Dakota Rising: Musings from a Long Distance Runner

Dakota Rising: Musings from a Long Distance Runner

Quite a nice take on what other people think of long distance runners and the perils of being addicted to exercise(maybe).  Take it away Dakota:

I’m a long-distance runner, which I have to explain in detail to everyone who asks. A lot of people have no conception of long-distance running at all, and even when I tell them what I do they think nothing of it. They can’t conceive of ultramarathons, so they simply don’t. “Oh, Dakota runs a long way.”

More often, however, people vastly overestimate what I do. They seem to think that since I “run 100-mile races”, that I do so just about every week or two. They look at me with wide eyes, the way you might look at some bears fighting in your front yard, or as if I come from another planet. No matter that I have run 100 miles just three times in my life and each time only after months of preparation. People blow what they don’t understand out of proportion. I met one of these latter people while visiting the hospital last month.

I was at the hospital to finally get an MRI on my left foot, which had been causing me problems for three months. The nurse was a friend of my mom’s, so we knew each other distantly. She was aware that I run long distances. Following the MRI, the doctor looked at the picture or whatever it is that comes from an MRI and informed me that I had two “stress reactions” in my foot and that I should take 4–6 weeks off from running. The nurse then walked me back to the locker to get my shoes and bag, chatting with me as we went along. She was very empathetic to my plight. Indeed, she seemed more put-out by the diagnosis than I was.

“Oh this must be just terrible for you. I’m so sorry. Have you ever not run before?”

I looked at her. She didn’t seem to be joking. “Well, um, yes, actually,” I replied. “I usually take a few weeks off each year to sort of recover.”

“Ok then,” she said, looking somewhat relieved. “But this must still be a real wrench in your plans for the summer.”

“Well, yeah, I guess so,” I said. “I’ve been having these problems for a while, so at least now I know what’s going on. And besides, I can still bike and — ”

“How did you get out here?” she cut me off, looking suddenly alarmed. “Did you run here?”

I looked at her incredulously. “Did I run here? Like, from town?” The hospital is at least ten miles from Durango.

“Yes,” she replied simply, looking straight into my eyes.

I looked back and realized that she must think I literally run everywhere, that I don’t drive a car but instead run to the grocery store and the library and the trailhead and, apparently, the hospital, even when I’m suffering from a running injury. I shook my head slowly. “No, I, um, drove out here.”

“Oh good,” she said, looking relieved again. “You need to take some time off running now, you know.”

Long-distance running may be growing in popularity, but it is still a thing of awe and wonder for much of the general population. We’re a distant collection of die-hard adrenaline junkies and endurance freaks to a lot of people who don’t understand what we do. In fact, since a large aspect of the sport is convincing new people to join us (if the magazines are anything to go by), that means a large part of long-distance running is convincing people that we’re not insane or stupid. We define the parameters of what we do by describing our experiences to both runners and new recruits, and the process works the other way too — the act of description helps us describe for ourselves a picture of what we are. We are runners. Long-distance runners. Trail runners. Into these categories we pour our own personalities to create specific niches that define us as people. Through definition we gain a sense of self.

So you can maybe imagine why I felt very much unlike myself as I walked away from the hospital that day. For one, the nurse had inadvertantly made me feel like, hell, maybe I should be running everywhere. But once I established that that’s ridiculous, I came to realize that if my entire existence is defined by movement in the mountains, to be stopped is to be stripped of my identity. I was injured, and therefore could not run. And since I could not run, I had nothing to do. All of my upcoming goals were suddenly nullified. I could no longer compete in races or climb mountains or run FKTs or do any of the other things we long-distance runners do. And that’s literally all that I do in my life, which meant that without running/mountain goals, I had no direction. No purpose. I left the hospital in a sort of daze.

At first, this was thrilling. I could finally shuck off the weight of responsibility conferred by upcoming races! No longer did I have to focus on being the best athlete possible — I was injured! I immediately drove to Taco Bell and washed it down with Sombra Mezcal. The next day I slept in and then watched a movie before floating down the river. The day following I hardly left the house at all. By the fourth day I truly hated myself. Turning down offers to go running and climbing regularly, I ate poorly and accomplished nothing. What little discipline I had evaporated in less than a week and I sagged into a mindless stupor. With no goals, I had nothing to look forward to. Also, I realized that I might be addicted to exercise, because after four days with no exercise I was as irritable with everyone as if I had just quit smoking. The thrill of freedom quickly mutated into dread for each new pointless day.

Possibilities. Photo: Dakota Jones

So I pulled the ol’ bike out. The doctor had said I could still swim and bike. Since I hate going to the public pool and I sure as hell am not about to jump into those icy alpine lakes around here, the bike seemed like my best option. I did a few one- or two-hour rides. Better than nothing, I thought, but I certainly wouldn’t want to do this every day. One day I rode to a nearby reservoir and decided to ride around the lake before returning home. This involved about six miles of dirt road, which I navigated with shuddering arms and gritted teeth. The bumpy surface was difficult to ride and I fretted while descending in soft gravel, fearful that my tires might slide out and send me crashing to the ground with my feet still clipped into the pedals. But when I got back onto the pavement and my heartrate stabilized, I realized that, short and lame though it may have been, the dirt-road section was the most adventure I’d had in over a week. The smooth road felt boring all of a sudden, whereas the gravel had been a challenge with real consequences at stake. And apparently I like working hard and taking risks. A door seemed to open up into a new world of possibility.

Dakota Black