Since I completed the 223-mile Capital to Coast Relay solo run, I’ve been asked more than once: “How do you do it?”
The answer is: run 1 mile 223 times in a row. The secret lies not in the distance, but in what you learn from each monotonous mile.
Chop wood, carry water…
There’s an old story about a Zen adept who went to his master to ask the secret of enlightenment. “Chop wood, carry water,” says the master, and the student goes back home and meditates upon the advice.
Later, he comes back and says, “Master, I have chopped wood and carried water. How long until enlightenment comes?” The master replies again, “Chop wood, carry water.”
This continues several times until the now-frustrated student storms in on the Zen master in the middle of his meditation, having lost all control, and exclaims, “I have chopped a whole forest full of wood and carried a lake’s worth of water, and I still have not achieved enlightenment!”
After a long pause, the master sighs. Then he says, “Enlightenment may not come. But until it does, you must chop wood and carry water, because you will want a warm house and something to drink.”
There’s a lesson to the story, which is that there are some things you just have to do, whether you’re attempting enlightenment or just an extremely long run. You have to buy baby wipes. You have to change shoes and socks. You have to get fresh water, ice, and food.
…and pile rocks
And yet, as necessary as these are to a long-distance run, they won’t move you one inch of the distance from the Pacific to the Atlantic.
You have to accumulate something. Like data from testing your blood sugar.
If you learn that your blood sugar drops overnight after a long training run, you’ve accumulated knowledge. If you learn that when your feet start to blister, the stress drives up your blood sugar, you’ve learned something. And if you learn that you can’t just “run down” your blood sugar when you’re stressed, then you’ve definitely learned something.
In this way, there are some monotonous things you must do, not just because they need to be done (which they do), but in order to learn from the doing.
Why “pile rocks?”
In addition to doing the ordinary stuff (the chopping wood and carrying water), you have to learn something each time you set out or you’ll eventually get stuck at a plateau of effort.
When I first started running more than 50 miles at a time, only then did I learn that I did not have the right running shoes for doing super long distances.
Only when I did a 100-mile dry run of the 223-mile Capital to Coast Relay solo run, did I discover that running gels don’t sit well on an upset stomach; that warm, dry food doesn’t taste so good in the hot Texas sun, and that full fat premium yogurt digests well, doesn’t provoke restroom breaks, and provides a good source of carbs, fat, and protein that wakes me up and cools me down on a 100-degree day. I learned that sauna training helps you sweat more efficiently when running in desert conditions. Almost overnight, I became a fan of yogurt, canned fruit, and pudding.
If you don’t learn anything new, you’re not making progress. You’re JUST chopping wood and carrying water.
Accumulate knowledge and experiences that will be valuable to you when you set out on your Big Epic Adventure.
Force yourself to. Pushing boundaries isn’t just about doing ever more epic stuff. It’s about finding some truth you haven’t seen before that will make you a better long-distance runner.
Don’t just do the same thing over and over again (going low and over-treating the low, underfueling to keep your sugar from spiking, etc.) and expect something different from it. Repeat until you see what you are doing wrong, or try doing something else.
For instance, practice packing and unpacking groceries from your SUV until you get better at it. Practice what you will do next time your CGM sensor comes unstuck from 17 hours of sweating. You will discover Skin-Tac, waterproof Nexcare dressings, and self-cling surgical wraps. Practice testing, eating, and using the restroom with little opportunity to clean your hands. You will discover that one hand naturally becomes your “wipe” hand, another becomes your “eat” hand, and two fingers on THAT hand become your “testing fingers.”
Treat everything you do to prepare for your Big Run as if it’s important.
What you do with that knowledge is up to you.
But what about the enlightenment?
As the story says, enlightenment may not come. You may not be transformed into a glowing-faced Buddha by your run. You may break something, sprain something, or run into other trouble and have to pull out. You may get sick, or just sick and tired of running another 250 miles this week.
The nice thing about ultra long distance running is that it provides lots of time to meditate upon things like monotony and failure.
There’s no way you can run upwards of 100 miles and not take something useful from it, unless you’re really trying hard not to.
For instance, if you are paying attention (and not lost in your own world):
- You may learn which hand works best for eating and which one works best for touching unsanitary stuff. (I did)
- You may learn which fingers you like to test your blood sugar with. (I did)
- You may learn that you need to do a better job of lubing and taping your feet. (I did)
- You may learn you need to do a better job of packing. (I did)
- You may learn that you need to eat faster, check into the hotel (or make camp) faster, and get to sleep faster than you think. (I did)
- You may learn that a large SUV isn’t as useful as well-chosen equipment and a smaller vehicle with the right kind of storage. (I did)
- You may learn you need to slow down when you take walk breaks, or you’ll create “pull blisters” on the bottoms of your feet. (I did)
- You may learn that while exercise makes you more insulin sensitive, stress makes you more insulin resistant, and the two eventually meet. (I did)
- You may learn that Parliament-Funkadelic at 3 AM doesn’t sound as badass as you thought it would. (I did)
- You may learn that the longer you go without sleep, the worse your judgment is. (I did)
- You may learn that you can go for nearly two days without sleep. (I did)
- You may learn that while you cannot eliminate severe pain, you can set it aside for a while. (I did)
- You may learn that you have greater depths of will and determination that you ever thought possible. (I did)
- You may learn how, after running 50 miles on blisters, what actually ticks you off isn’t pain, but watered-down Gatorade or a lack of road shoulder. (I did).
- You may learn that road camber is an overrated threat to foot discomfort. (I did)
- You may learn that boredom and monotony can nearly drive you crazy. (I did)
- You may learn that you need to have “safety questions” so your crew knows when you’re not thinking straight. (I did)
- You may learn that if you have a chronic health condition, you can’t just pretend you don’t have it for a while. (I did)
- You may learn that despite diabetes, you are more resilient, resourceful, and strong than you thought you were. (I did)
- You may learn that you cannot do without your “T3D’s” — friends and family who care about your condition. (I did)
- You may be humbled by how willing your friends are to endure painful blisters from pacing you at all hours, without complaint, just to see you achieve your dream. (I did, 3 separate times)
- You may learn just how holy, transcendent, and beautiful each new dawn can be, and how good it is to be alive.
OK, those last two might come close to enlightenment. So sue me.