During Ragnar Trail this weekend, I thought a lot about intentionality.
During every Ragnar, I intentionally drink more water than seems humanly possible. I eat and eat and eat… I might even feel pretty disgusted by food – like I’m going to throw up if I eat anything… and still, I shovel food into my mouth. I sleep when sleep is available to me even if I have to put back two or three Benadryls to make it happen. My clothes are packed in gallon ziplock bags that I label “Night Run” or “Camp Clothes” or “Backup Clothes,” into which, I carefully place everything I’m going to need for each part of the race… down to which underwears and socks (or no socks) are for which run. I get out of the sun when shade is available to me. I sit on the ground, because, regardless of what others are doing, it’s always wise to get off my feet in a race like this. I stretch. I wear compression socks between runs.
Needless to say, I attribute Ragnar success to intentionality.
Our teammates this weekend are not like that. They ran their first runs, then went back to the tent and drank a beer, which sounds like just about the worst idea in the whole history of the world to me, because I’ve seen more than a few people get rocked by dehydration during Ragnar. Just about the only things our teammates worried about was how many carbs they took in (wouldn’t want to get fat…), their makeup, and what their breasts looked like. They did things like finish an 8-mile run in the 90 ish degree heat, with no shade cover at. all. – a run they refused to carry water for… and they proceeded to sit down in the sun and not even sip water.
Now, let’s be fair to the intentionality before I tell you why intentionality can’t be the foundation of the race…
I have run 6 Ragnar Relays, mostly in the desert, without major incident, because intentionality definitely contributes to a well-run race. Other team members, who are far better runners than I will ever be, have needed someone else to pick up the last few miles of their runs. This is crazy because even having to walk the end of a run is shameful to runners. We even have a term for it; it’s called “balking.” Better runners than I have needed visits to the first aid tent during Ragnar. It’s not at all uncommon for people to throw up, walk 20-min-miles on completely flat surfaces, cry, etc… Because Ragnar is ridiculous. The fact that I’ve not severely inconvenienced my team is something with which I’m actually pretty impressed and surprised. The worst I can say is that I pretty much never help with the driving and might not even do a good job of supporting other runners. However, that’s nothing considering how constantly I expect this Ragnar to be the one where the shit hits the fan.
Because, here’s the deal, everything I mentioned about water, food, rest, etc.. is interconnected. When a person visits the first aid tent, it isn’t because he doesn’t drink enough water. It’s because he doesn’t drink enough water, so he gets overheated on his first run, and his body solves that problem with a quick heat purge.. he throws up. Then, he doesn’t think he should eat anything in case he throws up again, so he walks 20-minute-miles in his second leg of the race, because he doesn’t have enough calories in him to fuel a stroll around the neighborhood, much less a run in the middle of the night. Also his 20-minute-miles suck up his sleep time because his van spends an extra hour on the course; 20-minute-miles on a 6-mile-run generally adds an hour to our time, and more if the person expected to run faster than 10-minute-miles. Therefore, the other van gets extra sleep and may even try to make up that hour because all six runners are relatively well-rested and intentionally running slightly faster than their projected pace because they’re afraid the other van is going to also lose time on the 3rd leg of the race and they don’t want to have to finish the race super late. Consequently, our dehydrated team member ends up back on the course with less sleep than he would have had if he’d run his pace on the second run. Also, he’s felt really cold all night, because it actually is cold, and his body is jacked up, so he’s shivering even when the sun comes up… so he’s like, “Hey, the sun feels pretty amazing!” so he stands around soaking in the rays. Next, he starts his third run in the desert heat and obviously can’t finish. A teammate steps in and the other van picks him up and gets him to the first aid tent…
Had he intentionally pushed water from the beginning, pushing food wouldn’t have been as impossible, rehydrating wouldn’t have been as impossible, running the second leg wouldn’t have been as impossible, sleeping would have happened, standing in the sun would have seemed stupid, and he would have finished his third run.
So intentionality has its benefits.
That being said, intentionality is losing its standing just a bit in my book… it just seems like the Christian culture puts it on a pedestal that’s a bit too high.
I did my first Ragnar Trail race this weekend, and whilst running in the desert wilderness I learned a life lesson. Something from a sermon I heard a long time ago popped into my head; I don’t remember whose sermon it was, but it was about that passage that says, “Your word will be a lamp for my feet and a light to my path,” (Psalm 119 ish). In my brain, “word” is always a reference to John 1, and therefore reads more like, “Word,” (“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God; He was in the beginning with God…”).
