Last Tuesday, 2 days ago, we learned that the race was suspended. Although the George Washington National Forest is open (a Forest is not a Park, you see), as a specially permitted event, the race needs to be supervised by USPS personnel--who, like most of the other 800,000 furloughed federal workers, are not allowed to so much as answer a work-related email while the government remains shuttered.
Getting off the grid
What I will miss.
There is nothing in my experience like the moment just before the start of an ultra. All the better if the huddled souls at the starting line are few, the location remote, the terrain rugged. Better still if shadows are beginning to lengthen and the trail appears to disappear into the darkness of trees and mountainside. A chill in the air doesn't hurt. Best of all is when the journey ahead is far, far too long to mentally grasp. When all you can do is accept the trail and the present moment as your temporary home.
In this moment before the start, fear mixes with desire until they are almost indistinguishible. The sensation comes with a strong tang of release: you are going "off the grid." Cellphones won't work (and you wouldn't carry one anyway). No one can reach you. No one is really sure where you are.
Hence the nervous laughter at the start. This is, truly, absurd.
You know what lies ahead. As the race grinds on, the strings binding you to ordinary existence will loosen and then snap. Anxieties, memories, plans, hopes, the good and the bad, all of it--all of that stuff, the blah-blah-blah in your brain--will slip away. After many hours and many miles, you'll feel yourself further and further out at sea, and that to keep moving forward in this small and frail vessel, you must chuck it all, piece by piece, overboard.
Where the Wild Things Are
I said that there is nothing I can think of quite like this moment at the start of a race like Grindstone. But something analogous does to mind. Like many little boys (and girls too, though I do not know), I was bewitched by the moment in Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are when Max's bedroom begins to morph into a forest on the shore of a sea.
The fancy word for this--Max's experience as well as mine--is liminal. It is to pass through a threshold, a gateway into a different world. Maybe become a different creature altogether.
(Mural in the children's section of the Richland County Public Library, Columbia, SC.
From Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are, 1963; en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Where_the_Wild_Things_Are)The grid is everywhere
Perhaps this liminal experience stuff, this getting off the grid, is all just a grand illusion?
When news of the suspension of this year's race appeared in my email inbox, it was a moment of sharp cognitive dissonance. So, events in Congress can affect my otherworldly Wild-Thing liminal romp in the mountains of Virginia?
Apparently they can. You cannot get off the grid. Not now, not anymore. Our world is too small, there are far too many of us, the dependencies are too complex and multitudinous to simply unravel oneself and slip unseen into the mountains.
Or maybe there are other ways to get there? Maybe there's a forest in a sea hidden somewhere in that wall?
Cultivated self-reliance, a sense of being at home in your own skin and in the wilds, are probably necessary illusions for hauling one's body over the Grindstone course. In honesty, though, self-reliance is insufficient.
Could I, would I, make my way over the mountains for a hundred miles without the help of volunteers at aid stations, a marked trail, the technology in my shoes, clothing, gear, headlamp and other devices? Would such a cracked endeavor occur to any of us without the examples of all those who came before, those living and those long dead? Without the company of like-minded runners all around me?
It seems the "grid"--ugly word, that--isn't the only network that matters.
There are other forms of human connection, other intricate and unseen webs of dependencies beyond the grid (or gridlock) of laws, governments, and economies. These felt and experienced connections will not register on any surveillance device. The NSA cannot hear the vibrations of these myriad threads.
A bowl of porridge
So let me amend my earlier statement:
The sensation of freedom and fear at the start of the race is one of my two most cherished experiences in an ultra. The other is the very strong sense of not being alone. Even when I cannot see the next headlamp or hear footfalls behind me, I know I am not alone. I am never alone. We are all on the mountain together.
When Max is on the Island of the Wild Things, his bedroom seems impossibly far away. Yet it is right there. At the end of his odyssey are a room, a bed, and a bowl of still-warm porridge, implicit signs that however fierce he has become, cavorting alone among the monsters, Max is still loved, still cared for, still at home.
Looking to November 2
As of today, Grindstone is postponed to next week (pending the re-opening of government). However, I have withdrawn my entry and am refocusing my training on the Mountain Masochist Trail Run 50 Miler (MMTR 50), which takes place on November 2.
Why? First, extending my taper for another week would start to shade into just plain "lazing around." It's a fine line sometimes. More importantly, living in perpetual uncertainty about whether or not the race will occur, rejiggering my work calendar yet again, and walking about denouncing our elected representatives would not put me a good frame of mind for an event like this. Or anything else, really.
So, I broke my taper this morning. I ran a good hard 2 hours on the trail, and felt--well, invigorated, energized, and quite over the disappointment of Grindstone and entirely focused now on the MMTR 50 Miler a month from now.
This gives me a little more time to raise money for the Soldier's Project, which provides mental health services, anonymously and free of charge, to members of the military and their families. Please consider a donation: http://www.crowdrise.com/10185milesand23000fe/fundraiser/matthewprineas