The Man In The Arena – Dirty Good Co.

The Man In The Arena

“It is not the critic who counts; nor the one who points out how the strong person stumbled, or where the doer of a deed could have done better.”

All too often the critic resides within us; the one pointing out how we’ve stumbled or where we could have done better is the face that looks back at us from the mirror. The quest of living bravely must be taken without judgment nor hypercritical eye. Of course we must take stock of our actions and choices and be aware of the cause and effect of such, but we can do so as the compassionate observer rather than the cynical critic.

“The credit belongs to the person who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; who does actually strive to do deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotion, spends oneself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at worst, if he or she fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

It was a cold morning in the Hill Country of West Texas. Temperatures were in the mid 30’s as I bounced in place with hundreds of runners awaiting the start of my first 50-kilometer trail race. My heart was already beating swiftly attempting to warm my body, as well the nervousness brought on by this inaugural event quickened its rate further. I wrote in a past issue of the monkey, the injuries, and my failure to reach the start line of previous 50K races I had signed up for. This frigid January morning marked the first time I’d mustered the courage to step into the arena. The day wasn’t about overcoming injuries, though a real and inhibiting factor, what I was truly overcoming were the expectations I had of myself. I had erred and come short again and again over the past several years. Injuries and overzealousness had derailed training and racing multiple times. But I always placed myself back in the fray. The monkey I wrote of continued to poke and pick, urging me to lace up the shoes and get back to the trails. The monkey kept me striving toward my version of adventure and wellness.

The race unfolded much like the years of training that preceded it: innumerable ups and downs, physical pain, mental suffering, battles with the towel of surrender, and ultimately the elation of reaching the other side. I began with the sore foot and stiff ankle due to my plantar fasciitis, along with heavy and tight quads from the cold start, I surmised. I opted not to wear my heart-rate monitor, which I trained with religiously, but rather to run by feel and try to stay within myself, not worrying about pace and passing time. That is easier said than done. When surrounded by fellow athletes one often finds oneself swept up in the momentum and energy that encompasses oneself. While I took the first few climbs easy as I considered the length of the day ahead, I soon realized I was descending with too much effort. My chicken legs were basted and felt thick and heavy. With only three miles behind me I knew my muscles would fatigue to the point of cramping before the day’s end. I was quickly reminded of the first lesson of racing: don’t get swept up in other competitors’ races, stay focused on your own effort.

By miles 5 or 6 I successfully found a rhythm, the legs were feeling better as the temperatures began to rise. I still took the descents aggressively trying to make up time I had intended not to concern myself with. Apparently to help miles pass I become an amateur mathematician. When the legs began feeling good, I began calculating how far off I was from a best case scenario finish. This would be lesson two of the day: Enter a race with realistic expectations and resist taking yourself someplace you haven’t been for the better-than-ideal result. Through miles 10 to 15 I began reeling back time I had lost in the first quarter of the course. I started calculating how much time I had in front of me to pull back more time in order to finish with a 5 hour and 15 minute result. This was ridiculous, but the mind needs something to occupy itself while out there.

I first saw Susan at the mile 15 aid station. She was very encouraging and helped me fuel up for the next section of the course. I confessed to her I was behind on my hydration and concerned that my legs were heavy and fatigued from the descents. Despite how my lower limbs felt I moved quickly through the aid station with optimism for a quicker second half. I passed the mid-way point with about 2 hours and forty minutes elapsed on my watch. I was hopeful — until mile 19. The rocky course with punchy ascents and descents had taken its toll. I felt the dreaded twitch. The muscles in my left inner thigh began to tighten. I quickly slowed to a walk hoping to avoid what was about to occur. It seemed to happen in slow motion, I began walking and with each step (all of two or three) the adductor muscle tightened like the turning of a screw, tightened further, then full lock down. My first thought was, “Damn, there goes my ideal result,” followed by “this happens in every long race I’ve done, it’s going to be a long day from here on out.”

Accepting that the mind was going to do its thing, I attempted to be proactive before it sabotaged the remainder of the day. I pulled off to the side of the trail and began working out the cramp. Slowly I stretched and massaged the adductor while being acutely aware the hamstrings and quads were as well on the verge of cramping if I moved too aggressively. At the time it seemed my day might come to an end. I walked and stretched for the next half mile. Slowly I was able to jog, but then again reduced to walking as the slightest incline sent my adductors into a teasing twitch. A myriad of result times fluttered through my mind while I tried to focus on just one step at a time. The twitching and cramping finally passed and the pain of the days effort moved to my foot and up to the outside of my knee. The final 10 miles were a difficult cycling of jog, walk, stretch and repeat. I was forced to exercise a delicate balance of effort, progressing forward with a slow enough pace to keep the cramping at bay and endure the foreign knee pain, but moving quickly enough to satiate the ego’s desire to finish this day still running. With neither haste or urgency I ticked off the remaining miles. My mind, however, was still racing as it continued to engage in math problem after math problem taking current pace multiplied by miles-to-go, adding total time elapsed, compensating for the necessary jog, walk, stretch strategy in an attempt to predict a finishing time, which it finally predicted with moderate accuracy a quarter mile from the finish line. I’m certain the race within my head was taking valuable energy that my body needed, something I will work on before the next event.

As I approached the finish line the emotions of years past surged through me. I fought back tears and cramps equally as I punched through the barriers I now realize I allowed my depression to create. While I challenged myself with personal adventures, I had not stepped onto a race course since my mountain bike accident and the bouts with depression that followed in late 2013 and much of 2014.

I crossed the line in 05:54:01.

“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those timid spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”

— Theodore Roosevelt

Upon reflection I have overcome quite a bit the last few years to stand at the other end of 31 miles. I’ve endured years checkered with physical, emotional, financial and professional failures — as I know most of us have. My suffering, I accept, was mostly self imposed. The mental collapse stemmed from a physical collapse caused by actions and choices I made for years leading into it. Nonetheless these failures have led me to choosing a unique and uncommon life of movement through nature and living simply on the road — for that I am grateful.

I dare mighty things. I dare to engage in my own personal humble adventures. I experience glorious triumphs which I define. I enjoy much and suffer much because the gray is no place to live. I’ll continue to choose a life in the black, and a life in the white, riding the rollercoaster of the worthwhile. Sure, I must pass through the gray to experience the highs and lows of living, but I’ll do my damnedest to not linger there again.

Dear reader, are you daring greatly?

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Paul Lieto
Mixed Terrain Enthusiast /. Dirty Good Co — founder and Editor of RaceCenter Magazine.