Angeles Crest 100 is a 100 mile trail run through the scrappy, tough-like-a-Mexican-boxer San Gabriel Mountains. It’s easily the hardest of all races in California – this assessment is not a judgment call but based on finishing times – and one of the hardest in the country. AC100 never teaches me anything, but it often shows me the things I need to learn, not so much about running but about life itself. This is the story of this year’s lessons.
In 2012, AC100 was my first attempt at 100 miles, and my first 100 mile finish. It’s not an easy race, and perhaps attempting it as a first was a stupid idea, or maybe an arrogant one, but I succeeded. 2013 I started injured, and dropped at 75 miles. 2014 I started in the best running shape I’d ever been in, and was running my perfect race until all of a sudden things fell apart at mile 59.
About 10 miles earlier, at Mt. Hiller Aid Station, I had one of those generally meaningless polite conversations between two runners at aid stations. I probably started it by asking “How are you doing’?” or “Having fun yet?” Her answer was an unfiltered blast of anger and misery. She was hating everything at that moment.
I was taken aback. This was a blast of bitterness that I hadn’t expected and wasn’t prepared to deflect. As I recoiled inwardly, I realized that on more than a few occasions I had been that other runner, inflicting my emotions by unleashing a torrent of personal misery on someone else just because they were there.
As I left Mt. Hiller, I vowed never to be that runner again.
I left Chilao feeling great. I commented out loud to no-one about the beautiful sunset as I hit Charlton Flats. And then the downpour started. I’m kind of like a cat when it comes to getting wet, and I got miserable in hurry on the climb out of the canyon. Shortcut aid station was an Aspie’s worst nightmare. The rain was torrential, and the aid station was jammed with people – too many, really – crews were excessive this year – all crowded under a few canopies to stay dry, all in some stage of emotional meltdown. My crew and my friends did their best to force me to remain in the race, but being forceful was probably the worst thing they could do – now they were part of what to me seemed like an assault. Had I been left alone to decide on my own, it’s possible and maybe even likely I’d’ve decided to keep going, but there was no way to be left alone at Shortcut in a torrential rain.
Howie, Andrea & I, Javelina Jundred finish.
Just about everything I need to work on in life presented itself during this year’s AC100. The moral of the story, and the message of much of this year, is that I need quiet. Lots and lots of quiet. I need plenty of wide open space and air not cluttered with emotional detritus.
Some people get this. My crew at Javelina understood that all they needed to do was give me space to make my own decisions, and given that space I’d pretty much always decide to continue. Andrea Feucht writes about it on Medium. Thank you Andrea and Howie Stern for being a great crew and for being great friends.
In life our first job is this, to divide and distinguish things into two categories: externals I cannot control, but the choices I make with regard to them I do control. Where will I find good and bad? In me, in my choices.
The Stoics understood this thousands of years ago. The Stoics believed that it is virtuous to maintain a will that is in accord with nature. To the Stoics, this is not just a philosophy but a way of life, and it is not about what we think or say or believe but about what we do. We do not control the world around us. We only control how we respond. Our response should be virtuous.
Some people don’t get it. Some people see acceptance as a form of weakness. They think they have the capacity to change the world by force of will. Often enough, the realities we are forced to deal with are not desirable, but if they are the very limited scope of what we can change, our choices narrow to deal with it, or not. It doesn’t matter how aggressive, how relentless, how self-righteous, how bullying we are; if something is beyond the scope of our control it is beyond the scope of our control and ugly behavior in response is just ugly behavior. That’s what the Stoics were trying to drive home. That’s also what AA’s founders meant when they wrote “Acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing or situation — some fact of my life — unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that…I need to concentrate not so much on what needs to be changed in the world as on what needs to be changed in me and in my attitudes.”
Tempers flared in the immediate aftermath of AC100. Certain people tried will power, social media confrontation, and public bullying to force changes to the race. Needless to say, it backfired, and all entrants will suffer as the result of the self righteousness of a few individuals, or, more accurately, the race director’s predictable response to it. News flash: Shield is a TV show based on a comic strip. It is not real. None of us is Uri Geller or the Amazing Kreskin or a mutant with superpowers. We can’t use will power to bend spoons or force Ken Hamada to do things he doesn’t want to do, no matter how aggressively we try. If, knowing that, you must attempt something like this, please go for the spoon. There will be less damage.
Folks are usually about as happy as they make their minds up to be. – Abraham Lincoln.
There’s a saying I often hear: “Would you rather be happy, or right?” Ask yourself that question. It’s a tough one. How many of you would honestly answer “happy”? How many of you would pass up the compulsion to get the last word in, just to hammer the point home? I’m not so sure I can easily walk away from a fight when I know I’m right just as sure as the other guy is convinced he is. It’s a matter of principal, man. Gotta stand for something. This is when another old saying comes in handy, the one about picking your battles. Life does not need to be an endless struggle to get a point across. Most often it makes more sense to just smile and nod and let it go.
