Time compresses and leaps in starts and fits. A six month lease in my early twenties felt like a lifetime of commitment. That was six months of high-stakes productivity. Songs to be written, places to see, experiences to have. Who knew what city I’d be headed off to next? (high mileage Mercury Sable permitting.) Now a three year contract felt like a blink. In my thirties, I’ve settled into a rhythm of teaching and running that melts the days away. It all adds up to something, but the rewards aren’t as immediate or palpable as they were. Breakthroughs are more infrequent, but there’s something about a routine. Feelings fluctuate between boredom and comfort as the days tick off.
In high school, I could never fathom the sense of time in Homer’s Odyssey. Seven years stuck on an island? A windstorm that causes a year-long setback? It felt flippant with time in a way to which I couldn’t relate.
I’m definitely not comparing myself to Odysseus–I’m just a teacher with a guitar, a pair of running shoes, and a dog that makes uncomfortably long eye contact; not a bow, a sick boat and a loyal crew– but there is something relatable to his journey. The pull of home that caused him to brush paths with heroes, gods, demigods, monsters and new lands. That same pull has led me all over the world during my eleven years abroad.
As an international school teacher, it feels like I’ve spent a lot of time on detours. Late nights grading, planning activities schedules, talking to insomniac students in the dorms. These are the small detours. And then there are the big ones like taking on teaching social studies full time despite background and training in English. The tasks and pathways have shape-shifted depending on my many roles, but they’ve been constant. We tell ourselves that these are extra lines on our resumes, that they’ll serve us in the future in some regard. These detours are never exactly what we are looking for but eventually add up to a career. Every decision has compromise embedded in it, but some can feel like a big step in the wrong direction.
As my move back stateside approaches in June, my image of what it will be like grows blurrier. Recently it’s become clearer that running needs to be halted. Nerve pain and ankle issues are telling me to stop. The long distances have slowly pounded my lower vertebrae together to a point that my running form is painful and tottering. I can get through a workout, but the run spent holding my breath and hoping that this isn’t the run that pushes my body over the edge.
Running was supposed to be the backup plan next year if nothing turned up in the world of teaching, but that isn’t seeming to pan out either. Although I have enough experiences in education to fill over a decade, none of them seem to be the right experiences. I’m missing this or that. Applications and interviews have so far been dead ends.
I’m starting to have to pull the frame back a bit. Maybe teaching and running need to be shed for the time being. These giant parts of my identity need to be let go in order for the journey to continue. It’s nerve-wracking and sometimes terrifying to put both on hold. These two mainstays in my daily routine are melting away to leave behind who knows what?
Setbacks seem like detours until you’ve reached where you needed to be. Journeys sometimes only make sense once they’re done. A voyage is never a direct one, and sometimes you’re closest to progress when you feel the farthest away from it. Steps along the way can seem like detours in the moment, but end up comprising the core components of a necessary voyage to home.
There was a night in high school where it became too much. The dull hum of small town Bridgton, Maine had dipped its toes into our ears before deciding that the water was just fine and that it could make itself right at home in our heads. That hum had grown in volume over time creeping up to a buzz and then a loud rumble. Our eyes started to shake and our fingers started to tap. The asphalt of main street stretched out out out until, at 10pm on a random fall night, we started driving south. Three high school guys with nothing to do, we made our way to one of the only places that is reliably open in Maine 24/7: L.L.Bean.
I don’t remember much of that night except wandering the empty store, buying nothing, hitting a Dunkin’ Donuts drive-through and getting some light and sweet coffee, and, as the sun was rising, the classic rock station playing Here Comes the Sun. There’s an achievement in itself to staying up all night. We made a few dumb phone calls, left a few voice messages. In the early morning we pulled back into our town’s beach parking lot and jumped into the frigid fall lake. The glint of those weary but vivid rays mixed with the sugary coffee and tasted like the present. The town woke up unaware of our night spent on the backroads of Maine.
There’s a secrecy to breakthrough moments. Something that’s often not worth articulating because it would evaporate in the explanation. In the world of ultrarunning, these breakthrough moments seem to exist along side those of bottom-of-the-well desperation. I had a few of both in my most recent ultra: the High Trail Nine Peaks in Ulju, South Korea. The course was a soul-sapping 105km loop over, you guessed it, nine peaks that added up to an ascent about equal to the elevation of Mount Everest from sea level. And to make it more fun? A midnight start.
