Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Alive in Leadville: The Story of My First DNF

By Susie Crossland-Dwyer

For nine months I thought about a single sign. Almost every time I ran or trained from November until June 29th, I visualized it. But the more I pictured it, the more questions arose. What would it be made of? What direction would it face? Would it be covered in snow? What would the path be like that would lead me to it?  What would I learn making my way to it? After so many races apart, what would it be like to have Chris by my side the whole journey? It was a sign that read simply, "Mosquito Pass, Elevation 13, 185 ft." 

I knew it was an odd desire to crave seeing a random sign on the top of a mountain in central Colorado. But, I wanted it ... badly. I've come to highly value the power and unseen knowledge of our deep desires. Our heart knows the path even though our mind doesn't yet understand it. On race day, this desire was deep enough for me to fight through five hours of altitude sickness and associated dizziness, continual vomiting and racing heartbeat starting at mile 1.5.

The Leadville Marathon is the very first race I did not finish. In fact, it is probably the first anything I haven’t finished. It is an unfamiliar sensation and one that feels like a relief to finally experience. 

Despite my DNF (did not finish), I could write the story of my overcoming, of my ability to keep going when everything in my body told me to stop at the first aid station three miles into the course. I could recount that I threw up close to 20 times and pushed up the second mountain of the day-- 2,000 ft. of elevation gain over the course of three miles--through intense self-doubt and even fear of death. I know it sounds dramatic, but I wanted to take myself there. I wanted to give everything I possibly could to a mountain and an internal process that I don’t fully understand, nor do I ever expect to.  I could tell how I had to focus literally on one step at a time, the phrase that became my mantra for the day. Or, how I had to halt in my tracks many times in the thin, oxygen-void air of the extraterrestrial-like landscape of 13k+ ft. to simply be able to breathe and put the next foot forward. I could describe how I struggled to stay upright as my feet skidded on fine gravel, hurdled over boulders and crunched through snow high above where trees think it makes sense to grow. 

I could tell it that way, but this time that's not the whole story. It is a lesson of letting go, a story of serendipity and ultimately an account of being okay with who I am. I would never use the word “failure” to describe my latest adventure in the wilderness of Colorado. Instead, it is a new definition of success, one that might mean more to me than many of my journeys over the finish line. 

I must go back in time to start to explain why letting go of a finish in Leadville means so much to me. I must divulge that most of my life I have been swallowed by trying to fulfill others' desires instead of my own--a pattern I've semi-successfully discarded in the last five years. It is not that people in my life have forced their opinions on me or that they've tried to persuade me to be someone other than myself. It is that I have always yielded to what I think other people might want instead of what I absolutely need. It was easier to see their needs instead of searching for my true desires.

To date, my training, my races, and even my finishes have existed outside of this realm. They have been a sacred space where I can run, ride or swim within myself and use it as a time to go deeper without the outside world bleeding in. But, as the day unfolded in Leadville and thoughts crept in about not finishing the race, the alarm of, what will other people think? sounded in my brain. It was an old familiar ringing, a feeling that fed on my weakness of the day and asked me to push even harder. But my deeper self said firmly, "NO." I had found my limit and even my ego couldn't change that.  For the first time I realized that the DNF, not the finish, would be for me. Had I attempted a finish, I would have risked not only my health, but also my self-respect.

At mile seventeen, after telling the officials that I was done for the day, I plopped down in the single metal folding chair under the aid station tent. The earlier raucous and cheering of the aid station, the one and only place on the course accessible by back mountain roads, had quieted as most athletes had already passed through for the second time and moved on toward the finish. In the silence of the mountain air, Chris, my mom, dad, and step-father huddled around me and hand-fed me Gatorade, pretzels and M&Ms. My body needed something, anything, to replace all of the calories and nutrients I had lost over the last five hours. I sat for twenty minutes as relief rippled through my interior and my body began to awaken from the land of the half-dead. As I came to my feet again and we loaded into the rental car and started down the bumpy service road back into Leadville's sleepy ghost town center, I began thinking about the power of visualization. I realized that in all my months of mental preparation and sheer focus, I had not once visualized the finish shoot. It had always been about Mosquito Mountain. It had been about making it to the sign and celebrating that victory. What I had put my attention on is precisely what I accomplished.