Some days my life is as great as a life can be. The next day, my life might suck. Usually, nothing has actually changed from the first day to the second except for my attitude. Yes, some people are depressive, and others naturally upbeat. I tend towards the former. “Mr. Happy-Go-Lucky” is not really my middle name. Still, within the confines of my own temperament, I usually have a choice as to how happy I am going to be. Sometimes, that involves taking action. Sometimes it involves sitting still. Meditation is helpful. So is a good run. A kind word helps, too, especially when directed at someone I don’t feel particularly kindly towards. Instead of changing Ken Hamada or any of the people who are trying to change Ken Hamada, I can change myself, and this turns out to be excellent news because I spend a lot more time with me than I do with them.
When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help. That’s the message he is sending – Thích Nhất Hạnh
I don’t yet have sufficient compassion when the suffering of others takes the form of anger and aggression and spills over into my space. Perhaps I never will. Maybe I’m just a sensitive guy. Maybe I’m too much of an introvert. Maybe it’s that pesky Asperbergers. Whatever it is, one of 2014’s lessons was that I need to let the angry and bitter be angry and bitter at a greater distance from me than ever before.
I’m signed up again for AC100. I’m almost certain I won’t start. AC100 has been at the center of all that I’ve done in running for the past three years. It’s all been near the center of life: out of it have come my best friendships, and those friendships were central to 2014. I think I’ll be served better to have the race itself a little further in the background. There are parts of the course I love, parts of the course I hate, and parts I would love if I didn’t hate them so much on race day.
St. Francis Prayer
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And the wisdom to know the difference
The Serenity Prayer is probably the simplest summation of Stoicism, and I hear it used in Stoic meditations. Attributed to Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, it’s become the primary 12 Step prayer, and is one of the first things I learned almost 18 years ago when I got sober. In 2015, I want to put all of this back to work as never before. The St. Francis Prayer goes into more detail about this can be done. If the Serenity Prayer tells us what to do, the St. Francis prayer tells us how to do it. There’s a detour from the El Prieto Trail. In the middle, there’s an old car hood on which is painted the first half of the St. Francis Prayer. I run that detour just for the prayer.
People sometimes say, ‘Running is my meditation.’ Even though I know what they mean, in reality, running is running and meditation is meditation. That’s why they have different names. – Sakyong Mipham
Sakyong Mipham is the head of Shambhala, a school of secular Buddhism founded by his controversial but brilliant father Chögyam Trungpa. The Shambhala tradition “emphasizes confidence in the basic goodness of all beings and teaches courageous rulership based on wisdom and compassion.” He is also an accomplished distance runner. He’s written an excellent book called “Running with the Mind of Meditation.” It’s a book about running and a book about meditating, and he begins by asserting that in his view, these are two wholly different (but complimentary) activities. “The nature of the body is form and substance. The nature of the mind is consciousness…The body benefits from movement, and the mind benefits from stillness.” He asserts that we’d best give both body and mind what they need if we are to achieve a harmony. To achieve that harmony only doing one or the other is not so easy.
Running With the Mind of Meditation is a wonderful book, especially if you are both a runner and a meditator, which I at least try to be. It’s full of great suggestions. The one that is of singlemost value to me is the suggestion that all of this – running, meditation, and life in general, be done with gentleness.
Aggression is a short-term solution for a long-term problem. Gentleness is persistent. Gentleness is therefore a sign of strength, while aggression is often a sign of weakness. Aggression is often a last resort. Where do you go from there? If you become more aggressive, you seem insane, whereas if you have gentleness, you are like a great ocean holding a lot of power. – Sakyong Mipham
I could benefit from gentleness in all aspects of my life. What if my mind was gentle during a race? If events in a race take a sudden turn and I’m not prepared, what happens if I opt for gentleness and not for frustration, bewilderment or despair? Probably no more DNFs. What if I applied gentleness to coworkers? It wouldn’t make the incompetent any less incompetent, but it would make me less affected by it. What about the angry people around me? I’ve been that guy. I now get to see what a bummer he is. I’ve worked hard these last few years to no longer be him. (The running has helped). My angry acquaintances can do the same, if they want. Meanwhile, I have the luxury of being able to put some distance between all that suffering and me.
Gentleness will bring us to Stoicism and the Serenity Prayer. “Gentleness can be developed with simple thoughts,” writes Sokyong Mipham. “Look at what you can do, and don’t let what you cannot do oppress you.”
I think the quiet I longed for in 2014 will come from this gentleness, as will better relationships and a few strong race finishes. That’s all I want for now.
I went through this year’s photos and picked the ones I liked best. Not necessarily the ones with the most meaning; just the ones I liked. Turns out to be a lot of photos of mountains.