or “I can’t take anymore”… I was calm and present. It was nice. I closed my eyes for a few strides and took a deep breath of crisp desert air. That’s when I noticed Jon. It was his breathing that entered my attention first. I’ve learned to size up my competition by their rate and ease of breathing, and Jon was breathing beautifully. It relaxed me to hear the lack of effort in his breath. My ears then tuned in to his stride and cadence… it was the same as mine. We were running in unison… in the quiet… in the sharp light… opposing gravity… determined… separate but one. We seemed to be powering each other up the mountain.

In early September, I had a conversation with a dear friend and potential lover about the nature of “true” relationship and codependence. The ideal relationship that she described to me involved two people side by side, each in their own power, moving together in life. Not pulling or pushing, not leading or following, not fixing or yearning. Two people moving as one in the same direction, but each under their own power. This ideal image sounded wonderful, but it also scared me intensely. Yes, I dream of this type of relationship as well, but what if I’m not ready for it? What if I’m not “conscious” enough, or enlightened enough? What if there are some things in my life that I just haven’t dealt with yet? I desired that type of perfect union, but feared that it might never be in the cards for me.

At 7:22 AM, on a lonely stretch of mountain road in America’s harshest desert, I knew exactly what she was talking about. Although this was not a romantic relationship, it was the perfect example of two human beings, not wanting or needing from the other, but achieving more side by side than would be possible alone. It was catalytic… an unseen force, operating between us, moving us… demanding that we be all that we can be. Jon felt it too. “This would be a LOT easier if one of us weren’t here” he said, referring to the level of effort that we were non-verbally demanding of each other. I thought for a moment and came to the opposite conclusion. His presence was bringing out more in me than I thought possible. His presence was making this effort feel easy.

We ran as one to the three mile marker. Jon had done some math in his head and realized that there is no individual victory in two people crossing the finish line together, so he made an aggressive break. There were only six tenths of a mile to go until the finish, and from previous experience I knew that the road only got steeper from this point forward. I surmised that he would not be able to sustain that pace for long and I would reel him back in as his legs began to fail on the 22% grade of the last quarter mile.

Jon’s legs did not fail. He did not slow down. I did not reel him in. He put an amazing forty-nine seconds on me in those last thousand yards, and bested my winning time of last year by three seconds. I finished a respectable second, forty-six seconds behind my previous time.

Considering the week and a half that I had just been through, I was quite pleased with my performance. Yet there is a sense of wonder in my mind. I had been running a brilliant race. I was fully present and powerful in each moment, each stride. What would have happened if I had gone with Jon when he made that final break? Would I have been able to stay with him? Or was I already running at edge of my abilities? I ran a smart race, but the smart race strategy didn’t win. Perhaps I should have run like the late Steve Prefontaine and made it a show of who has the most guts rather than the fastest legs. But wait, I wasn’t here to win. I was here to learn, to grow and to come to terms with my “dark” side. To choose courage when the going gets tough. Each race is an opportunity to find one’s self. Each stride is an opportunity to find one’s self… or better yet, to create one’s self.

I choose this life. I choose my strengths, I choose my weaknesses. I choose, therefore I am.

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