At the same time, there are many things in life beyond our control.  For me on this race day it was that my sea-level body did not like the altitude. In fact, it HATED the altitude. After almost a week in Colorado and two days in the higher elevation of 10,120 ft of Leadville, Chris and I were still huffing and wheezing just lying on our backs in bed the night before the race. It is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before and precisely why I wanted to try this race. I imagined the change in oxygen feeling as if I couldn’t take a full breath, as if my lungs were in a vice. But that wasn’t the sensation at all. I could breathe fully but my body could do very little with each breath. So, I could’ve trained harder but it wouldn’t have made a difference to how my body responded. Black Swan theory states that there are hard-to-predict, rare events beyond the realm of normal expectation. My Leadville marathon was a black swan and there is nothing I can do about it except to recognize the alternative opportunities for growth that it presented me.

I refuse to believe that my black swan only describes the unfortunate side of my experience in the mountains of Leadville. There were many positive things that took place that just can't be explained by the rational, seen world. There were many moments, even amidst my severe sickness, where I felt oddly at home on a terrain I had never seen or experienced before. I found slivers of time in which it felt like I was reuniting with a piece of myself instead of experiencing it anew. And there were signs. There were signs you could argue were purely coincidences, purely emotional. But I would argue otherwise. It is the unseen, unexplainable events in my life that have possessed the most power and have encouraged me to further explore my potential.

The start line was my first (internal) sign.  As the announcers counted down the start of the race and hundreds of nervous bodies decked out in trail running shoes and Camelback packs bounced all around me, time stood completely still. In a single mental flash, I saw the last nine months from making the decision to come to Leadville, through all of my training as if it were a seamless timeline. As K’naan’s, Wavin’ Flag anthem echoed from building to building just before the gun went off, I felt all the way to my cells what it was to be fully alive. It was as if nothing else in the universe existed.
After leaving town and trotting up our first ascent past the crumbling mining shafts of what was once a hay day industry, the surreal moments of the start line quickly vanished. All of my energy shifted to continuing to move despite the ever-increasing aching in my gut. I have run many marathons and I know what it takes to successfully get to the finish line on a flat road without sickness. I know that it is no joke. As the reality of my condition began to sink in, the “a NORMAL marathon is no joke” thought is what began rolling around in my head. How was I going to tolerate 20+ more miles of this? And then I remembered the purpose of mental training. I remembered the reason I had spent so many hours in my head editing, editing, editing my thoughts through winter snows, early morning alarms, smothering Cincinnati humidity and heat, long days teaching Spinning classes and building spreadsheets, a three-week-long illness, and two-a-day workouts. It was for now-- right NOW. 

 "I will follow my instincts, and be myself for good or ill." -John Muir

But there was no hiding that I was emotionally raw. Almost immediately, I knew having Chris alongside of me would be the saving grace of the day. He contends that we are lucky we are still married after our hours on the mountain. I don’t remember it that way at all. I remember he was a saint and a moving target of hope, always two steps ahead of me. He listened as I called the mountain a bastard, a crazy cruel god and a M-F-er. He encouraged as we picked up pace and he gently reminded if we paused too long. He took his job seriously and I will never forget the unwavering love he showed me that day.

In one of my many bottomed-out moments, Chris revealed what I saw as sign number two. He opened his palm like a magician revealing his next trick and in it I saw magic. Let it first be said that we stomped over millions, heck trillions, of rocks that day. Combine that fact with another, that Chris has horrible eye site and minimal awareness (sorry babe it’s true!). In his sweaty palm he revealed a rock in the shape of Ohio. My eyes welled. It was the perfect symbol. It felt as if somebody, something, somewhere was saying, “Susie, remember your home. Remember all of the people there sending you love right now. Remember that you are not alone in this task."

 The third positive sign of the day made me chuckle. It was so perfect that I had to laugh. We had just come off of a curvy descent, through the aid station at mile 9.8 on our way to climb to Mosquito Pass when a woman, for no particular reason, caught my eye. I hadn’t really been paying much attention to anything but what was right in front of me when I looked to my right and there she was. As I looked closer I noticed she was wearing a Matisyahu t-shirt. It is no secret that Matisyahu has been a huge inspiration to me this year and is the source of some of my favorite lyrics; lyrics I have listened to over and over and over again in training. Immediately, the words from his song Crossroads entered my head. 
"I'm done stalling, I’m free falling.
I'm done crawling up this mountain top
I won't stop till I manifest my crop
The top is close
I'm sky scraping
They stay chasing
I'm like a raisin in the sun
I'm running from death's invasion
They're done, I'm going gray
I'm still young having mystic visions
Of the one, I hear the hum, the melody comes
Rushing in like some wind
Cuts close like a knife
All I got is my life"

In that moment, I knew no matter what it took, I would soon be “done crawling up this mountain top” because the mountain was mine. Little did I know that the hardest section of terrain was yet to come.

