“If it feels like work, you’re working too hard”
…So goes adventure-sports coach Eric Orton’s credo, as quoted in Christopher McDougall’s brilliant best seller, Born To Run. This simple slogan is of almost Zen-like perfection and sound like a potential panacea for our short life and all its ills. Repeat after me: If it feels like work, you’re working too hard. (Or, I might be tempted to add, you’re in the wrong job.)
In the few weeks since I came across these words, I’ve been trying to apply them specifically, as Orton intended, to my running. Certainly, they had an effect when I took off in late June on the middle third of the Escarpment Run’s course (and back again), a three-and-a-half hour 14.5 mile training jaunt up and down two of the Catskills mountains (and back). Every time the outing got hard – like that 1100 foot climb up Blackhead mountain in a distance of under a mile – I said to myself, “If it feels like work, you’re working too hard,” which almost automatically put a grin on my face; the smile made my whole body relax and the climb got that much easier. Running is meant to be fun. It’s a spiritual journey. That’s why some of us take it so often.
Sunday July 26, somewhere round 11 in the morning, climbing Blackhead again as part of the actual Escarpment Run, Orton’s slogan was all but forgotten. And when I was able to conjure it up, I’m afraid it didn’t, um, work. When you’re two hours into a race on a trail that “is viewed by many as an exaggeration of the term,” according to the race’s own web site, the entire course is covered in mud from the most persistently wet summer in memory, and what isn’t mud is either boulders or stones covered in a thin layer of slimy grease, or else it’s tree trunks, or it’s sharp protruding rocks, or something equally nasty … and then you find yourself in the midst of that 1100 foot climb up Blackhead, hand over first, with a stream falling down the middle of it, well, believe me: It. Feels. Like. Work. The only way it wouldn’t feel like work at that point would be to stop, sit down, crack open a beer and put your feet up for half an hour. And you’re not going to get that opportunity on race day until the finish line. In the meantime it’s two-three more hours of the same thing. Climb, walk, jog, run, jog, walk, scramble, climb.
And then, after completing Blackhead (easing down off the back side of it only to find yourself climbing another 900 feet in barely a mile), you reach Stoppel Point and the reassuring words from the aid station, “It’s all downhill from here” – itself something of an exaggeration of the term given that the so-called downhill frequently goes uphill and includes some of the most “technical” parts of the course – and you get a second wind and the thrill that you felt three-four hours ago, back at the start line when you set off on the 3-mile, 1800ft jog up Windham High Peak returns, and all of a sudden it doesn’t feel quite so much like work after all, perhaps more just like a good end to a very bad dream. And after you remember to take that sharp right turn at Newman’s Ledge (for if you don’t remember to take it, you will run off the edge of a cliff and drop a thousand feet off to certain death), and tackle a couple more scrambles and leaps down the boulders, you sense that the finish line is close now and you realize your legs have not become as one with the forest’s tree trunks after all, that you actually have some energy left – a surprising amount, in fact, proving that our body keeps enormous amounts in reserve that we don’t know about until we need them – and that you just might finish with a smile on your face, after all.
And then, if you’re me, your finish time is called out as you emerge from the trees and it’s 12 seconds off your Personal Record and you say “Damn!” because you were so close – and everybody looks at you like you’re mad because you’ve just completed one of the hardest trail races on the east coast, you’re in the top quarter of the field and you should be proud as punch. But of course you were working too hard – as usual. If you hadn’t been, you now realize, you might just have aced it. Mental clarity is as important as physical strength, and they don’t always like to show up on the same day.
…So went the 33rd running of the Escarpment Trail, my third time on the course in four years of living up here and still, and despite the exhaustion/exertion I felt for a good three hours of it, one my favorite days in the calendar. Official word was that, what with all the mud and slime, this was possibly the slowest year ever – it was the first time more than half the runners came in at five hours or over – and that makes my twelve second deficit seem like a major bonus. Plus, I only fell once, and that brought on not so much by exhaustion or overconfidence but by talking to another runner while navigating a downhill scramble. (After an hour on the course, it’s really not wise to do anything else while racing but to stay relentlessly focused on where you will place your next step.)
Under the circumstances then, I had it easy. Indeed, this year’s race included my favorite Escarpment moment to date. We were climbing Stoppel, a point at which those who are smart enough to start out slow start overtaking people like me who stupidly start out fast, and a guy well into his fifties passed me and as he did so, he said:
“Do you mind checking my head as I go past and tell me if it’s still bleeding?”
To which, I told him that it wasn’t and he said thank you and just kept on running.
And yes, I did keep him in earshot long enough to confirm that he’d earlier slipped and cut it on a rock. I’d like to say it didn’t cause him any long-term damage. But if he’s back next year I will assume that it did! My excuse? I like to pretend it’s not work.