I was doing my first run of the race, which was shockingly bad for a 5k. Running desert trails at night sucks kind of a lot. I pictured this race as the most magical thing ever, so maybe my expectations were too high. You see, I’ve recently become a pretty minimalist runner, which changes how wilderness running hits the brain. I never have a gps with me and I’ve given up mapping my runs. I just run until I don’t want to run anymore, then I walk home. I rarely know if I’m at mile 1 or mile 5 or whatever. Of course, I’ve developed a pretty decent intuition, but I’m definitely still surprised during a race almost every time I do(n’t) see a “1 mile to go” marker. Additionally, I don’t run with music and I’ve even made the switch to running in sandals rather than tennis shoes. I also refuse to take my phone with me anymore. Yes, that’s not safe… I know, but people have been running since before there were phones, so I’m not too worried about it. Last, but not least, I’m trying to replace synthesized nutrition during and after runs with whole foods.
That’s why trail running sounded about as amazing as drinking wine while reading a book sounds. Definitely not the same, but possibly the same level of pleasure.
I promise I’m not a granola snob and I promise running is still really hard for me. I still shave my pits and eat animal products. I sometimes won’t get off the couch to go pee because it sounds like too much work.
The running thing just fits with the personality quirk I have that I like to pretend I’m an Inca or possibly Greek messenger on my way to Marathon with tidings of war. Sometimes I imagine that I’m a tribesman on an endurance hunt, waiting for that gazelle to fall down and die. Other times, I like to be Frodo and/or Sam (depending on my self-image at the time), on my way to Mt. Doom to destroy the One Ring – yeah, I might not be a vegan yet, but I admit I’m a weirdo.
So, I intentionally run without much figurative or literal cushioning, because the antithesis of Incans, Greeks, tribesmen, and Frodo is someone with too much time and money, strapping on an Iphone, a heart-rate monitor, and a $300 pair of shoes designed by scientists in a lab, then trying to run faster than all of those other middle-to-upper class white folks who are bored of the board room. I feel like it should be a more organic part of life, where I’m running for a purpose that’s more than that… and I’m running with myself rather than hoping I won’t feel alone out there if I take The Fray or Eminem with me.
On this particular Ragnar run, I was reminded that I am a middle class folk rather than an Incan. You see, on my first leg of the race, there were way too many treacherous rocks, loose dirt, and up-down-up-down-down-up-down-up-up-ups. That kind of stuff doesn’t suck in the way a non-runner would think it sucks… ok, it sucks just exactly how you’d think it sucks, but it also sucks in a way you can’t imagine if you’ve never run trails at night.
As a first run of the race, 3.1 miles is nothing. It’s a warm-up. I remember when 3.1 miles on flat ground was inconceivable, so don’t take me as an elitest ass here, but when I’ve got 16 ish miles to run overall, 3.1 hardly registers in my brain as part of the race. I’m thinking about the 8.4 miles I have to run in the middle of the night with a wicked elevation gain. In fact, I’m thinking of that 8.4 miles before we even get in the car to drive for 2 hours to get to the start line. I’m thinking about the 8.4 miles the entire time I’m training (months in advance) because if I’m prepared for 8.4, I’m also prepared for 3.1.
So I hit the course that night, expecting to own the 3.1, and to suffer the 8.4.
That is not what happened.
That 3.1 felt an awful lot like a 5.5. Which is a terrible sign at the beginning of a race like this. Throughout the first mile or so, I worried about the 8.4, because a 3.1 that felt that shitty meant I probably wouldn’t physically be able to finish the race.
Additionally, the run that was supposed to be easiest was actually draining my mental fortitude because I couldn’t see far enough ahead to make out the bottoms or tops of hills. Had I wanted to see the top or bottom of a hill, I’d have had to stop running so I could safely move my headlamp away from the next few treacherous rocks to the top or bottom of the hill. Basically, I couldn’t ever figure out whether I could really let loose or should take it easy. This is a problem on a trail, because running too fast downhill is a good way to face-plant into a pile of rocks or a cactus, break a wrist trying to catch yourself, etc… I’ve also learned that uphills are crucial, because it’s easy to lose a minute-a-mile on trails by walking the wrong hills, but it’s also easy to lose three or four minutes-a-mile by running up the wrong hill and having to walk flats for the rest of the race because you’ve depleted energy stores.
Just so you know, running 16 miles is pretty much the most excruciating exercise in the world if you can’t settle in with a steady pace. When you can’t figure out a strategy for attacking hills, or you can’t figure out how big your steps should be, it’s more of a problem than it seems like it should be because you can’t settle in… you feel every step of a race that requires a lot of steps. You can’t stop thinking even a little. It sucks.
When I wasn’t busy going up or downhill during the 3.1 miles, I was running in a wash. What I’m telling you is that on the flats I was running in fairly deep sand. It felt a lot like someone had strapped anvils to my feet.
That was when I was struck by the verse.
“Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”
Not only could I not see far enough ahead on the hills – I couldn’t see far enough ahead to know when that wash was going to end.
