Western States 100 – Meditation on Pain

Cougar Rock
Cougar Rock, photo by Keith Facchino

Squaw Valley, 5 am

I was nervous at the start. Really nervous. Being nervous didn’t make that much sense, really; it’s not like I was going to be competing for the win, or even a place in the top half. Still, there seemed to be a lot at stake. It had taken me a long time to get drawn in the lottery. This was probably my only chance to ever run this thing. I had high hopes for the race, but as we approached Squaw Valley in the dark for a 5am start, I wondered why I was there.

western states 100 first climb
Climbing out of Squaw Valley

And we were off. The Western States Endurance Run begins with a nearly four mile climb, walked by all except those in the front. With some alarm I realized I was nearly dead last. I had ninety-nine and a half miles to go still, but this was a little early to be lagging. The sun rose as we approached the top of the escarpment, and it really was beautiful. This was going to be a good day.

I’d never run this part of the course before, and I don’t really remember much of it now. Wide open, stunning views, very little snow (that had been a worry), and it all felt good. I cruised through the first aid station (Lyon Ridge, 10.5 miles).

Somewhere up top things were particularly staggering in their beauty. I took my eye off the trail for a second to look, and promptly tripped over a rock, taking a pretty hard fall into dirt and rock, and sliding downhill off the trail. There was a lot of blood on the palm of my right hand. I cleaned it off a bit with electrolyte drink from my handheld.

A mile or so later, I took another good fall. This one was on softer ground, and it didn’t hurt, but my cut up hand was now full of dirt. I had it cleaned and bandaged at Red Star Ridge. The folks doing medical at the aid stations were great, but they never seemed quite as convinced as the runners that we should be out there. The medic looked me over a little more than I wanted as he very slowly dressed my wound. I was anxious to get out of there.

western states
After the fall, before Red Star Ridge. photo by Gary Wang

A friend was working the Duncan Canyon aid station, mile 23.8. “You’re breathing shallow,” she said. “Steady your breath. Breathe deep. If you keep gasping, you’ll give yourself stomach cramps.” She saw I was bandaged. “Everyone falls on that stretch,” she said. I wasn’t feeling great at Duncan Canyon. All of a sudden, I could feel the promised heat. I took in a little more food, and got myself good and wet. The race was nearly a quarter over. Next stop Robinson Flat, mile 29, where I would see crew.

Tall trees, many of them burnt. I remembered this from the training run. There was a gentle climb into Robinson Flat. I was pretty far off my wildly ambitious initial planned pace, and I didn’t really care. I felt a little ragged when I came into the aid station, but some food, a cold Fanta, a few minutes in the shade and a change of socks left me feeling pretty refreshed. Next stop, Miller’s Defeat (mile 34.4) and then Dusty Corners (mile 38).

“The name of this meditation is Mindfulness of Pain” – Tara Brach

I knew I was going to encounter pain, and in a 100 mile race, dealing with pain can be overwhelming if you’ve got an Aspie brain like mine. Leaving Dusty Corners at mile 38 I figured it was time to pop in an earbud.

“The name of this meditation is Mindfulness of Pain, and it’s especially useful if you’re currently distressed by physical pain. Take a few moments to become still. See if you can relax to the natural rhythm of your breath.” Become still? No. Not what I was there for. But maybe I could relax into my breath, which was heavy and deep as I ran gently down the dusty trail. Maybe I could make my entire body relax, save things up for next 40 miles or so, without having to slow down. Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. It’s not really just a cliche.

“As you feel the breath, begin to gently move your attention through your body, relaxing your brow, your jaw…dropping your shoulders…try not to create any unnecessary tension in your body.” Ok. And I tried to relax my body, which was not that easy, actually, because my chest muscles were really tight, probably from breaking one or the other or both of those falls, and they hurt when they move up and down as I ran downhill. This also made me feel flabby and out-of-shape. In my mind my chest should not have been flopping around like that. But after a hundred yards or more it would start to loosen up and I didn’t feel it anymore. This process would repeat every time I started running again after a walk break, but as long as I knew it would go away, I was okay with it. There’s not much else I could do.

“Now scan through your body and notice if there’s an area of strong discomfort or pain.” There was. Besides the chest, which would go away quickly, my quads, which were feeling the 30 plus miles of downhill, and my groin, which had felt tight all day, there was my left calf, which felt balled up and tight. The calf was where the pain was.

