"Pain in the legs is a taste of zen." Yamada Roshi
So let's start there.
The final manned aid station for the Heatland 50 mile race was 8.2 miles from the finish, and I shuffled in, watching a mass of headlamp lights stream down the hill behind me. My hip flexors ached, and my stride refused to open up, a result of the 40+ miles of flat dirt road running - or rather, muddy road running.
I took three gels, and stashed them in my Nathan pack, planning to need only two of them. I sipped some Coke, and an attendant informed me, shockingly, that I was in third place. This, I did not know. Fourth or fifth, I had thought, but not third. And yet here I was, apparently, just a little over 10K from my first top-ten ultra finish.
I stepped out from under the tent, and gazed up in to the sky. It was crisp and clear, the stars and white miasma between them stark and urgently present.
I walked about twenty yards, and then ran, as best I could. I shuffled up on my forefoot, my legs spinning out to the side with every step, further aggravating the hip flexors.
Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Three every second, but they kept coming, and kept moving forward. There was solace in that pain, that feeling that I had earned this, and that it would not disable me. It hurt, but it was not an injury. Sometimes you just know. And I knew, also, that I just had to keep going. My lead may have been small, but even a half-mile is a long way to make up in 8.
Zen or not, there is a certain trance you enter in to in any endurance event, where your body accepts the mind's instructions, the cold logic of "the faster you go, the sooner you finish". And so I followed the lights, squishing and slipping after the headlamps ahead of me, and away from those behind me. I was a ghost among others, our shared pains and desires driving us towards those brighter lights down the road, forever just so close, like a desert mirage.
The pavement arrived, and I turned on to it, the finishing chute only a quarter mile away. I could see the red lights, marking the time, giving some semblance of meaning to this pronounced foolishness. I ran, imagining a sprint, but perhaps only flirting with an 8 minute mile pace, my quads searing, my mind flooding with chemicals you can only buy with your own two feet.