I have run the distance of three miles probably hundreds--if not thousands--of times in my life. I had three miles to go to make it to the highest elevation on the course and to the Mosquito Pass sign I had envisioned so many times. I could do that. C’mon it’s only three miles.

“If you become restless, speed up. If you become winded, slow down. You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion.” –Robert Pirsig

As we started up the switchbacks, the energy on the course was high as many runners were already making their final descent, their legs screaming down the steep incline. I could tell I was already beginning to look like death as many of the athletes paused in their concentration to offer a “good job,” “keep it up” or “you can do it” as I passed. In moments like this, one person’s encouragement can make a difference and each positive word provided me with more strength; strength I badly needed.

Chris was still playing faithful cheerleader as well as time-keeper and I cannot imagine the patience it must have taken for him to continually usher me up the mountain. I believe he quickly realized how behind pace we were falling and he devised a simple but genius plan. The path to the top was a predictable pattern of switchbacks. I could see them ascending for miles with no idea where the true top sat. He encouraged me to take one switchback at a time. Instead of stopping to catch my breath and throw-up whenever I felt like it, I had to make it the length of a whole switchback before doing so. I quickly added one switchback at a time on to my one step at a time mantra and we were in business.

As the air got thinner and I placed one slow foot in front of the other I was also paced by tremendous fear. Chris jogged to the top of each switchback and even the short distance between us was enough to set me into panic mode. I was so faint, so close to sitting down and never getting back up that I feared passing out, cracking my head open on one of the giant boulders and having it take hours to get someone up the mountain to rescue me. I was tired. I was scared. I was ready to have my reward and end the day.

It was in the most intense moments of the day that I decided I had to LET GO. Let go of disappointing everyone. Let go of the fear of death. Let go of being anyone but who I am. Just LET GO. Moments later, in what would be our final surge to the top of Mosquito Pass, I finally felt calm. I could only do my best and the rest would be okay.

As we made our final approach along one of the steepest straight-aways of the day, the winds began to pick up. The temperature had dropped close to 30 degrees from the base and we knew we couldn’t stay in these conditions very long. Since our three miles had taken a lot longer than planned, we were both out of water and badly needing the aid station at the top. The whole way up I had fantasized about plopping down on the ground, someone putting a pillow under my head and resting for a few minutes before we made the journey back down. Chris ran ahead to restock our water and by the time I had caught up, it was apparent that there was no way I was getting that catnap. Two amazing race volunteers were huddled in the bed of their truck with their winter jackets on, the wind whipping their hoods on and off. As I approached the station, Chris yelled, “We have to get the hell out of here! There is a lightning storm coming over the mountain and we have to get back down!!” But, I wasn’t leaving without a meeting with my sign.

There it was--a simple wooden sign propped up with rocks and worn by the ever-changing weather. It’s Southern orientation and bare simplicity was not at all what I had pictured but it felt monumental. I was at the top of my mountain and I knew the day was complete.

“Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.”  -Ed Viesturs

The only issue was I was at the top and still needed to get back down. In what was my biggest “episode” of the day, I let loose and finally got out the last contents in my stomach. Wow. I felt worlds better and knew I would have just enough energy to get back to my parents at the bottom.

I obviously don't know what it feels like to die and be completely at peace but I imagine it to feel something like I did as my legs were free-falling as I came down off of the mountain. Against all odds, among a path that was covered in rocks and pebbles, large and small, my feet landed perfectly one foot strike after the next. I remembered recently reading in The Longest Race by Ed Ayres, that our feet have a sort of “autonomic guidance [system]…that bypasses conscious decision-making.” I knew firsthand that it was true. My feet had eyes that I had to trust. The more I thought about it the less control I had. Again, time to LET GO. And let go I did. Like an eagle soaring freely on waves of air, I let my body be carried easily over top of the footsteps that just hours earlier had been so arduous to take. 
We were back on pace and Chris was still making sure he did his job. He wanted us to have the option to continue and not be cut off by the officials. But my body was empty and my spirit was settled. I knew my finish was at the base of Mosquito Mountain.

As we ran the last section into the arms of my parents, I felt immensely proud. No one around me knew the internal transformation that had taken place. No one knew that I had overcome the demons of my past to allow myself to be okay with not finishing. No one knew that once and for all I was doing this for ME and no one else.

I can’t help but wonder what Edmund Hillary experienced as he conquered Everest for the very first time ever and wrote the words, "It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves." I would make one amendment to his quote because on June 29th I conquered BOTH the mountain and myself.