“Let’s experiment. Bring a gentle and receptive awareness directly to the unpleasant sensations in that part of your body. Bring your attention there, and notice what happens as you begin to contact and be present with this pain. Is there an attempt, however subtle, to push the pain away, to cut it off, to block it off, to pull away? Is there fear, some sense that something’s wrong, that this shouldn’t be happening?” Oddly enough, and much to my (mild) delight, there was no attempt to block the pain or to push it away, and while the soreness in the left calf was unexpected, there was no fear. I was 40 miles in to Western States 100. I’d dreamed of this race for a while. It was about 100 degrees outside. I wasn’t surprised I hurt. I even kind of liked sinking in to the pain, to feeling it rather than avoiding it. It wasn’t really that bad.

“Because of the tendency to resist unpleasant sensations with our body and our mind, it’s really essential to offer an allowing, open presence. Now to help you establish this openness, you might take a few moments just to imagine a great blue sky. Let you mind imagine that, and let it mingle with that vastness.” I don’t need to imagine. I need only look around. I am running through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. I am already there. I’ve been mingling with this vastness for about 6 hours now, and there’s plenty more to come. I’ve mingled a little too much, actually; the medical guys needed to wash the consequences of that mingling out of the palm of my right hand, which is now nicely bandaged up.

“Open your senses to include the sounds in that wide open space, so that you’re listening right now with a full, receptive attention.” The main sound is the sound of my breath. There’s also the sound of my footsteps running down this hill. There are other sounds, too, I’m sure, but I can only hear them if I stop and my breathing subsides, and that’s not part of the race strategy right now, so let me sink in to the sounds of my footsteps and breath, and relax with those sounds, as was suggested earlier.

“Staying in contact with that sense of open space, you can begin including in your awareness the areas in your body that have neutral or even pleasant sensations. You might become aware of your hands. Let them be soft and feel the sensations there. Or your feet. Your cheeks. Maybe the area around your eyes.” My right hand is bandaged, cut up from a fall. It’s feeling pretty neutral, though. My feet, well, they are feeling pretty neutral, too, especially considering I’ve run forty miles and this stretch of trail is a bit rough and rocky. So that’s a win, and a pleasant surprise, too. My cheeks? They feel pretty neutral, too. They always feel neutral, unless I’m smiling, in which case the feel pretty good, and I did just smile, too; in fact, I laughed. I laughed at the idea that I should meditate on my feet feeling good. At first it was the absurdity of meditating on that in the middle of a 100 mile race, and then it was with relief and maybe even with minor joy at the realization that they actually did feel good, or at least neutral, kind of awesome given the circumstances.

Here’s why else I was happy, and why my cheeks felt good: this was the last 100 mile race I would ever run. I was gonna finish Western States and go out on a high note, because Western States is a great and iconic race, and where better to end it all than there? 100 miles is not my favorite distance, I’d become aware. I haven’t been able to get the hang of it. Not even close. It’s far, and it takes a long time, and I’d be happier running nothing but 50 miles or 100K from now on. So when the meditation came back around to the half smile of the Buddha, fuck it, I gave it a full smile and didn’t care who was looking.

Western States Trail
Somewhere between Dusty Corners and Last Chance

Last Chance to Dardanelles – Miles 40 through 68

I really don’t remember much about Last Chance aid station. I was in and out fairly quickly. As always, I asked the distance to the next aid station and as always I was given not only the distance but an accurate description of what was next: a few miles of gentle, almost flat, followed by a steep downhill that seemed to go on and on, heading deeper and deeper into the canyon. At the bottom we crossed a bridge, and soon after a stream. There were two runners taking a break and soaking in the cool water. I wet myself down, washed my face, and then headed up the climb to Devil’s Thumb.

The Devil’s Thumb climb is short – less than 2 miles – and no climb I’ve done compares to it. It’s steep. There are 32 switchbacks in those one-and-three-quarters miles. There are few spots where it levels off just for a few feet, just in case you might need to stop and catch your breath, which I did. And it’s hot. The cool stream water I’d soaked myself had fully evaporated within the first quarter mile of the climb, and I was bone dry.

This was the first of the two tough climbs out of the canyons. The next would be the climb to Michigan Bluff, where I would see my one-person crew-and-pacer again. As always, I asked the distance to the next aid station, and was given distance and lay-of-the-land. The description didn’t match my recollection of the course because I’d forgotten that there was another aid station between Devil’s Thumb and Michigan Bluff.

