You have to hand it to Lao Tzu when it comes to cryptic epigrams, and in the context of the race where I found myself the “leave no footprints” could have many meanings.
The working hypothesis was that training in the heat and humidity of a Kansas Summer would pay big dividends in running the Paavo Nurmi road marathon in Northern Wisconsin. At mile 23 of the Paavo, it was being put to a severe test and I began to fear, along with Huxley, that this might become the “slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.” Totally soaked through - shirt, shorts, socks, shoes, all dripping wet and ferocious blisters working up on several toes. I had hung onto my race pace of 7:30/mile up to this point, but somehow I knew the last 3+ miles were going to get ‘interesting’, my mind and body began a long, heartfelt conversation.........
“I really like trails, the woods, nature - what am I doing here?”
I had run several road marathons, including Boston in 2007, but had of late gravitated toward trail running and racing. The varied scenery and paces, technical terrain, and 3-D running all tap into something I resonate with more deeply than pounding out mile after mile on the pavement. Bernd Heinrich, author of the book “Why We Run” states, “There is nothing quite so gentle, deep, and irrational as running -- and nothing quite so savage, so wild.” Running loops out at Clinton Lake North Shore or the River Trails ties much more easily into that vibe than the concrete. The mile 23 aid station appears. I slow to a crawl and gulp water, gatorade, bananas, pretzels - a long stretch of pavement staring at me with no other runners in sight , a slight breeze in my face. Trying to get back into my pace is getting tougher,
“Pick it up, pick it up; 1,2,3,4,5..........”
I start counting strides to do my 180 drill - counting every right foot stride until I hit 90 and see if I can do it (180 strides) in a minute or less - keep that turnover to maximize speed. Early on I was hitting it like clockwork. Now, at mile 22 I wasn’t so sure.
“ .... 88, 89, 90; 1:08.... yikes, that’s horrible you (unmentionable) wimp. Get with it.”
Spirit is willing, flesh is weak. Mind says yes; legs say no.
“OK, this will be a slower paced recovery mile, then I’ll kick it in the next mile.”
I knew I was lying to myself, which is so easy to do at mile 23. The pain cave loomed and I was standing at the entrance peering in with a flashlight, seeing if anyone was home. I fear it was actually the flesh that was ‘good to go’, but the spirit lagging behind.
In this state it becomes quite easy for the mind to dissociate and wander, and I began replaying in my mind a trail race I had run in April - the Double Chubb 25k in St Louis. The trail system wound through the hills of the Meramec River and included varied terrain of twisting, turning, technical trails, along with some flat stretches, punctuated by mile long series’ of climbs. It was an out and back course allowing one to evaluate the course and competition on the way out, planning strategy for the way back. I recall starting the race with a guy in headphones right in front of me, thinking, “no one in headphones is going to beat me… end of story.” I had been running for about 12 years and had never run listening to music - always wanting to associate and ‘pay attention’ to the surroundings, not ‘tune them out’. Sunlight and wind playing through the trees, along with whatever mother nature crafted on the trails, were more than enough to hold my attention.
I’m jarred back onto the concrete by the mile 24 sign,
“Why could I push so hard at that tough trail race and not here?”
I picked the pace up for about 10 steps and sagged back into the slower pace that had become my default setting. Shut my watch off, just didn’t want to know. Start reciting poetry to myself,
Whitman wasn’t working.... just feeding my fade.
My feet dissociate from my legs, my legs from my body; a complete rebellion.
“...... the ankle bone connected to the, shin bone…….”
My mind again seeks refuge on the trails and I remember hitting that flat section of the Double Chubb near the river. Changing from steep and technical (e.g. White Trails at Clinton Lake) to flat and fast (e.g. Lawrence River Trails) was energizing. I was able to flow along with the river and think to myself that this would be a great place to make a move on the way back. Right then, it was simply carrying me along, and I drew strength. I recall thinking of that poetic ending to a favorite book, “And all existence fades to a being with my soul……….eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.” Steep hills and off camber trails had ended the flat section as we climbed for over a mile to the turnaround aid station. Working different muscles, twisting one way, then another, the trails were a full body massage.
A vehicle speeds by on the highway, a mere few feet from my appendages and I, the sound and wind jarring my senses. Relentless pounding of the same strides and the same muscles over the miles was taking its toll. The mile 25 sign of the Paavo and final aid station come into view; I drop and shake out my arms, take a few deep breaths,
“c’mon, try and rally!”
