Kneeling at the Altar of Kick

Spend enough time running and you’ll eventually come across the concept of “kick.” Traditionally I perceive kick to be like NOS in Fast and Furious. A switch that turns on. You’ve probably witnessed it in the Olympics. A runner will be a little set back from the leader, desperation creeping into their features as the finish line nears. And then a new look of determination washes over them. Legs move faster. The windmill speeds up. And before they know it the leader is watching someone zoom by on the right to overtake them and steal the race.

I first heard about kick in one of the Prefontaine movies–maybe the Jared Leto one (both were pretty subpar if we’re being honest). Prefontaine had notorious kick. His strategy was a bit different though. He’d turn on the NOS from the beginning, burning through seemingly limitless rocket fuel the whole damn race.

As I began to transition to longer distances, kick began to mean something different to me. It wasn’t just zip on the track or a local 5k. It began to signify a general furnace for running in general.

Ultra running has a way of spacing things out and sometimes reorganizing the sequence of normal events. In an ultra, runners can hit a wall, fall into a pit of despair, puke up whatever is left in their stomach, keel over, be unable to move their hamstrings, hopes dashed. And then some magic washes over them. Suddenly things seems fresh. They bounce back up and, instead of just cranking out the homestretch of a length of track, they run up and down an entire mountain with fresh legs. This process can repeat a few times in the course of a race. In ultra running, kick doesn’t just last the stretch of a track in a 10k. It lasts the entire 10k.

Beyond races, I think that there are longer cycles that we go through. Cycles even beyond seasons. That there are some thing that require more than a little patience. Urges and inspiration come and go through the turnstiles.

I’m not sure where my kick comes from. In a word, it’s elusive. There are weekends where I can barely pry myself out of bed. A tight ball of anxiety, ideas, regrets, plans. The wheels spin in uncontrolled frustration. This is a state of mind that has had a habit of washing over me since my teenage years. A paralyzing tincture that my brain seems to have in limitless supply. Other times, I’m ready to get out there. Nature practically pulls me out of the door and I bound off down my running route.

There are sluggish days and springy days. Legs one day will be generous and the next make you want to crumple up into a roadside ball. Part of running is exploring how this works for your body. Trying out diet, sleep, and mileage (often with the help of a coach) until you get the cocktail that works for you. Unfortunately, often once you figure out what suits your taste, things will shift. What works one week leaves you a wreck the next. You’re left again completely depleted kneeling at the altar of kick, hoping for more energy the next day.

Last year was a hard one for training. No races. A gridlocked world. What’s there to work toward with no concrete goal? I dutifully ticked away 80km a week, but it felt like a chore. Run was a routine not a privilege. I found it increasingly hard to get out there. The days became oppressive. They boogeyman was at the door. So I opted for a change of scenery, fleeing Jeju for a summer in the USA.

After a few weeks running the backroads of Maine, I took my legs to the west coast where my brother and I attempted the Timberline trail around Mount Hood in Oregon. This 41.4 mile loop was ambitious for two guys who had just spent a week drinking beer in a little motorboat with fishing poles. We had done some haphazard hiking, but nothing on the scale of what we were about to attempt.

In the frigid 5am alpine air we started plugging away. The first few rays of the day projected onto Hood’s snowy peak. We ticked off sections of Timberline like hours on a clock. Our circular journey going up and down through the mountain’s ravines. Two brothers in lock-step with the day making our way around the mountain.

The run had highs and lows. A section of downed trees that presented a labyrinth to progress. Encouraging strangers. A section where an army of bugs descended and didn’t let up for 10km. Expansive vistas and lush meadows. Many hours past our desired finish time as the sun descended, my brother’s truck came into view. We had arrived back at the beginning of the Mt. Hood clock at the other bookend of daylight. We tailgated with some Pringles and a few sips of Rainier before the frigid alpine twilight drove us into the truck.

At a certain point I noticed it was back. The desire to run for the fun of it. Mileage and routine lost much of their importance. It’s like you look over to your right and the copilot is suddenly there again. I returned to Jeju with a newfound direction for my running. Fitting that I found it again in Prefontaine’s Pacific Northwest.

There have been a few setbacks. A race that I was planning for turned out to be on Parent’s Day so I had to scratch that plan. A shooting pain down my right arm that turned out to be a pinched nerve caused by a crooked neck laid me up for a week. With each setback I kicked back. Last weekend I found myself at the base of one of the Mount Halla trails. The familiar trailhead was fairly quiet in the 6am light. The morning felt fresh and my legs felt fresher. I grinned and started my watch before flying up into the forest, arms and hands playfully swaying as if they were painting the very trees into existence.

1 Comment

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One response to “Kneeling at the Altar of Kick

  1. Susan A Stinchfield

    Once again you captivated me with your story telling. You are an amazing writer, Tim. I am so proud of you and send my love, Aunt Sue.

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