Therefore, it seemed appropriate that Psalm 119:whatever become the anthem of my run. At the start of most runs nowadays, my anthem is either, “Stay the pace and run your race,” or “Easy, light, smooth, and fast.” What that means is, when my brain doesn’t just naturally have something to think, I think that anthem over and over again until my brain takes over with something else. Having an anthem gives me something positive to focus on so I don’t have to think about the sand, the hills, the dark, my burning muscles or lungs, the jackass who just passed me doing 7-minute-miles in the sand, etc…
“Christ is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”
Even when I can’t see the top of a hill, He lights the next step or, if I’m lucky, the next two steps.
“You are a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”
I finished the 3.1, and when folks asked me how it was, I was surprised that it honestly wasn’t that bad.
I went into the 8.4 expecting to walk nearly all of it. I thought I was probably going to take more than 2 hours on it, which is really slow, but the not being able to see where I’m headed at least a quarter mile in front of me slows me down a bit and is terrifying.
So I made the anthem of my previous run into the anthem of my race.
I don’t have any idea how long I took to finish the 8.4, but when people asked how it was, I was surprised again, because it was long, but gorgeous. There was some really pretty desert around me, and I even inexplicably settled in for the middle 4 miles or so, which is all I ever ask of any 8-mile run, and I certainly didn’t expect even that after my first experience with nighttime trail running.
About 10 hours later, I had a 4.something to run. This was the run our best runner had described as “the most technical,” which in trail-runner means up-down-up-down-down-up-down-up-up-ups with a crap-ton of rocks you’re going to have to jump over and a fair amount of loose sand.
My body at this point was doing well for a Ragnar, but prior to every third run in every Ragnar Relay, I’m preparing to feel more terrible than I’ve ever felt before. The third run of a Ragnar is when everyone walks except the skinny people who don’t even sweat when they run. It’s the great equalizer because the folks who do well on the third run aren’t necessarily great runners, but they are great sufferers.
So I went in expecting to run this one in an hour if I really pushed myself and more like an hour and ten minutes if I was suffering a little… way more if I suffered a lot. It was my only run of the race in sunlight, and it was getting toward the hottest part of the day. Runners who looked way more fit than I am were stumbling into the exchange and immediately lying down. Race volunteers asked everyone if they were okay as they finished their runs and the race announcer was adding in public service announcements about the dangers of running in the desert without water… even if there is a water station on your run. Also, one of my teammates had come in about 40 minutes after I expected him to be there, which was even after I mentally adjusted his projected pace for the heat and exhaustion I knew he was experiencing.
So I finally got out on the course, and passed a few dudes early on. It always cracks me up when that happens because a man has to really hurt to let a woman who weighs over 110 lbs pass him in a race. I figured those dudes would keep me in eyeshot for awhile and “zombie kill”me when the heat really got to me. I stuck to my anthem even though I could see the tops and bottoms of hills, and I actually didn’t even take advantage of the visibility; I hardly looked more than a step or two into the future, because each step has enough worries of its own.
And I didn’t see any of those dudes again.
Also, I started passing thin people, which is never something I do on a Ragnar. Actually, it’s not that I don’t do it so much as I really can’t.
That last run, which always absolutely rocks me… I usually text Lori mid-run to tell her how much slower than pace I’m going to be… this time, on a run that should have blown my knee, put me down for the count, etc… that last run ended up being my favorite run of the race and I finished it in just over 50 minutes.
Prior to the run, that time was actually a physical impossibility in my brain. That time meant I would have to beat my pace on the shortest leg of the race, which was also the only run for which my body and mind were fresh.
The only variable that changed between this Ragnar Relay and all the others when I felt terrible on the third run?
It’s all well-and-good to run the race trying to ignore all of the people who are faster than I am so that I don’t overexert. And it’s a nice idea to try to make running into something that’s easy/smooth/positive.
However, it’s something else entirely to take a race as it comes, and forget trying to make it into anything… to trust even the steps I can’t predict or control, and to entrust those steps to Christ when I could easily pick up the reins again because I can finally see where I’m going.
Becoming a minimalist runner is teaching me that God formed me with intentionality that I can trust.
I don’t need gps. Of course, one might come in handy at certain times, but the fact that others run with a gps doesn’t necessitate that I run with one, and God probably would have built one into my flesh were it a requirement.
I don’t need gu shots, and may even feel better if I put food into my stomach rather than gel.
I don’t need shoes with cushioning, and it’s insulting that folks think my feet are lacking in their design, and thus require corrective insoles. My feet don’t need to be corrected. God made them as they ought to be.
I don’t need an iPod.
I don’t even need a plan for every hill or valley… I only need the right lamp to me feet and light to my path. :-)