But as the car receded it seemed to steal whatever resolve I had left. The seeming ease of turning fossil fuel into speed and power seemed a cruel touch. Just wanted to get a quick drink and finish out the last 1.2 miles in dignity. Just as I was leaving the station though, a guy came up on me and passed - not necessarily surprising. But on the back of his shirt were the words “Team Sisu”.
“It’s a sign! Hang onto this guy”
I fell into step and latched onto him; newfound energy. “Sisu” is a uniquely Finnish term which the Finn, Paavo Nurmi, personified in winning 9 olympic golds and setting numerous world records in the 1920’s. It roughly translates as a combination of ‘guts’, ‘tenacity’, ‘craziness’, ‘resilience’ - we would often talk of this with our Cross Country runners before a meet.
A half mile of crisp running at a respectable pace energized me, but a half mile hill approached. Sisu and I gamely took it on, but my stride shortened, pace deteriorated, and I began what I refer to as my ‘death shuffle’...... Sisu moving on alone. When running you are NOT supposed to think of the finish, rather stay present and focused - but finishing this trudge was all I could configure in my mind.
The Double Chubb trail finish was a marked contrast to this. At the end of the flat stretch heading into the final aid station I asked if there were any 25k runners ahead of me -thinking at that point I might be in first, but I wasn’t sure due to the melee of competitors at the turnaround.
They couldn’t tell me, which I found really irritating, but remember redoubling my efforts and racing ‘whatever the market would bear.’ Ended up catching a guy bonking on the hills, gained energy and finished off strong, crossing the finish line only to find out I was 2nd overall. The winner already had taken his hardware and left - no one could tell me much about him. I remember thinking something unmentionable (at least I hope I thought it), but eventually opted for the post race burgers, sides, and multiple beverages rather than feeling sorry for myself. Totally spent after racing hard, but strangely energized.
Back at the Paavo, ‘energized’ is not the term I would use. Admittedly, the marathon is a longer race than a 25k, but the concrete still seems the culprit- every step like the Dementor’s kiss in Harry Potter, slowly sucking the life and soul from my body. The Pit of Despair in the Princess Bride came to mind as well, along with the time I ran to and from school - 58 miles - in a day….. but I digress.
Great, the worst brain worm song in history had taken hold. Now there was some motivation to speed up! Cresting the hill I saw the mile 26 sign,
and entered the town of Hurley, Wisconsin- population ~1500 people, with the claim to fame that it once had the highest per capita bars to people ratio in the United States. I make the turn onto Silver Street, the main drag in town, for the last .2 miles, cursing the tradition of adding that slap in the face after running 26 miles. Several hundred people lined the street,
“ OK, pull it together, at least look good now. “
Thrashed at this point, the concrete just punishing me.
In fact, it seems I would leave more footprints on the trails and gravel and grass than here ........ but then I consider. I am currently running on one of the biggest ‘footprints’ of mankind; these ubiquitous ribbons of concrete reaching into every part of the world. And everywhere they go, they cover the real earth, the real ground, and as my feet make contact they are striving to find the life underneath, but it is buried too deep. By merely running this race, I am complicit with this huge footprint. When I run the roads, the concrete, I tend to dissociate and become less aware, daydreaming, getting my mind off the misery. On trails, I tend to associate, tie into the surroundings, am attentive and notice everything - the present moment spilling forth like a wave, with me on the crest. For me, the trails provide needed energy, and nourish the running soul. But then there’s the concrete.
“ Just - keep - moving”
Focused on my form and gave it what I had. I heard my wife, my sister and her family, and several well-lubricated Hurley-ans yell for me as I ran by, about 15 minutes slower than my goal time.
Running through the finish shoot I stagger to the side and assume the position. Grabbing the knees, head down, white foam hanging from my mouth as I try to spit, gasping for air....... the totally blown out runner. I resolved right there to spend more time on trails and swear off concrete when the announcer cuts in,
“That’s Dan Kuhlman, from Lecompton, KS finishing in a time of 3:34:17, good for a Boston Qualifying time in his age group.” I turn my head a bit and raise an eyebrow,
Double Chubb 25k:
1/7 in age group
Course record for age group
Paavo Nurmi Marathon:
1/21 in age group
Qualified for Boston Marathon
Dan Kuhlman is a retired teacher from the Eudora School district having taught 8th grade Earth Science for 28 years, while coaching middle school track and high school cross country. He is not planning on running Boston.... at this time.