As the sun rose after seven plus hours of running dark trails over peaks and through small-town roads (some not unlike Bridgton) a moment hit. The loaded spring of months of training released and propelled me into the day’s first hour. A dog in the distance barked and I barked back. The trail had become a reality of existence. The only thing was to move forward on it and let it unveil the scenery and experience.
The race was a quiet one. I was one of three foreigners and it felt like a disconnect, like I was kind of running my own race. Maybe it was in my head, but it felt like when other runners saw me they either wanted to pass me or were surprised at seeing a foreigner. This wasn’t true for the kind folks at the aid stations though. They took reliably good care of me. Other than that the trail was mostly a lonely one. Usually I relish the lonesome trail, but at another point after over twenty hours of little to know interaction the silence had started to feel like a weight. I found two other runners on the dark trail at my pace and formed a bit of a pack. We hiked along in stride, silently lapping up the dark kilometers. I imagined I was in the army, marching through the night under orders.
I started out the race feeling strong. Despite the daunting 105km ahead of me, I plodded off into the dark with the intention to put distance between me and most of the pack. My legs started to work the first ascent as headlights danced behind me on the trail. “Alright, Tim, 10 minutes and and all systems are go. Breathing is good, poles are working it, legs are feeling great and….” fuck! I was suddenly skidding face first down the trail. My pole had caught my shoe and used my momentum to fling me forward. I popped back up with a skinned knee and no small amount of pain. Great start, Cushing. Now time to keep moving. Don’t think about it.
As the night wore on, I kept to the plan. Keep sipping water. Check in with the body. Keep eating gels. The aid stations were efficient and progress was steady. By that first sunrise breakthrough, some confidence was starting to find its way into my stomach. My knee hurt a bit from that fall, but other than that all systems were go.
The day dripped away in hourly increments. A small headache set in that I monitored closely. These had had a habit of turning into full-blown migraines in the past, and I was determined to stave off this one through sheer will and lots of electrolytes. To my amazement, this strategy worked. In the heat of the day, the trail meandered through some of the most stunning views of the course. I popped in my headphones and queued upmy playlist. My legs kicked when I asked them to. I zigzagged through groups of hikers. At a popular peak a race photographer snapped my picture and I refueled before resuming movement.
The trail itself is probably best summed up in one of the only few texts that I sent out during the run: “This race is satan.” The flats were few. You are either moving up or down. As for terrain, take your pick of adjective: jagged, sharp, stabby, snaggy, agro, thorny. There were a few times when I woke from a running trance to realize that I was lost in a bramble patch. I had to trace back and find a flag, pick a new direction and push on. Lazarus Lake, the creator of the infamous Barkley’s Marathon could take some notes. I thought about this as I bulldozed through a few small trees to get back to the trail.
Night descended for a second time and I flicked on my headlamp. The end was the slightest bit palpable. Coming into the next town and one of the final big aid stations my legs found some bounce. My body was responding and some focus clicked in. I picked off five runners and left them behind in the dark. I came up on another group and blew by them. I churned into the aid station, grabbed some snacks and sat cross-legged as I made preparations for the hardest section of the race.
Exiting that aid station I still felt good. Maybe it was dehydration or hunger or exhaustion or delusion, but a punchy humor seeped in. I began an ascent with a few other runners in the distance. Something glowed in the woods. It looked like a golden levitating cross-legged Buddha in the forest, emanating light. This turned out to just be a sign warning of falling rocks that was catching light from my headlamp. The hallucinations continued. The reflector vests of the runners ahead of me started to dance. They were neon football pads and then animated frogs moving to the rhythm of Demon Days by Gorillaz in my headphone. “Rad,” I thought and smiled. My eyes were playing tricks but my legs were strong. I caught up to the dancing frogs and left them behind in my wake. That climb eventually hit a peak and brought me down. The trail was flat and I started to cruise at my fastest pace of the race, putting healthy distance between the pack that I had passed.
