by Jason Sarouhan
My coach is looking at me intently. She tells me, “I’m a little confused by the words that you chose about how going on a run like that makes you feel.”
It is Thursday, and we are in the middle of my first life-coaching session. I have just returned from racing 175 miles over 8 days in the Alps, and the afterglow of the Transalpine experience feels like a hazy dream as I struggle to wrap my mind around having been laid off from my job of nine years just three days after arriving home. We are discussing my response to the prompt What’s Your Favorite Thing to Do Just for You? I had written: Go on a long (8-12 hour) adventure run in big mountains. I love the harmony of the experience with the land, dancing with the topography and the mental/spiritual calm of being in a ‘peak experience.’
“It’s not that the words Engaged, Creative, or Grateful themselves don’t make sense, but rather that those words are so different from the words you use to describe the way that you feel about other people who are also drawn to do challenging things.”
I ponder this for a moment. “Like I think that someone who runs a 5K for the first time is inspiring and strong and courageous?”
“Yes,” she says.
“Well, that’s because I think that they are all of those things for pushing past their boundaries.”
“But you are not those things when you push past your own?”
“I hate running,” she states matter-of-factly. “I am not drawn to physical activity the way that you are. When you suggest that my running a 5K is the same as your approach to running 8-10 hours in the mountains, I think that you are not acknowledging that your relationship with running is exceptional; it is a Unique Genius for you. This is special, and different than the experience that I have with running, and your conflating the two efforts doesn’t enhance my experience or really honor yours. For me, life coaching and having conversations like this is a Unique Genius. I can relate to yours in running because I understand and accept my own innate gifts.”
A tiny explosion occurs inside my brain. She is not wrong about any of this.
“Let’s find your real words. Put your feet on the ground, close your eyes, and imagine one of your favorite moments when you were running in the Alps.”
I am immediately drawn to a three-mile descent that was like pure magic. I had let it all go on this section of singletrack: dancing over stone, passing dozens of other runners, hooting and hollering in the pure ecstasy of the moment. It was trail running at its purest for me.
“How do you feel when you remember this experience in the Alps?”
“I feel… Joy… Freedom… Artistic… Strong.”
“Those are your words,” she says. “Start owning your Unique Genius.”
Runners crest a pass in the Alps (photo courtesy J. Sarouhan).
It’s now Sunday and I am shuffling around at the start line of the Vermont 50K. I hadn’t slept well in the back of our Subaru the night before, in the way that people don’t sleep well when they might have reached the age where the probably shouldn’t be sleeping in the back of cars. I had signed up for the race at the last possible moment, fueled by my achievement in the Alps and the deep hope that this could be the year that I pull off a PR and finally break 5 hours in this race. I had been chasing those measly three minutes for a few years now, but my current motivation had been overshadowed by all that had happened since I had returned to the U.S. I wasn’t sure why I was here in Vermont instead of at home with my family. Hadn’t I done/proven/worked/run/ suffered/asked enough?
I close my eyes and breathe. Pre-race sounds begin to fade into the background. I plumb my heart for an intention and am surprised to find one waiting patiently there: “Make art for these next five hours.”
It was not the intention that I had expected. I open my eyes, someone yells ‘Go,’ and I am running. The first mile passes quickly, though I am going out easy. A guy is speeding way out in front at what looks like a sub-7 pace; I absently wonder if he is that fast or if I will see him again.
At Mile Two I realize I am in 4th place and immediately dial back, allowing a dozen runners to pass with fist bumps and positive affirmations. This isn’t my first VT 50K and I definitely don’t belong that far up front. I begin to think about Sage Rountree’s article, Tips for Racing Wisely, that I read before every race and remember one of my favorite passages talks about dividing the race into fourths. In that moment I decide to embody one of my Unique Genius words in each quarter of this course.
The Joy miles cruise stunningly by as I take in the grandeur that is Vermont in late September of a peak foliage year. I marvel at the expansive farms with rolling grass hills, red barns, and bell-ringing cows. Conversation comes easily and I laugh with two early-twenty somethings that were baited into this race by their high-school cross-country coach despite the fact that neither of them had ever run more than a half-marathon. One of them makes it to the marathon mark before I see him again. The other goes on to take fifth overall in the race.
By the second quarter my pace has settled in and I dive headlong into Freedom. Gravel dirt roads give way to perfect singletrack. Mountain bikers, still fresh despite their much earlier race start, join the course with shouts of affirmation and appreciation for the runners. We are each in awe of the other’s modality and yet sharing the trails is a synergy that feels special and alive and full of possibility. We all dedicate hours of time to training: early mornings, late nights, juggling work and family and responsibility to be in these moments of possibility and freedom. Everything feels smooth; nothing is fatigued. I flow through Greenall’s Aid Station like a triathlete who had practiced her swim-bike transition until it almost felt natural.
