#7.-The Eternal Child- Afton 50K Trail Run 2017
The Eternal Child
The Eternal Child archetype speaks to me in wanting to go beyond what I thought possible-for me. In running, I am fascinated by seemingly “impossible” tasks of grueling ultra-marathons in outrageous conditions, or marks of endurance like 7 marathons in 7 days on 7 continents. In my own life, I have taken on the challenge of running a marathon in every state and became a "marathon maniac." I work with my aging body and its physical limitations to play with my inner child. I run long distances in pain and in bliss, courting both during a long run or race and in the best of times feeling ageless and timeless. On a good day, running can feel like a fountain of youth. My shadow side grasps this state and yearns to always be in it, following my passion, seeing the world. It does not want to be bogged down by the passage of time or the logistics of mundane day-to-day life. It doesn’t like rules and responsibilities. I work through this by finding joy and youthfulness in each run. Each opportunity to move my body across this Earth, getting something out of every run. If growth and expression are the purpose of life, I remind myself that it cannot be compared, evaluated or standardized. There is no competing on how alive you are- let your Eternal Child flourish!
I felt like I was up for the challenge and my Eternal Child had a deep desire to go beyond what I would ever think I could do. If I could do 26.2 miles, what’s another 6 miles on the trails, I thought? Little did I know. I yearned to see what the world of trail running was all about. My job had tightened my connection with nature and a trail run seemed like just what I was looking for. I also never doubted my abilities. Running had empowered me physically and more importantly, mentally, to a level that nothing else had. I showed up on race morning, leaving my house long before dawn, and made my way to Afton State Park along the St. Croix River. Trail running had a different mentality. The race was long enough that there is a “drop zone”. There are two 25k loops. After finishing the first you can have a bag with whatever support you might need in order to get back around the second 25k. It could be a change of clothes, clean, dry shoes, food, whatever one may need to be out on the trails for 6-7 hours.
We got all set up, there were some announcements and 3-2-1 we were off! We immediately went straight downhill and into the woods in a culvert that had formed from heavy rain a few days earlier. The people at the front of the pack howled as we headed into the great unknown. I felt like I was in one of my favorite books “Where the Wild Things Are” when they announce, “let the wild rumpus begin!” We quickly began the up and down that would continue for 31 miles. The trail went straight up, and everyone walked because of the incline and also the roots, rocks and debris on the trail. This was no road race, I thought.
It didn’t take long to realize that downhill may be harder than uphill. I also learned what “technical” meant in ultra-running terms. Not a single person wore headphones, it isn’t allowed in ultras. Nobody tunes out, the races take concentration and focus. You are much more in tune with your surroundings. There are no mile markers. It takes full concentration of one’s body and mind to complete the distance. My confidence grew as I traversed difficult terrain and my footing seemed able. I needed to be open and present to everything the race might throw at me. My Eternal Child felt like I had no limitations, just spaciousness and timelessness.
Then suddenly the person in front of me stopped. There must be something on the trail, I thought. My mind immediately went back to the black bear on the trail in Alaska a few weeks earlier. I rounded the corner and could see what caused the hesitation, a big black, sloppy puddle of mud spanning the entire width of the trial. The woman behind me had been talking to someone about all the races she had done, so cleared the way and said, “I’ll let the veteran show the newbie how it’s done” and she explained, “you just have to go through it” and put her foot in with no hesitation. The sound of schlepping wet mud oozed around her foot and then let go as she pulled her foot out. “You just have to keep moving” she called back. I followed suit and moved along. You could feel the pull of the ooze and you just knew that if you stopped it would pull on your shoe and you could get stuck pretty quickly. I soon felt the cool, wet slop move from my shoe into my sock and onto my foot. It felt kind of refreshing on a warm, sticky summer day. Getting wet and dirty is a badge of honor in ultras. I was getting initiated.
Another thing I soon realized in endurance races is that you cannot dwell on anything. If you think you will feel the same, whether pain or adrenaline, throughout the whole race, you’ll get your mind locked into that. You need to keep your mind fluid. Don’t grasp onto the discomforts, but don’t try to push them away either. Go with the flow. The Eternal Child archetype is similar to the Fool in that you need to keep a beginner’s mind, as they say in Buddhism. Keep an open mind as if you are doing it for the first time. In this case, I was.
