Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Time to go sit down?

I called it quits at work about 15 months ago. I had been in academics my entire life. I worked hard, trying to make the grades in undergrad and grad school. I worked hard as a post doc and as a research scientist. I worked hard as an assistant professor and as a department chair. I went to bed each night knowing that my work was not done. I could never, possibly, do enough. There was always another paper to write or another test to grade. Some nights it didn’t bother me, while other nights I tossed and turned, worrying about my lack of progress, inefficiency, and job security.

I wanted to exceed. I wanted to be a good researcher and a good teacher, even a good administrator. I seldom met my own expectations, let alone those of the academic establishment. I had some successes but was always left feeling unfinished.

This summer I completed the Bighorn 100. Training for the event had started to feel like being a grad student or an assistant professor: would I do enough? Could I succeed?

When race day came, I followed the plan. I made the cut offs. I finished the race. I was so extremely glad. I finished. I didn’t have to do it again. It was like getting tenure. But I had also committed to running another 100 miler, in Alaska, in August, with a very good friend. I didn’t train after Bighorn but I did run some miles. 

The week before the Alaska race, I went into body conservation mode: eat, sleep, take it easy to be fully recovered. On Sunday I ran La Luz, a 9 mile uphill local race. I ran hard and actually did well. Good effort and a feeling of ability prior to the Friday afternoon race start.

But Sunday night our search and rescue group was called out. I answered the call and actually got out of the parking lot. This was to be my first mission and I was pretty psyched. Should be easy. The family of hikers were located under the tram. We just needed to hike in and escort them out. Couple of hours, or so I thought. But the route was not what I thought. We bushwhacked all night, from 11:30 pm to 4:30 am. During that time I took several hard falls. I was in way over my head. I was tired. I was scared. I wanted to call it quits. I knew my boots were not any good for that terrain. I realized my head lamp was not sufficient. I struggled to carry my pack. My arms were scratched in a million places from crashing through the brush. I had cactus spines in my legs and my butt. My shins and knees were bleeding. I was tired.

We made it out and I was seriously questioning whether I would continue in search and rescue. I had been a liability to the team. Too old? My balance seems to suck these days. I don’t have the strength. Yeah, I have endurance but that may not be enough.

Onward to Alaska. This is a minimally supported race with only two exit points: mile 41 and mile 67. Seriously, no other places to quit. I was hoping my friend would decide to go for the 50 miler instead of the 100. I talked with one of her friends, who agreed to run with her if I gave out. Or even if I didn’t give out. At mile 41, we would pick up a third runner. I knew I could make it that far and was pretty sure I could make it to mile 67. Good enough. Didn’t need to do the whole thing.

We started out nice and slow, but making better time than I had expected. The air was cool and damp. We had plenty of food and there were many fast moving streams to refill our water. Our spirits were high. It stayed light for a long time and we had topped out at the pass and had mainly downhill from mile 30 to the trail head at mile 41. My light was weak, giving me just enough light to walk fast or trot. My friend’s light was no better. The trail was muddy and keeping my feet dry was a major consideration. 

We went along a long lake, barely able to see it in the dark. We heard some weird sounds and stopped to listen. Loons. Oh my god it was fantastic to listen to the loons in the dark. We continued our trek, still ahead of schedule but now talking about dropping at mile 41. She didn’t seem to be upset by the idea. I figured she could go ahead with her friend and I could just drop out but she didn’t have the drive necessary to continue. 

We might have both decided to keep going but, around mile 32, I fell. Hard. Trying to go around a puddle that spanned the trail. My thigh smashed into an elevated root, with my full weight landing on it. Well, maybe not my full weight since my face also plowed into the ground. My lip was smashed and my chin was bleeding but the big pain was my thigh. It hurt, especially on the downhills. I couldn’t run. I could barely walk. It was a very long 9 miles to the trail head, where we gave it up.

And now all I can think is that it is time to retire. I remember being at a conference and listening to some young faculty member telling an older administrator that it was time for her to “go sit down. Find something else to do. Get a life. But go sit down and let the younger folks take over.”

Now I am thinking if it is time to go sit down. What a relief it would be to not have to train. No more getting up in the middle of the night to drive to a race. No more being hot, or cold, for hours on end. No more eating trail bars that taste like cardboard. No more drinking hydration drinks. No more falling and having scabby knees and bruised shins. No more running until utter exhaustion. No more worrying if I have trained enough.

Don’t know what I will decide. I have a 50K coming up in about 5 weeks, and another marathon after that. But will I sign up for any others? I don’t know. I do know that I need a break. 

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