Getting There

When I started this blog, it was supposed to be about books and ideas. Then summer arrived, and, with it, dreams of an ultramarathon in the Italian Alps. Preparations for it have been an all-consuming slog. While my mind still strays to books and ideas, it is the preoccupations of heavy training that have come to dominate my mental life. So I thought a short interlude about trail musings would be apt.

Trail running in the Italian Dolomites
Trail runner in the Sella Group

Physically, I  am not quite where I want to be yet, but I think I am almost there. The event is a 61 kilometer loop around the Sella Group, a stunning cluster of white limestone crags in South Tyrol, the German-speaking part of northern Italy. The distance of the race is not the only challenge. The route also climbs a total of 3,300 meters, or about  10,800 feet, a punishing challenge I have not quite replicated in training. I’m not sure I’m ready for it yet, but a run up Pikes Peak last week, with a gain of 7,400 feet, has put me in sight of where I want to be.

My main goal at this point is not to arrive at the starting line disastrousy under-prepared. I will do my last big training run this weekend, 50 km, if the gods will it, and I think it will give me some idea of what it will be like to be on the move for 10 hours. The last 10 km of the race will be terra incognita but I hope not terra non concepta.

At my age, I keep my expectations low. There are four bailout points along the route, places where runners can quit and catch a bus back to the finish line if they can’t hack it. There are also minimum times for passing these gates, but I’m not worried about them. My training runs tell me I’ll pass the gates just fine.

Here’s what I mean by invoking my age, though. I am almost fifty now and not much inclined to trade misery for glory. The course’s last bailout is at 48 km. If I am feeling horrible at that point, why would I not just get on the bus and go home? The utilitarian in me says it would be much better to enjoy 45 km of idyllic trail running then retire to my alpine cabin and crack open an Evelyn Waugh novel with a whisky than to lacerate myself and muscle through the last couple hours, marring my experience of the Alps’ quiet beauty just to say I finished.

But I know that is just what is likely to happen. Once I’m in the thing, Evelyn Waugh will have to wait. I have sunk costs at stake.

The most obvious of these is the work I have put into the race. It may not be much by a professional athlete’s standards, but it has been enough to make me feel the experience is an ennobling one. One hundred km weeks, with hills, do not come easily to me.

Which brings me to the real issue, the moral tradeoffs of doing this kind of thing at my age. My family has been unfailingly generous in allowing me to spend several hours at a time pursuing my own pleasure. I have no illusions about why I am doing this; it is for the animal joy of running through forests, fields and hills for as long as I can. Why do they let me get away with it? Would they react the same each Sunday if I told them I was headed to the massage parlor the rest of the day?

Every time I go for a long run, I tally up the cost of conversations not had, stories not read, chores left to my wife. The realization sets in after about five hours that my absence does not just end when I get home and shower. The exahustion of the long runs saps the rest of the day. I am distinctly aware after a long run of not being completely available as a father and husband for several hours after I get home.

The feeling of being away so long, and of absenting myself so completely for the sake of an obsessive pleasure, puts me in the mind of the adulterer. There are differences, of course. Crucially, there is no third person involved; I haven’t drawn anyone else into my pursuit of ecstasy. But there is no getting around the fact that, each time I spend more than six hour on the trail, no matter how exalting the experience, I feel I gave failed a test of loyalty.

So I have learned one lesson even before I cross the finish line, or try to. This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing for me. I’m sure I’ll keep doing shorter events, maybe even an alpine marathon or two, but the ultras are only for people who can fence off their families and other grownup commitments at an acceptable moral cost. It’s not for me, at least not in the long run.