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An Ultra-Kind Season


It is December, that month when the sun reaches solstice, and nighttime reigns, the weather has a penchant to turn frightful or at least less comfortable–yeah, I begrudgingly left the house in something more than shorts and a warm-up jacket yesterday–healthy routines are disrupted with holiday schedules and the more cyclic nature of time reveals itself, dredging up memories of holidays past.

For me that means memories of skiing, of ice-skating on frozen ponds, of long solitary walks, and now even some long runs in winter snow storms, of sledding and caroling, singing in church choirs; of the magical feeling of midnight mass, all candles and incense. There are earlier childhood memories of being snowed in, often with no electricity, and opening presents on Christmas eve by firelight, of sleeping under a heavy, down feather tick, and of hiking a few miles with my family into the woods for a Christmas tree with our sturdy Welsh mountain ponies, a layer of freshly fallen snow covering their dappled rumps and sticking to their big, floppy eyelashes. And there are plenty more: of marvelous smells of baking and of roasting chestnuts, of cedar and frankincense; pretty much your whole standard holiday package in a lot of ways. These memories are fresh, the events as recent as the 1970 ‘s and ’80’s, though by the sound of them, you’d think I grew up in a different century. Like for much of rural America, it may as well have been. There are so many beautiful, beautiful postcard-perfect memories. I count my blessings.

So despite the hectic nature of the season, it’s a good time for me, full of introspection and maybe a little overeating, of seclusion and hibernation and, well, of dreaming. I regularly do a lot of dreaming, but lately I have been doing a lot more of it, and I am certain the running has had much to do with it. This time, I am dreaming of something big, something lofty–so lofty even,  I won’t speak of it just yet.  It is a long-term goal, perhaps.

This year is different, it seems, because I am different. My tiny taste of running distance and introduction into the ultra world has, well, changed things for me.  Some of the ways are a bit more obvious than others: I’m less uptight and a bit more laid back, happier, more confident and much more appreciative of  just about everything from a break in cloud cover to the taste of food.  It has healed me in so many ways, some of the bigger ones of which I have written about. But also, there are more subtle, fundamental changes that may not be so obvious. Certainly there have been physical changes. I have become stronger.  Much more of me is muscle. My standing heart rate is now 53 beats per minute. I no longer experience back problems or migraines. And my focus has changed. Quite literally, continually fixing my eyes on a point far in the distance on many a run may or may not have been that thing that healed my astigmatism. It seems repeatedly focusing afar can relax ocular muscles and relieve eye strain. When I went to the eye doctor to update my prescription after about a year of regular long-distance running,  she found my eyesight had improved so much, I no longer needed glasses. A fluke? A coincidence? Perhaps. But it seems plausible.

But there are other changes in focus as well. When you start to feel better, (just one in a myriad of reasons) you tend to broaden your focus; to worry less about yourself and more about those around you. You begin to develop a strong desire fix things, to ease the pain and trouble of others, to give back.

Runners in general are known for their giving. There may simply be something about running that makes us all more human. Ultrarunners as a group are very special, known for their  selflessness, humility and strong sense of community. Though I have had but just a taste of distance running and what it can do; have but one race under my belt, I have already fully experienced this love. The community has been overwhelmingly warm and welcoming to me.

My Post colleague Lenny Bernstein wrote about the local ultrarunning community in his recent Misfits column, and of one demonstration of that caring nature and strong sense of family.

Here he quoted a response of one anonymous contributor.  He does not state whether or not this generous soul is a member of the running community, but his or her words seemed to sum up for me, what could be its credo:

“‘We each have to do our part without any expectations. . .We can’t just say ‘let the government or someone else provide.’ We have to help each other.'”

I am hoping now only for the opportunity to put to use what I have learned, to give back what I have been given, to adopt this credo for my own.  In order to do so, I will use the season to remind myself to try my best to be less selfish, to help those around me, and to keep my focus fixed far in the distance on that lofty, unnamed, pipe dream of a goal.

I feel there is a metaphorical ultramarathon ahead for me: full of daunting challenges and unknown pathways, and there are mountains and mountains of hard work. But I will use what I have learned, take the time I need to go that farther distance, and follow the time-tested ultrarunning rule: if you cannot yet see the top of the mountain, walk.

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