On the race profile there’s a sheer climb that I had been dreading. It was about 700 meters of straight up that I knew would hurt a lot at that stage of the run. I hit the climb and tried not to think about it. Jack Kuenzle, a dynamite runner who took the White Mountains Hut Traverse FKT last summer reiterated a mountain mantra on a recent podcast that stuck with me: “Slow is fast and fast is smooth.” My brother said the same exact words in a phone call before the race. I tried to focus on that. Small smart movements that could add up to success. The climb melted away. I passed a few more people, reached a flat and raced off into the night.
The end felt near. I was low on water, but getting closer. That’s when a painfully long stretch of up and down began. Frustration set in. I was thirsty. I wanted the race to be over. “Focus Cushing, focus,” I muttered intermittently. The hallucinations had continued and all the rocks seemed to have tiny playful faces on them like something out of Princess Mononoke. Mountain spirits. The rolling hills played mind games. I couldn’t tell if a large looming silhouette was another mountain that I had to climb or just a trick of the night. And then my watch shut down. I cursed as I fished out my battery and cord. Without the race gpx file the organizers wouldn’t count my time. Did the file save? Was all the data gone? I couldn’t think about it now. As I waited for the watch to kick on I looked behind me down the trail at a few headlamps that were meandering in my direction. They weren’t going to catch me. The watch flicked back to life. I started a new file and hoped that the other 20 hours of data was still on there somewhere.
There was one final aid station before the finish. I knew I was close but my headlamp was dangerously dim. I had to stop again. It was then that a small bell sound started to shimmer from behind me down the trail. Oh great, are we starting auditory hallucinations now? Nope. Two ladies blew by me, one who was wearing a tiny bell on her pack that taunted me as they churned on. I managed to muster a small “fighting!” for them. Batteries clicked into my headlamp and the chase was on.
When I got to the final aid station Tinker Bell was there but her friend had pushed on. We gave some encouragement to each other. “You’re amazing,” she said and grinned. I lit up at the unexpected words. A paradox of competition and encouragement is rife in ultrarunning. The same runners that we leapfrog battle with over hours of terrain can be our biggest encouragement. She took off a few minutes before me as I greedily downed some water. “How many more kilometers?” I asked the volunteer. “Six,” he said. I had this. First I had to catch up to that nice lady with the bell.
I chased Tinker Bell’s tinkling noise through the dark. Passed her. Kept going. The descent was on road and my legs felt strong. I wanted to catch her friend. I hit the final trail section that would bring me to the finish and just kept churning. I passed the friend. She looked pretty cooked. I’m sure I looked the same. But the finish line was near and I had discovered a little something left in the tank. I erupted into the finish area, and a wave of triumph washed over my tired body. Finish lines are emotional places for me. I’ve cried at a few of them. This time I just felt proud. Proud of the effort, proud of the training, proud of the people that had helped me reach the finish line. “You finished in 12th! Amazing!” a text glowed from my phone. Some friends had been texting me all race, and their company was important beyond words. 12th place didn’t seem possible. I had been in the mid 20’s three aid stations back. I started out the race only wanting to finish. All details to mull over tomorrow. I hobbled down to my hotel room for a beer and a sleep. And yes, in case you were wondering, the data was all on the watch.
I don’t know why I keep signing up for these things. It definitely has something to do with that high school decision to just get in the car and drive. That small itch to explore has grown into a big one. I’ve been collecting these snapshots of breakthrough moments since those teenage years, and there’s something about ultra racing that lets me punch through more frequently. The trail, the travel, the people. Main street keeps stretching ever forward, and I’m happy to see where it leads.
Each year in late August or early September, some of the world’s most unhinged minds descend upon the tiny mountain town of Chamonix in France to hijack its tranquil mountain vibes. I’ve never been to Chamonix (or France for that matter), but I can picture the scene: a quaint alpine village on a quiet sunny day. A couple sits at their sturdy wooden table about to tuck into some fromage. Out of nowhere, their wine glasses starts to show ripples of seismic movement. Small at first but then growing in intensity. The ground begins to rumble. The husband glances at his wife with concern.
“Qu’est-ce que c’est?” he states blankly.
“Je ne sais pas,” is all that she can muster in the short-lived silence.