By the time I am back into the woods I encounter a runner who had passed me earlier in the race. I share with her that the summit of the big climb ahead marks the halfway point in the race and then slide smoothly by on up the trail. I will pass another runner each mile for the rest of the race; I meet the speedy (but now hobbling) front-runner at Mile 15.
The summit comes and goes, and I hear Rountree’s voice in my head, “The third lap of the mile, the third length of the 100 in the pool, the third quarter of the marathon—these are the tough ones. Therefore, prepare yourself to bear down especially hard in the third quarter. Use all your mental skills, remembering intention and goals, checking form and breath.”
Indeed, the third quarter of Vermont 50K is truly where the race begins for runners. The singletrack becomes more technical, the climbs more sustained. Runners plunge into the realm of switchbacking mountain bike trails where the length of a mile takes on a whole new meaning and the next aid station can feel desperately far away. I chuckle to myself as I begin to descend… it’s time to be Artistic.
Time to Play
I spend an hour painting something beautiful with my feet as I dance with two-wheeled partners along the leaflittered paths. I give them the most graceful performance I can conjure and they share their enthusiastic ovations in return. The landscape invites me to frolic with undulating twists and dips and I focus on the cleanest, closest glide; tracing its course within a whisper of its true line. I make the final climb out of the woods and appreciatively decline a Dixie cup of beer offered by an 8-year old in a perfect lemonade-stand abstraction for this mystical immersion. I have run my most resplendent miles. I feel like I am transcending running altogether… the effort is gone, and I have begun to exist somewhere between the movement and the sacred. I am playing at Bone Games.
This part of VT50K breaks several runners, as it has done me in the past. They plod or jog, head down, through the endless final segment of singletrack. I offer encouragement and congratulations. We are so close. Rountree: “In that fourth quarter, you’re almost there. You’ve committed fully to the pace, now you just need to hold on to it. If you are pacing correctly, your perceived effort will increase steadily and your pace will maintain. If you can speed up, do…”
I channel Strong as I float over the trails. I am detached from the act now and only serve as a conduit for this performance. Despite the increased effort I feel distant, an objective witness to the discomfort as if in a meditation. This is pure flow state and it feels like a privilege. The final aid station is in sight; and beyond it, the last climb up the ski hill. A runner is walking towards the incline and we lock eyes.
“You’ve got this,” I say, echoing the words he shared with me at Mile 2. He is now racing miles past the edge of his own known limits; adventuring off the map beyond 26.2. I ascend on legs that have more to give and encounter my favorite plaid-clad bicyclist.
“Is that you, Red Shoes?” she asks.
“You’re absolutely crushing this!”
“We are absolutely crushing this.” I pass off-piste and continue to climb. Her words carry me aloft.
At the top of the hill I greet my final runner. He is shattered by the ascent but resolved to push through the last mile and a half. Last year I too was at this very spot begging/ pleading/willing my body forward, but not today. We share a smile and it is time for me to fly.
Fatigue is chasing me. I concentrate on Strong again, and remind myself that I only have ten more minutes. This longest mile asks for all that my body has left, but resolves with a definitive ‘.5 to go’ marker, just in time. It’s nearly all downhill from here.
I look up at a spectator’s cheer some forty yards away at the downhill turn; my gaze lingering half a moment too long. And just like that the magical journey is over as I catch my toe on the one rock on that dusty track and crash to the ground in a contorted pile of grunts and bleeding skin. My trance is broken; feeling and emotion rush back into me and I am awakened from the dream that has been the last 30 miles.
I pick myself up and hurtle down the final descent, passing the cheering throngs scattered on the grassy slope. Though I have not been racing anyone all day, running with Courage feels like the only way to honor the finish line. Tears well up as I pass through the chute. I feel so honored to have experienced a performance like this… a personal masterwork where running blurred into true movement artistry… a manifestation of my own Unique Genius.
Jason on the move at Monroe-Dunbar Brook (photo by Ben Kimball).
Tough going in the Alps.
Jason Sarouhan is a trail runner who lives in Northampton. His performance at the 2019 VT 50K was a 20-minute PR and his only top ten finish in a 50K event.
Rountree, Sage: “Racing Wisely: A Practical and Philosophical Guide to Performing at Your Personal Best”
Schultheis, Rob: Bone Games: Extreme Sports, Shamanism, Zen, and the Search for Transcendence
Originally published in The Sugarloaf Sun November/December 2019 issue.
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