The (Modified) Zen of Super Ultra Running with Diabetes

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.

the modified zen of long distance running

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 slogging out the miles 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. 

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 anyway (which they do), but in order to learn from the doing.

  • You may learn which hand works best for eating and which one works best for touching unsanitary stuff.
  • You may learn which fingers work best for blood sugar tests.
  • You may learn to do a better job of lubing and taping your feet.
  • You may learn you need to do a better job of packing.
  • You may learn that you need to eat faster, check into the hotel (or make camp) faster, and get to sleep faster.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • You may learn that while exercise makes you more insulin sensitive, stress makes you more insulin resistant.
  • You may learn that Parliament-Funkadelic at 3 AM doesn’t sound as badass as you thought it would.
  • You may learn that you can go for nearly 2 days without sleep.
  • You may learn the less you sleep, the worse your judgment is.
  • You may learn that you can set pain aside, but you have to acknowledge it.
  • You may learn how, after running 50 miles on blisters, what actually ticks you off isn’t pain, but the little stuff that doesn’t matter.
  • You may learn that monotony can nearly drive you crazy.
  • You may learn that you need “safety questions” so your crew knows when you’re not thinking straight.
  • You may learn that you’re not wearing the right shoes for 100+ miles. 
  • You may discover you hate oversweet GU gels and bone-dry CLIF bars.
  • You may discover you like yogurt way more than you thought you did, because it’s cool, high fat, high protein, and high sugar.
  • You may learn that sauna training actually helps with heat running.

Accumulate knowledge and experiences that will be valuable to you when you set out on your Big Epic Adventure. If you don’t learn anything new, you’re not making progress. You’re JUST chopping wood and carrying water.

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 Big Run. Instead, 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.

But you have time on super-ultra runs for meditation and reflection, and even if you’re not trying, there’s no way you can run 100+ miles without taking something transformative from it, unless you’re really trying hard not to. And the odds of that go up as you throw on another 100 miles, and another 100, and another.

After your epic run, you may feel fatigued, tired, or even depressed. You may sleep poorly. You may lose weight despite eating well. You may feel like you don’t fit in somehow. These things, though, are just the biochemical consequences of extended effort and extreme endurance. They will pass.

If you are paying attention, though, something strange may happen:

  • You may plumb depths of will and determination that you ever thought yourself capable of.
  • You may discover that despite diabetes or other chronic conditions, you are more resilient, resourceful, and strong than you imagined.
  • You may gain fresh appreciation into the simple things.
  • You may come to treasure the kindness of strangers and new friends.
  • You may be humbled by how your friends are willing 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 feel more at home on the road than in a house.
  • You may experience a new sense of purpose, compassion, or a feeling of spiritual transformation.
  • You may learn just how holy, transcendent, and beautiful each new dawn can be, and how good it is to be alive.

When that moment comes, you will know, no longer worry, why you chop wood and carry water.

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