And then, over the hill, the first few runners appear. But that’s just the drip before the faucet turns on full blast. Soon thousands are descending upon the valley. Decked out in bright goji red Salomon packs, the runners wield poles like walking spears. Their heads are wrapped in bright buffs bearing their banners of choice. An array of flashy sunglasses banded across their faces. Spandex shorts, rippling calf muscles, pumping arms. They are not here for blood though, they’re here for personal glory. The Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) is ready to begin.
The UTMB is one of the biggest running events in the world. It is a soul-sapping 171 kilometers around the behemoth Mont Blanc with an overall elevation gain of 10,000 meters. For my New England folks, that is over five Mount Washingtons. This is one of the most elite ultra events in the world and pulls together some of its most talented (and deranged) runners. The event is quite a spectacle from what I’ve seen on the live stream. A sea of runners pulsing in anticipation before the starting gun. Dramatic music plays. A guy inexplicably walks on a high wire above the crowd, perhaps a metaphor for the balancing act of training, nutrition, sleep and luck that the race entails.
This year, one of the best runners on the planet, Courtney Dauwalter, convincingly took top female in the race while simultaneously breaking the course record by seven minutes. For reference, there has never been a top male finisher from the USA at the UTMB. Dauwalter is one of those runners who emits inspiration. When I go down ultra running YouTube rabbit holes, she inevitably appears in the videos of others, giving runners encouragement or advice. Her running stamina seems to extend to a large store of human compassion. Don’t be fooled though, she’s as rugged as they come. In 2017 she won the Moab 240 mile race outright.
In a post-UTMB interview, Dauwalter reflected on the race while casually holding a beer. A little weary, she still had her signature smile and described her own energy as a “tie dye jelly bean factory.” I couldn’t help but notice that she kept saying “we” and “our” as she broke down her race strategy. The interviewer also picked up on this and asked if the other part of “we” and “our” is her partner Kevin who crews for her during the race. Dauwalter confirmed this, and then pointed out the maybe not-so-obvious: ultra running is a team sport.
Ultra racing, especially at the higher distances, is contingent on people who help runners. There are the volunteers who assist at aid stations and checkpoints. There are pacers–running buddies who meet up with runners at pivotal times in the race to help their progress. There are crew–friends or family who dutifully await their insane loved one ready to give them whatever they need. This can be a candy bar or a make-shift blister surgery. It’s whatever the situation and conditions dictate.
This year, I’ve set my sights on my hardest challenge yet. The High Trail 9 Peaks will take place on October 30 in the Yeongnam Alps of Korea, north of Busan. This race is going to take every scrap of grit that my body has to offer. It begins at midnight and will take me 104 kilometers over nine peaks for an overall elevation gain of over 8000 meters (four Mt Washingtons if you’re counting). With the impending challenge, training has needed to reach a new level. I just arrived back from a trip to Jirisan National Park on the mainland for a big 42km training run in the rugged mountains, and have been doing weekly jaunts up Mount Halla to get even more elevation gain and descent under my legs.
As I’ve plodded away through my weekly training plan, I’ve been trying to envision race day. I’ll arrive in a tiny town with my gear and a goal but no crew. I won’t have pacers or friends at the aid stations to ply me with jokes and calories. Of course, there will be a slew of volunteers to offer aid and encouragement, but I want a way to bring my community with me–a way to turn the “I” into “we.”
There inevitably comes a time in the race when your jaw is on the ground. Legs are cement that firms with each step. Every small bump in the trail looks like Mount Everest. This is the time when runners need to “dig deep.” They need to, as they say, “dig in the pain cave.” They need to throw the gorilla off their back, look down and will their feet forward into a rhythm. Pain, along with sweat, drips from every pore. The splits reach diminishing returns and progress seems to flatline. The idea of quitting continually enters your brain and you swear to yourself that this will be your last ultra. “This is the sport of fools and masochists,” you say to yourself. “Maybe it’s time to change hobbies and take up fishing full time?” It’s at this exact moment that it’s important to have an ember inside of you. A faint glow that you can ignite into the tiniest of flames to burn that self doubt and deliver your body a different message. At some point you just need to tell your legs to shut the @*!% up and run.