I continued on, no longer surprised by the steep inclines and try to keep good form. I know my body can handle more if I keep my core engaged, my back straight, my shoulders, back and head high. I approached the first aid station and there was a dizzying array of food on the tables. It wasn’t like a road race where they hand you a cup of water or Gatorade and you shuffle past. This was a smorgasbord of gummies and other sugar-coated treats that rivaled Dylan’s Candy Bar in shapes and colors. Also, pretzels, cut up pb&j sandwich triangles, fig newtons, orange slices, bananas and other treats. I stood there perplexed and a woman said, “what do you need?” I answered, “I’m not sure, this is my first ultra station ever” She erupted in cheers and applause. She took my picture with her phone and I took my orange slice and gave her a big smile. She asked my name and said she was posting it to the race’s social media page. I grabbed some electrolyte drink and water knowing that I needed to replace electrolytes sweat out from the heat and humidity. I bounded off with increased confidence and my new friends and cheerleaders behind me. “See you on the next loop!” they called out.
I went into the woods again with a babbling brook beside me. When it opened up to the prairie, I could feel how much the sun was heating things up. After miles and miles, I realized another difference between ultras and road races is the lack of biffy’s in ultras. I was hoping I could balance my intake so I wouldn’t need to go. I kept focused on moving forward one step at a time. Before too long I was passed by some guys flying down the trail. They looked effortless tackling the trails with fluid bounds. I came to realize they were the lead pack of the 25k race that started an hour after us. When I heard them coming up, I tried to move off to the side of the narrow path so they could pass. They were gracious and cruised by. We passed by a camping area where people were just waking up. We had been running for hours and were over 20K into the race. Some stopped and cheered and seemed to appreciate the feat we were attempting.
Things were heating up. There was an aid station where a man advised me to lean over and dumped an ice-cold sponge with dripping water onto my head. I was instantly relieved. I was going to need to keep my core cool with the heat and this was just the ticket. By the second loop I didn’t feel like a newbie anymore. My Eternal Child was loving the challenge. I knew what the next 15 miles would bring and I know I could do it. I will be wiser from seeing it all one before, I thought to myself. Starting again on the steep downhill, my legs felt the miles in them. However, I still had the youthful energy I started with. I found that keeping this Eternal Child archetype close by, you can always get it done. In an ultra you are completely absorbed in what you are doing each moment. I passed by the first station again and the women there continued to cheer and dish out positive vibes. There were cups with white capsules in them and I asked what they were. They said they were salt tablets and encouraged me to take one since I had been out in the heat and humidity for over 4 hours. They said I should take one at each aid station. I had some other “real” food rather than the overly sweet jellybeans electrolytes I usually consume during road races. I was staying balanced on my intake and wasn’t having any stomach issues.
My legs were the part of my body really feeling the miles. I was also feeling “accumulated fatigue” of this being my third marathon distance in two months’ time. I hadn’t fully recovered from one before doing another, and then another. My IT band was tightening up and I tried to keep good form and my core engaged so my lower back wouldn’t hurt. The pain on the downhills was getting intense. I started playing with sounds. I played with my breathing and how that affects my body. I noticed when I breathed a certain way, I almost made a whistling sound. It kept me light and playful in an otherwise trying patch of the race during the steep downhills. One epic point of the race is when I hit the 26.2 point on my watch. I had never gone further than that. I had crossed a new threshold. At one point there were families walking on the trail on a Sunday outing. I felt like I was in a different world than they were but occupying the same space. A couple that I had seen earlier in the day recognized me and said, “how far?” and I replied, “I’m at 26 miles and there’s just 5 to go.” They said, “wow, you sure don’t look like you’ve gone 26 miles.” I felt good.
Not many people were passing, and I passed only a few. Most were slogging along. My body had adjusted to the temperature and wasn’t overheating. This is endurance, and I knew you have to keep your equilibrium. I passed the campground that I had seen 4 hours earlier and now had been out for over 6 hours. I snapped more pictures with my phone during the second loop. At the last aid station, a man said, “only 5k left, you’re almost there!” I know what the last 3 miles of my road marathons felt like. I also remembered that I loved the woodland path those miles went through on the first loop. I was pleased that I would be going through the lush green foliage and moss, the thin trails with roots and rocks that reminded me of the mountain trails I hiked as a child in the Rockies on family vacations. I silently wound through the forest and up though the prairie one last time. I was closer and closer to the man holding the wooden cookie “medal” at the finish line. I ran through and had a new title; I was now an ultrarunner AND a Marathon Maniac!
This was an endeavor that I will cherish and remember. It reminded me of the essay The Weasel by Annie Dillard, in which she writes “we could live any way we want. The thing is to stalk your calling in a certain skilled and supple way, to locate the most tender and live spot and plug into that pulse. This is yielding-not fighting. A weasel doesn’t “attack” anything- it lives as it’s meant to, yielding at every moment to the perfect freedom of a single necessity.” In running things are pure and unevaluated, I “ingest them directly” when I run, it’s my single necessity. I have found the pulse of life.