Life’s Possibilities at a Half-Century

Running into the aid station at mile 30 I started to lose it. I could not talk when the volunteer asked if I needed help. I just started crying uncontrollably. The volunteers were concerned as I am sure they thought I was in pain or injured, but they were mostly happy tears. Many of my friends were celebrating their 50th birthdays by challenging themselves. Cross country bicycle journeys, wilderness adventures, global travel, the options were all very romantic. I loved the underlying statements of these adventures. A note to the Universe but more importantly to ourselves — “I am still here”, “this is who I am”, “I can do this”.

Approaching my 50th, I felt I needed to participate in that kind of celebration of a half century. I was not immediately sure what to do but ultimately I decided to attempt an ultra-marathon. I would try to run 50 miles, one for each year of my life. Although I was a lifelong runner and had completed several marathons and dozens of shorter footraces, I was not confident in competing in an ultra-marathon. However, I was willing to train for it and at least show-up to pace my brother for a few miles in the beginning of a race he was competing in. That race was the American River 50 ultra in April of 2011. Making the decision to race in early January gave me several months to train. Unfortunately, my work and family obligations kept my training time to a minimum. A couple hours here and there during the week typically in the cold winter early morning darkness. On race day I was not in the best shape for any race, let alone a marathon, and for sure not an ultra-marathon. On top of that I was recently injured with a pinched nerve in the neck and had not run for over a week. Breaking down as I pulled into that aid station at mile 30 was from the emotions that came with believing for the first time that I might overcome those challenges to finish this race. I wanted to believe, I needed to do this!

The first few hours of the race were smooth and surprisingly easy. We started in the morning darkness along the American River near mid-town in Sacramento. The race initially went West for a few miles on the path that follows the American River. After that the race takes a 180 degree turn and the course then snakes its way along the river parkway back past the start, Eastward into the rising Sun. From there it would be close to the setting of the Sun and 40 miles later up in the foothills near Auburn, California before the race ended for most of the runners.

I did not expect to cross the finish line with them yet with every bend in the trail the day became more beautiful. Majestic Oaks and Sycamores glowed in the morning mist. Purple lupine and golden poppies seemed to pour their color into the fields that lined the trail. Each passing mile drew me in more and more to the rhythm, flow, and beauty of the day. Past the 10-mile mark where I initially thought I would need to stop I was snapped out of a groove by the blast of Beaver tail slapping against the still morning river surface.

I fell back into a groove and told myself I was in this race! At about mile 20 we passed over the River on a footbridge and started a gradual but relentless climb up a few thousand feet over the remaining 30 miles, most of it coming near the end. Morning broke and it started to warm. Over the next ten miles we switched from paved trail to a dirt path. However, with all the recent spring rain, there was little “path” on this section and just a lot of water and mud. The going got tough with mud caked feet making it slippery, rough going.

I started to wonder again about finishing the race. I was exhausted and my legs hurt. The morning chill was gone and it was headed toward being a hot day. I had been running for four hours and had a good sweat going for the last hour. There was still almost a second Marathon, over 24 miles to go. How can I keep this up for the four or five hours more it will take to run the second marathon when the first one I just ran crushed me? I started to fade. Thinking of the last time I battled water and mud like this on a run two years earlier made me want to stop and cry.

I had been diagnosed with cancer in December of that year. Since then, an operation and chemotherapy starting one month later ruled my life. However, I was still in some denial at that point about my condition. I was trying to keep my old self alive by exercising though the ordeal. I felt great up until the day I received my diagnosis, maybe that was why it was still hard to accept. Who knew I had tumor’s running up and down my insides, some metastasizing into my spine with a few the size of baseballs? I had no idea as any discomfort and symptoms seemed minor (some back pain and swelling). By my birthday mid-February that denial ended on a mud and blood-soaked run. At the same time the biggest myth of my youth — that I was strong enough to power though every challenge or obstacle life could toss at me — died.

That morning I was running up a creek side trail near my house in a steep dark canyon. It was raining hard. I was more speed walking then running. I was soaked to the bone and ascending a trail in the deep section of canyon. Normally I would power though this part of the trail but today I was slipping and falling every dozen feet or so. Something I never would have done in the past. My nose started to bleed and worked itself into a true gusher. I was not sure that I would not bleed out right there and then. Mud and blood soaked, alone, I began to slip toward the edge of the trail and the foreboding creek below. I fell and began sliding, my feet and hands flailing into the bank looking for solid footing or hand hold. No such luck. I tumbled off the edge and 6 feet down into the rushing creek.

The freezing creek water seemed to pass though me drowning me from the inside. Reaching my deepest hard to reach spaces, the creek, mud and rain broke me like the poison being pumped into my veins almost daily as part of my “cure”. I found rock bottom.