Talking to Dauwalter, the interviewer asked what she had been listening to during her race. She grinned and said that she had an old iPod Shuffle full of “bangers.” I love this concept–a playlist of songs that will keep the serotonin pumping. In the darkest of moments, this might be an important tool to have in the goji red Salomon running pack.
This brought an idea to mind. What if my friends helped to put together a bangers playlist? This would give me a way to connect with community out on the trail in those dark moments when the way forward is bleak and the leg cement is at risk of fully drying. So, if you would, please leave a comment with some song suggestions. I’m looking for good tunes that will give me a kick and keep me plodding along. Hopefully we can meet up in person down along the trail sometime soon. In the meantime, let’s keep running.
I’ll add songs as they roll in to the playlist here that we can all use.
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.
I remember hearing a podcast about how cities have different tempos. Some are slow and methodical (Kyoto comes to mind) while others are on the more frantic end of the spectrum. It has something to do with the molecules within a city agitating each other into a more frenetic rhythm the more busy and crowded a city becomes. I imagine that Shanghai–a city known for its population, nightlife, and neon–possesses the tempo of an ear-throbbing techno song.
A year into living there, I had settled into a modicum of comfort with the city’s pace. The push and shove of the subway’s snaking masses had become second nature. I could weave through a crowd in rhythm to the music on my headphones. Loud yells and bells and blurs of light had settled into a picture that I could make more sense of. It had taken time, but I was finally starting to wrap my mind around the city.
At the beginning of that second year, I bit of more than I could chew at work. There was an ambitious initiative that needed a lot of groundwork to be laid. Free moments were spent thinking, planning, scheduling, writing. As my picture of the city started to settled down, my internal tempo began to quicken. Work, like it had done before, began to seep into the free moments of my life. But still I’d plan outings into the city that felt more like missions–trips with a deliberate purpose in mind.
A lot of time in China seemed to be spent in large malls. There were endless floors of shops with restaurants always on the upper levels. Massive ornate displays of Jeff Koons-like contemporary art seemed always on display. The malls were always sparkling clean and milling with people. Whirring cogs of commerce.
It was during one of these forays into a downtown mall that I picked up a new Garmin GPS watch. My old one had developed problems after a year, and for some reason I found myself buying another one of their unreliable watches. This time I stood at the kiosk staring down at a model of watch that shot green lasers onto the upper part of the wrist to somehow detect your heart rate. This was a feature that I had no use for. At frequent times I resented the watch that I did have, and questioned the wisdom of even tracking my miles in the first place. At the same time, I felt the anticipation of regret if I didn’t shell out the extra money for this slick feature. Besides, I was a modern man living in a modern city. I deserved something a bit more classy. In the end, I got the watch with the heart rate monitor.
That Monday at work, I caught the watch face on a doorframe leaving a room and left a little scratch that is still there. My heart sank, and I kicked myself for carelessness. This new shiny device was already tainted. But the laser feature seemed to work, and I continued to check it with interest. Work continued to surround me, and I plugged away through my routine. I’d run, work, gym, eat, work, sleep, repeat. My movements became almost machine-like and I began to assess my routine for inefficiency. Everything began to feel like clockwork. My running times got faster. I had a treadmill in my kitchen that I could hammer out a 10 mile run on in an hour and ten.
And then I began to notice something on my watch. The resting heart rate was low, under 40 beats per minute. On some days it was at 32. Just for reference, a healthy heart rate is between 60 and 100. A small pit began to spin together in the pit of my stomach. I had heard of athletes’ heart rates being lower, some even around 40, but this seemed abnormal. Of course I ignored it, and jumped back into the routine. Run, work, gym, eat, etc. etc.
But the heart rate stayed the same. And the pit in my stomach spun into something a little larger each day. I decided to see my doctor–a chilled out Californian who had pictures of himself doing yoga on the wall. His bedside manner was some of the worst I’d seen in the industry. He’d make a noise like, “hmm…” and then give a long pause, letting you really soak in the silence before he’d say “oh yes this is common.”