I was watching the miles as I headed down. The mountain dropped off to my right, into a gorge at the bottom of which I could hear a stream. It seemed to me that I was heading down into that gorge, but that couldn’t be right if I still had a three mile climb to Michigan Bluff. The trail would have to head back up. Still, I kept going down. It was actually a beautiful descent, and I would have enjoyed it more if it hadn’t meant confusion and more miles. At the bottom, on the bridge across the stream, was the El Dorado Creek aid station. From there came the 2.8 mile climb up to Michigan Bluff.

The climb to Michigan Bluff was not bad, but I was hot and tired, and this was my first genuine low point of the race. I was in a pretty bad mood when I hit the aid station. My Garmin had also died. I have Asperger’s, which means I struggle much more than the other 99% of the population that’s neurotypical when dealing with sudden changes in plans, environment, and conditions. It also means my frustration can red-line almost instantaneously. The added mileage and the dead Garmin were both changes in conditions that took a bit of regrouping.

I power hiked the miles in to Forest Hill, passing a number of runners who were slowing down, and got there just a little off my plan B pace. Things seemed to be going wrong and yet I wasn’t that far off pace. I was done with the hardest part of the course, and with the heat. I had about a 60K left, and it was all runnable stuff. That I hadn’t been running much the past 15 miles wasn’t such a big deal; those were tough hills and hot temperatures and I reckoned things would mellow. Andrea was set up just before the aid station. A change of shoes, some food, a few minutes rest, and we were off. Things were great.

You think that because you understand “one” you must therefore understand “two” because one and one make two. But you forget that you must also understand “and”. – Sufi teaching story.

Runners leave Forest Hill on pavement, followed by a downhill on dirt road and, finally, single track. I was walking a brisk 15 minute-per-mile pace. The trail smoothed out, and we ran a few short sections. “We’ll do more running,” I said, “As soon as my stomach settles.” I’d been feeling nauseous for a while, but I figured it would right itself as things cooled down, especially now that I’d switched to drinking water instead of electrolytes. Everything seemed good. The worst was over, I figured.

Maybe it was at Dardanelles or maybe it was at Peachstone: I sat down for a moment to rest while I ate some food. When I stood up, not more than two minutes later, I had shooting pains in my left knee. I panicked just a little. We started down a steep hill. Andrea suggested it would loosen up after I walked a little, and it did.

All of a sudden, things weren’t making sense.

The problem is I just don’t have a holistic view of the way my muscles function.

I don’t know why I struggle so often to grasp the following: I am a system. I am a “set of elements or parts that is coherently organized and interconnected in a structure that produces a characteristic set of behaviors, [aka] function or purpose.” (I lifted that quote from “Thinking in Systems”, by Donella H. Meadows). I have subsystems, too, and one of those subsystems is my left leg.

That everything is connected (that there is no “I”) is a central tenet of Buddhism, which I claim to practice, albeit in a dilettantish, mostly secular Western way. That everything happens for a reason is a basic tenet of Stoic philosophy, which I also claim to practice in a half-assed way. Stoicism and the Twelve Steps both emphasize non judgmental acceptance of whatever is happening. I’ve been doing the Twelve Steps successfully (by the one measure of success, which is sobriety) for 19 years. Finally, I am, by profession, a systems thinker, and good at it, too, until it comes to my left leg. My left leg and I have done this crippled dance before, and I just don’t seem to learn.

The leg bone’s connected to the knee bone,
The knee bone’s connected to the thigh bone,
The thigh bone’s connected to the hip bone,
Now shake dem skeleton bones!

Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones,
Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones,
Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones,
Now shake dem skeleton bones!

The hip bone’s connected to the back bone
The back bone’s connected to the neck bone,
The neck bone’s connected to the head bone,
Now shake dem skeleton bones!

All those separate parts: the semitendinosus, semimembranosus, biceps femoris long & short head, which combine to form the hamstrings and flex the knee and straighten the hip, crossing both the hip and the knee joint, and the calf, which is actually two muscles – the two headed gastrocnemius and the soleus – and the quads, which are actually four muscles, (as the name would imply), plus the adductors, which are actually 6 muscles, all work in groups to flex, extend and stabilize the knee joint. The IT band starts in the glutes and runs around to the knees, which it helps stabilize both in extension and in partial flexion. That all lot of stuff that meets around the knee. It’s all connected. There is a lot of “and”, and the “and” was failing.

I asked the medical folks at Peachstone. They looked a little alarmed when I described what was going wrong. I told them I was going to finish, so they gave me a few stretches I could try to open things up, or at least prevent them from closing down.