Somehow, I collected myself and clawed my way back. I made it out of the creek and back home. I would not run, exercise or move much again for months. The almost daily infusions became routine and ultimately the cancer was eviscerated, but so was I. There had been complications. My immune system was compromised. Daily Neupogen injections to revive my immune system swelled my bones to the point where I felt I was breaking from the inside out. There was the virus in the lining of my heart that made me feel like bees were inside me stinging my heart raw. I had lost all sense of taste, smell and neuropathy in my fingers and toes made it hard to grasp things and walk. But the worst were the veins. They were tired, bruised and hurt. During the last month of chemo in March, even the site of the approaching IV needle made my veins collapse. It often took 5 or 6 painful probes into sad veins to find a spot capable of supporting the infusion.

Exiting that aid station at mile 30 after grabbing half a peanut butter sandwich which was already shoved in my mouth, I tried to push those memories and pains from my mind. I composed myself and for a few miles after that I was able to maintain a decent pace. The food and brief rest helped my spirits. That respite was short lived. The increasing heat and muddy trail were wearing me thin. As the trail past waypoints over the next few miles, the location names made the effort seem more onerous. Buzzards Flat, Rattlesnake Bar, Dead House Canyon — not names that evoke a pleasant journey.

The pack of 800 runners or so that started the race now 7 hours earlier had spread-out, thinning to the point that I was alone on long stretches of the trail (which I had not traveled before). I began to worry about taking a wrong turn on one of the side trails. I was fading again. Near mile 40 I wanted to stop but kept going stretch-by-stretch telling myself “just run to that next bend in the trail to see what is beyond that, then decide about stopping”. That worked for about 40 minutes, a time during which the trail was so deep and thick with brush that even if you knew where you were you would feel lost. I finally stopped running at about mile 43, defeated, my race was over.

Sitting down on the side of the trail my head falling in my hands, I cried. The weight of failing and now being alone in this deep canyon washed through me. Absolute exhaustion and pain through out every muscle in my body from lactic acid build-up eliminated any remaining stability in my emotional reservoir. I was a mess. Calming my breathing and gathering some strength back a minute later, I noticed something just down the trail that caught my eye. For the last few miles there was nothing but trail and forest but ahead there was something that looked manmade. The object was a small sign by the trail edge. My initial thought was it was for an aid station up ahead or maybe it was a marker for a side trail out of this deep canyon? Both gave me hope. I arose and walked closer looking down to read a few words scrawled on a small piece of wood on a post rising just from the underbrush growing along the trails edge — “You never really know what is possible until you try and do the impossible”.

At first, I was crestfallen. There is no aid station just ahead? There is no side trail out of this hot muddy canyon? No chance for rescue? I need to work my own way out of this? I was done running for the day and it was even hard to walk. It seemed an impossible situation.

I looked again at the sign and those words, “You never really know what is possible until you try and do the impossible” and thought about it for a moment. How many times in my 50 years of life before this race today had I set out to do something I thought would be impossible? The answer surprised me as it was instant and absolute. Zero.

Although I felt I had accomplished many amazing things in my life, some with great difficulty and effort, I never before today put a concerted effort toward an endeavor that I did not expect to end in success. Was that a weakness in me? Had I missed the boat on that one? If I am only attempting challenges I believe I have a chance of being successful at, how will I fully know my limits and capabilities? As I pondered this, I started walking down the trail again and shortly after broke into a run. Finishing this race seemed impossible but I just survived cancer and that seemed impossible at times during my battle. However, taking on cancer was different from this race. It was not a choice. I woke up one day needing overcome that challenge to survive. But this race, finishing it, was a choice.

We all face seemingly impossible challenges not by choice that we need to overcome. The illnesses, rejections, accidents, handicaps, separations, injuries, and losses we all face come at us mostly not by choice. Somehow, and thankfully, we find the strength to overcome many of them.

This race was different. It was a choice, something I controlled. If I can survive seemingly “impossible” challenges I did not choose and I do not control, then by God I better apply the same determination to challenges I do choose and can control!

I was fired up by that emotional realization and picked up the pace. I made it the next 5 miles to the finish line with a combination of running, walking, and jogging then collapsed crossing the line. Exhausted yet joyful for my accomplishment, I managed to keep an ear-to-ear smile for days even though I was too sore to walk for the first two.

Today on my sixtieth birthday looking back at the past decade since that race, I do think that sign and quote changed my life.

Since then, I have survived seemingly impossible situations that were not my choice — family hardships, toxic relationships, divorce, loss of loved ones and jobs. Everyone who is reading this today shares the accomplishment that to most may have seemed impossible at the start of 2020 — surviving a global pandemic (so far). Congratulations!

We did not choose this pandemic, but we can choose how we conduct our lives after it. What challenges will we undertake going forward? Will we choose to push and stretch ourselves beyond what we thought was possible? Every day you wake to a world where you may need to instantly face a seemingly impossible challenge not of your making.

My advice looking back from sixty is don’t wait for the world to define the “impossibilities” you face. Overcoming any of life’s challenges has rewards, but “you never really know what is possible until you try and do the impossible”. And which is sweeter, overcoming the “impossible” challenges that you face not by choice, or those that are on a path you choose? You cannot avoid the former, but latter you control. For me, I am lacing up and hitting the trail, because with life you never really know what is possible…

Artist, Writer, Endurance Athlete. More at www.watson-works.com