But he was kind and competent, and I can be fiercely loyal to even small hints of kindness, so I found myself going back to him for issues that arose. I found myself in his small office showing him my watch and asking him about my heart rate. He paused for many moments with a puzzled expression before suggesting, “well we could do an EKG?” The statement was poised in a way that could have either been whimsy or medical advice. Either way it was covered by insurance, so I found myself in another small room, electrodes being placed onto my chest. I put on my shirt, walked out into the lobby and waited. There is a vulnerability to waiting rooms. The quiet anticipation of judgment from the doctor while what feels like judicial deliberation is happening behind closed doors. As if there’s a panel of people in a huddle back there whispering, “Will we give this one good news or bad news?”
My name was called, and it was back into the small room, my racing mind bracing for the worst. This suddenly felt like a very real test that could throw some very real truth my way. The doctor looked inscrutably at the test and said the words “incomplete right bundle branch block” and then looked at me and really let them sink in. In addition to sounding like a bad grade school tongue twister, it also sounded terrible in conjunction with the heart. Something was blocked? Something was incomplete? What the hell was going on here? Maybe he detected my panic, or maybe not, but he decided with nonchalance to fill me in. “It’s common. It could be the result of an infection when you were little. A lot of people have this. It’s probably nothing to worry about.”
Probably: that word that lodges itself into your brain and then slowly starts to needle. It’s a seed of doubt that spreads slowly over time. There’s a strong chance that everything is fine, but the probably is always there, tugging at your pant’s leg. The doctor definitely sensed my inner panic this time and said with atypical assertiveness, “Maybe we should do a holter test to make sure.”
I came back the next day to get outfitted, the thirty minute ride in the DiDi (think Chinese Uber) was starting to feel common place. I went to work and then I went to the doctor’s office. The receptionists were starting to recognize me. I felt a sick comfort in my “regular” status.
Wearing a holter is like wearing the most obvious wire in the world. It’s a box with electrodes that stick to the chest. I walked around for a day like the world’s worst spy. Yet still nobody noticed the outline of wires under my shirt, or the chunky remote control in my pocket. The results came via e-mail a few days later and were concerning to my eyes. My heart rate was getting down to 29BPM. At no point did it exceed 120BPM. It stopped for 2 seconds or more over 105 times. The report included words like “sinus arrest” and “junctional escape.” And at the very end the words, “Suggest to see a cardiologist for the further assessment.”
I distinctly remember listening to Bill Callahan’s incredible tune Too Many Birds as I walked up to the specialized clinic high rise in the glowing metropolis downtown. I listened to that song on repeat a lot at that time. My headphones kept out the city’s ambiance and I could focus on the songs groove. The bass and drums low-key churn providing a backdrop to Callahan’s guttural deadpan that delivered gut-punch lyrics with a soothing unhurried tempo. The premise of the song is simple: a tree full of birds. Eventually there isn’t room for the last bird. I don’t know why he picked this image, but it’s a striking one. “One last bird and then another.” And then he builds the final line, saying it again and again, adding a new word each time: “If you could only stop your heartbeat for one heartbeat.” The line is a question and a statement and a yearning all in one. With that line ringing in my body, I walked into the clinic to see the cardiologist.
Yes, I’m aware that it’s messed up that it took a GPS watch to tell me that something was wrong. As an ultra runner, I spend lot of time checking in with my body for aches and pains, things to tune up. But these micro issues are sometimes pointing to something larger. It’s easy to get caught in the tempo of what surrounds you. The noise and rhythm can get so loud that you forget all about the drum that is causing them.
In the end, the cardiologist said that there was nothing structurally wrong with my heart. She said that I should exercise less, only 40 minutes a day (advice which I promptly ignored). My heart went from something that I was constantly monitoring, trying to sense signs of danger or abnormality, to something that I could once again leave to its own devices.
I still wear the watch–it cost a small fortune after all–but I find myself checking it less and less these days. My pulse returned to more normalcy after that chaotic year. I always had a hunch that it was stress related, the compaction of responsibility and schedule squeezing my heart beats into forced efficiency. It’s becoming easier to carve out time for the important things in life that allow space for the molecules to roam. Maybe its Jeju or maybe it’s more of an inner change. Either way, I find myself wandering in my free time a lot more, letting time unravel at its own pace. The scratch on the watch face doesn’t even bother me anymore.