Rucky Chucky
Rucky Chucky, photo by Keith Facchino

“Make Full Use of What Happens to You” – Epictetus

I’d written “Make full use of what happens to you” on my left thigh, using a Sharpie. No amount of dirt and sweat and tumbles on the trail were going to get rid of it. It and then Serenity Prayer were going to be my race strategy. But how do you make full use of a torn calf muscle, shooting pains in the IT band, a swollen knee, and a strained hamstring, all on the same leg, creating a situation in which stopping even for a moment caused everything to seize, but forward movement was becoming harder, slower, and more painful? How do you make full use out of no longer being able to walk but having 15 miles left until the finish?

“Every difficulty in life presents us with an opportunity to turn inward and invoke our own submerged inner resources,” said the Stoic Epictetus. “The trials we endure can and should introduce us to our strengths.”

Rucky Chucky was going to be an important test. I’d discovered I could not stop, so there would be no stopping for food or bottle refill at the aid station. I needed to get across the river as quickly and gently as possible. Once across, I would need to stop and change shorts, socks and shoes. I had Andrea go ahead of me to get my gear prepared. I could not sit down to do any of this.

I knew one of the guys manning the ropes at the river crossing. “I don’t think I can do this,” I told him. He thought I was complained about the cold, but the cool water felt great.

Just a few miles after the hopeful river crossing, I could not figure out what inner resource to call upon. My inner resources had not given me much trouble for 80 miles, the last 12 of them in pain with a knowledge that things were breaking fast and a growing doubt/fear that I could finish. I’d manage to stave off most panic, and things actually looked encouraging for a bit after the Rucky Chucky river crossing. The magic waters of the American River had washed away the shooting pains outside of my knee. My hamstring felt a little loose and floppy, like it belonged on a leg six inches longer than mine; I felt unstable and there was swelling behind the knee, but the shooting pains were gone.

Once you “build on the habit of matching the appropriate inner resource to each incident…you will stop feeling overwhelmed so much of the time,” said Epictetus.

I was feeling overwhelmed.

I was ankle deep in a stream, not able to see the trail, it was 4 in the morning, I couldn’t stand steadily, the plenty-of-time I was so sure I had to walk in a 28 hour finish had pretty much dissipated, and I was definitely unsure of the appropriate inner resource, very overwhelmed, and screaming “where is the fucking trail?!” over and over at Andrea. The only inner resources I could find at that moment were desperation and rage.

Numbers are consoling to Aspies like me. I like data. I’d been asking Andrea to give me a steady stream of information. Certain things are very important to me. I always want to know my pace, and I always want to know how far we have until the next aid station. Andrea prides herself on being able to do calculations on the fly. Every mile or so I’d have her recrunch the numbers. I was still on twenty-eight hour pace, but my pace was slipping hard and fast. I was moving at about 30 minutes per mile, half of what I’d been doing just a few miles earlier. Fifteen miles in five hours was out of reach.

Maybe the appropriate inner resource was to accept as gently as possible that the race was over and to do no more damage to whatever it was that was so obviously falling apart.

Andrea was unsure what to do. We got back on the trail and headed in silently to Auburn Lakes aid station. I picked up the pace a little.

Second Sunrise.

The problem with running 100 miles, if you’re a middle of the packer like me, is that it takes a long time. Some people feel energized by sunrise on the second morning. I’m not one of them. The second sunrise makes me feel a bit despondent.

I remember an after after hours dance club in Barcelona, and Marishka, my Swedish-Hungarian not really girlfriend. We’d drink and dance and smoke and make our just a little and then stumble out onto las rambles an hour or two after sunrise on a Sunday morning. Everyone would look bright and fresh and well rested. They were mostly on their way to mass, it seemed, and we were drunk, smelled awful, out of money, soaked in boozy sweat, and the bright sunlight hurt our bloodshot eyes. I always regretted those mornings. I always wished we’d gotten out while it was still dark.

There was light on the horizon as we shuffled in to Auburn Lakes. I’d been out twenty four hours. My left leg had stopped working. I was angry and bitterly disappointed, and I snapped at the aid station volunteers. “How far to the next aid station?” “Fifty feet” “Thanks, (not really), but I meant the next aid station.” Blank look. “Fifty feet”. Hell, it was 5am for all of us, not just me.

I sat down. A volunteer wrapped me in a blanket. My teeth started chattering, which is what happens to me when my body shuts down. Andrea tried to massage my leg. Western States was over. I thought I saw tears in Andrea’s eyes.

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