Saturday, February 25, 2017

Loss and Hope

I just finished re-reading my thoughts after my first finish at the Iditarod Trail Invitational in 2013. While the theme of "enough" was partly metaphorical, it would not be difficult to conclude that perhaps I should have taken it more literally. The next two years, first my father and then my wife passed away while I was out on the same trail.  It's difficult enough to explain why such an event attracts me in the first place, let alone the reason I'm returning to Alaska and an event associated with some of the most painful events in my life.

In truth, I have more than just a bit of ambivalence about being here right now. On top of that, these past couple of years have seen my enthusiasm for long-distance racing on a continual decline. Looking back at the two major events I entered last year, Hardrock 100 and Ultra Fiord, I enjoyed the time around the events—training and hiking in Colorado and Chile—much more than I did the actual races. In many ways, I feel like I'm ready to be done with ultrarunning. Looking back, I've accomplished everything I wanted to in the sport. Looking forward, there aren't any races for which I feel motivated to sign up. I still like running for it's own sake and will always love the trails, but long-distance racing seems to be losing its draw for me.

However, the ITI is different and it's different in a myriad of ways. While it is a race, I never think of it as such, not even in the sense of a race against the clock. Certainly, it takes great effort and there are times when I have to push to make it to a checkpoint before I sleep, but there is almost no actual running in it for me. Walking for up to 16 hours a day, I'm able to enjoy and take in my surroundings in a way that I cannot during other events. Even when the trail is bad and I struggle to gain ground, I am still surrounded by immense natural beauty in a remote and disconnected environment. Of course, I do have to stay aware out there, but there are also long periods of time absorbed in nothing but simple forward motion. In the remotest sections there is an almost unbelievable quiet and tranquility; hours can pass, even days, without encountering another living being.

In the stillness of the Alaskan wild there are mental landscapes to be explored as well. Going on foot provides more than ample time and space for introspection. In 2015, before I learned of the tragedy awaiting me—before my life fell apart—I had started a mental journey that parallelled my physical one. At some point out there on the trail I hit on the idea of looking back. Beginning with my very earliest childhood memories, I started "walking" through my life. Year by year, I reviewed what I could recall about events, people, things I did and, more importantly, what it felt like to be the person I was at that time. I found myself connecting different points in time, things that had happened, decisions I'd made and their effects on my life over time.

The most surprising thing was not any big self-revelations or discovery of changes I wanted to make in my life, because neither of those were the goal. The goal was simply to understand and accept that life and those choices that had brought me there, walking the Alaskan tundra. The most surprising thing was just how engaging this process became. Normally, I occupy much of the long days on the trail with my headphones on listening to music, comedy acts or audio books. Somehow, I didn't need any of that. My mind was completely engaged in the review and telling of my own story. It was a mental state that I can't imagine achieving in any other place, or time.

I never did complete that mental review. In the end, it didn't matter. In the end, I would learn that the life I was reviewing was, in a sense, no more. I realize that may sound dramatic, but it's nearly impossible to convey what it's like losing someone with whom you've spent the greater part of your adult life. So much of your individual identity becomes intertwined with that other person, the relationship you had and the life you built together, not to mention expectations for the future. When that person is gone, and especially if it happens suddenly and unexpectedly, it really is like losing a part of your self. What I've learned over the past two years is that the only way to begin healing from such a loss is to accept that, in many ways, you are starting a new life.

I don't expect or even plan to try and pick up my "life story" on the trail again; I've spent too much time focusing on the past as it is. So the question still remains as to why I am returning to this race. Part of starting a new life entails being open to seeing yourself in a different light and letting go of certain things from your past even, sometimes, things that seem part of your self-identity. Letting go of mountain races such as Hardrock isn't quite so difficult, especially when your body is telling you that maybe you aren't cut out for them anyways. But, like I said before, the ITI is different. In many ways, it is the sort of challenge that motivated my getting into endurance events in the first place, being able to complete an epic adventure under nothing but my own motive power.

So, if I am beginning a new life of sorts then I need to see what part, if any, adventures such as this might have in it. I've no expectations for the race other than to see what the trail brings me. I'm undertrained and not feeling 100% so I'm actually fine if I end up having to stop well short of the finish. I've also no expectations as to how I will feel about being out there. My first trip to McGrath was an overwhelmingly positive event. I'd love to recapture some bit of that initial feeling. If this does end up being my final time here, I'd for it to be on my own terms. Of course, I am well aware that part of the lure of this trail is that you don't get to set the terms.

If I enter this with the attitude of simply being happy with one more experience of the Iditarod Trail's vast expanse then there is no reason to come away disappointed with whatever that experience may be. 


Olga King said...

Best to you, Brother.

Leslie said...

Attaboy Steve! See what the trail brings you.