Recommended listening: Bill Callahan Too Many Birds
Most days I run the same 10km loop in my neighborhood. There are a few little landmarks throughout the run: there is a friendly dreadlocked dog who rolls around on his back while I scratch his head, a colorful barn door, a top of a tiny mountain, a view of Mt. Halla across fields, a horse near an old well hundreds of years old. Pretty damn idyllic. They’re all little check-ins that border on ritual.
Running for me began in Asheville, North Carolina. Broke and wanting to kick a post-college smoking habit, I started running a small loop up onto a ridge near my apartment at 59 Annandale. I had no idea what the limits of my body were, and no real clue about how to run. I was making about 4.50$ an hour plus tips at a downtown cafe that tried to recapture 1950’s nostalgia by making everyone wear suspenders. The real effect was to make everyone miserable. And so, the few customers I did have didn’t tend to tip well.
That’s all to say that buying running shoes was a big deal. I saved up for a few weeks, eating left over hush puppies, pasta with cheese, and popcorn until finally I could afford the shoes that I had decided to splurge on: the majestic Asics GT’s. I can still feel the luxury of my first real running shoe. It sprang my foot off of the ground and propelled me forward. Rocks didn’t infiltrate my cushy armor. I could fly.
And with my new shoes, I carved out a loop. The ridge was a grueling initial ascent, but once you got up there you could cruise for miles. Sometimes, to add mileage, I’d add smaller laps in the park. One night I added another and another until I got to 10. I got home and peeled off my socks to discover my first bloody toe. It didn’t hurt, and I had heard that this was a thing. “I must be a real runner now,” I thought to myself.
The loops only got bigger from there. I spent a winter in Maine tracking larger runs in my hometown on the backroads. Plodding away through snow and slush. The silent tapestry of a winter dirt road in Maine dotted with the sound of wood peckers, chickadees and the creak of iced branches.
I had a vague sense of distance, but all that I had to measure my runs was a cheap wristwatch. The runs went from 30 to 60 to 90 to 120 minutes. Eventually I figured out that I needed to start running with a water bottle. I didn’t eat anything on those early runs.
I learned as I went, notching my first marathon in Louisville, Kentucky after a spring spent running the 2 mile road through Cherokee Park and a nearby reservoir. And then that brought me to Korea where I started my first Jeju loops. That’s when I first laid the groundwork for the runs that I do today.
Recently there were a few years in China, running the flat neighborhoods of Pudong on good air days. I had an 8km run that took me down the long tree lined streets overlooking brown canals. Some weekends I’d travel with other runners from my school to the mountains of China in Moganshan or Wenzhou for races, one time even making a trip for a marathon on the Great Wall.
From time to time I, like every runner, get the question, “Why do you run?” I can never come up with an answer. Usually I shrug it off or say something like “Why not?” But it’s certainly something deeper than that. There’s a reason to go through the ritual of lacing up a battered pair of shoes and heading out on the same piece of road or trail each day.
As I’ve run over the course of time, I’ve noticed something. Like the landmarks of a single run, there are other landmarks scattered over time throughout experience. There are moments when the current experience lines up with the past and clarity snaps into view for a brief second. Maybe it’s the endorphins, a runner’s high, or just simply the unplugging effect that running has, but it’s something that feels real.
These landmarks might not be as concrete as a barn or a weirdly shaped tree. They are more like feelings. Either way, there is something recognizable in them. During a run, a simple image such as a bird erupting from an orange grove or a shimmer of leaves can lead to a sudden overflowing memory. Triggers for golden moments planted along the course. My mind goes to a place where it can connect the new and the old. I see a snapshot that I forgot and it lights me up for an instant.
Of course, this isn’t every run. Some runs are 5 AM slogs through sopping rain that leave me shivering at my doorstep, blowing on my fingers before I tap the entry code to my apartment. On other runs, the body is spent and my eyes want to close. The landscape is ignored and I spend the 10km staring at my watch as the kilometers add up. But part of me thinks that the terrible runs need to happen in order for the clearer moments to occur.
These small loops seem to add up to something bigger. They overlap in grand patterns beyond my understanding or comprehension. Running is humbling in this way, and there’s a mysticism there that keeps me coming back. Although the runs might feel mundane sometimes, they are worth it. The loops might be the same, but each run is different–imperceptibly altering chunks of time that meld the past and present, leading to something better.