Why I Run So Close to the Sun
We are so incredibly proud of rabbitPRO Eric Senseman and his courageous race this past weekend at Western States. Eric, it is an honor for us to support you on your journey and we know big things are in the future for you. Eric shares a bit about his amazing experience on the blog.
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The glistening white water swells wide to fill the river’s banks as it roars through an arid expanse in the late afternoon sun. Nestled within a deep labyrinth of canyons and gorges, this swirling current cascades gently to create a shelf of glassy water between torrents of current tumbling downstream. A spattering of oar boats dot the suspended waterway and await a hoard of runners who will emerge from the desolate, sun-baked landscape. Towering above the frigid flow, and feeding it from many miles away, the snow-covered peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains fill the sky.
It was Saturday, June 29th, just after 5pm, and I had been running for more than twelve hours now. We had started on those snow-covered mountains many miles away, in the chilly, moonlit morning. We ascended snow-packed trails toward a colorful sunrise and then descended dusty trails to arrive at a sun-bleached river crossing. It was mile 78 of the Western States 100 and there was less than a marathon to go. I was in 9th place and it had taken a great deal of mental fortitude and physical necessity to arrive here at this time.
To some of the spectators at the river’s edge, I might have looked out of place. Some spectators might have observed that I looked a bit different than the runners ahead. After all, I wasn’t nearly as thin as the men before me. How could I keep up with all the extra mass? The studious spectator would have noted that ahead of me there were at least three men who had run faster than 65 minutes for the half marathon and there were also two former winners of the race. Among the chasers behind me, there were at least three runners with personal bests under 15 minutes for the 5k. How did this comparatively bulky 9th-place runner stay in contention when he’s neither run a half marathon faster than 73 minutes nor finished better than 78th place at this race, and with an official 5k best of over 16 minutes? These spectators would have rightly concluded what was decidedly true: from running physique to personal best times, I was simply out matched by my competition.
What do you do when you want to be as good as possible at the thing you love? What do you do when you want to be better than your competitors even when you know that your competitors are, on paper, better than you? What do you do to get the most out of yourself when every ounce is needed? You take calculated risks. You suffer immensely. In other words, and to use a metaphor, you run very close to the sun.
That’s why I have to run so close to the sun. My mediocre day won’t put me among the top 10 finishers at Western States. I’d even wager that my good day might not put me among the top 10. I have to have my best day at Western States to finish where I’d like. And, if I’m to have my best day and finish top 10 at Western States, I’m interested in how I get there. I’d like to know that I was genuinely competing against the top runners, i.e. running near and among the top runners throughout the race. To do that, I have to force things more often than not. When I don’t feel good because I’m going through a low patch during the race, I can’t back off my effort too much or else I’ll lose too much ground. I have to suffer through it while moving quickly. I have to run as fast as I can, but it can’t be too fast. I can’t run the climbs too hard, but I can’t take them too easy either. I can’t take too long at aid stations, but I need to take enough time to refuel. I have to nail my nutrition: just the right amount of fluids and electrolytes and calories, an elusive task since the proper concoction changes as the day drags on. There are hours and hours for practically anything to go wrong, but nothing can go wrong. The margin for error is practically zero.
This is true for anyone trying to run as fast as they possibly can at the Western States 100. This isn’t easy for anyone. But there’s a difference between me and some of the other contenders for the top 10: Other competitors can have a good day, or even just a mediocre day, and still finish inside the top 10, or perhaps even among the top five. They can get away with getting farther away from the sun. I can’t. I have to stay right near the surface, dangling disastrously close to incineration.
The Western States trail bounces in and out of shaded drainages as it falls toward the American River on the celebrated “Cal Street” section, which stretches from the Foresthill aid station at mile 62 to the river crossing at mile 78. The occasional but short uphill traverse offers respite from gravity’s relentless downhill pull. It seems every rock must be quarantined elsewhere as the pillowy dirt cushions each footfall. The miles begin to feel effortless now, despite having run several marathons’ worth, in the stupefying and mind-numbing way that miles sometimes do. Then I get to the river, and I cross it in a boat, and I run up to the Green Gate aid station at mile 79.8, and I’m in 9th place and there are just 20 miles to go, and there are five guys in front of me with less than 20 minutes between us, and this is really happening. But I wasn’t thinking about any of that at the time. I just wanted to get the sand off of me. It caked my body when I sat in the footwell of the boat. And when you run so close to the sun, something as innocent as sitting in a boat can cause problems.
There are many ways that your day might come to a crashing halt in an ultramarathon. You might drink too much water and take too few electrolytes. You might do the opposite. You might take too few calories and bonk. You might instead take too many and puke. The heat might overcome you until you’re reduced to the angle of repose under a small snippet of shade next to a trickling, slimy water source. You might sit in the footwell of a boat at mile 78, get covered in sand, try to extricate the sand by dosing yourself with ice cold water, shiver uncontrollably for the next 20 minutes because you were probably dehydrated and now your body is freaking out, and you may never regain your composure. You might try to walk and eek out a finish but you start walking so slow that you become genuinely concerned about making it to the next aid station. Or something else might happen.
When you want to get the absolute most out of yourself--and when you must get everything out of yourself to compete in a field that’s perhaps a league above yours--you have to run very close to the sun. You have to take risks. And then you have to accept that things can go very wrong, very quickly. And you have to accept the possibility, and perhaps the actuality, of those consequences. In the 100-mile distance, I’ve certainly experienced the bad side of taking risks. I hope that when the time comes, it will make the good side of those risks that much sweeter. Because when I run so close to the sun, I do it to taste something sweet.
Photo Cred: Paul Portland Oregon @trailjunkiephotos
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