Yesterday I went in an ultra marathon. I know my limitations. I try to prevent the big toe blisters which chronically occur. I tape my knee so the ACL does not get tweaked. I know that if the blisters get too bad, I'll quit.
But it is the mental game which is not only the point of a timed endurance event, but the most difficult part. I don't mind quitting when my big toes are destroyed. I do need to keep going if my only problem is fatigue. Leg fatigue always happens, but it is not the end of the game.
So, I wanted to avoid premature quitting. I needed a way to keep my mind healthy.
I tried something totally new. I made myself a little book. I wrote down sayings from a 12 Step book, one page for each step. I would study and ponder one step for 4 laps (approximately an hour). This way, my goal is to ponder the steps and not pay too much attention too how I feel. Remember, these steps are taken in the context of an ultra marathon, and my life's day to day struggles; not an alcoholic obsession.
Somehow, the endurance run became my spiritual adviser. It spoke to me of character defects I didn't really see. So the result is a new understanding of myself and an end to some of the habitual hatefulness.
6:15, I arrive at the park. It is dark still. I unload my chair, little table, cooler, bag of food, bag of extra gear. I pick up my number and chip.
6:45, we have a little meeting where the race director explains every thing. This race has about 50 people. I see a woman who I met at another race. I talk to her. At the Habanero run in August, I had suffered from severe dehydration and had to sit by the side of the trail for a long time until I could stand without getting dizzy. She had stopped her race to watch me. That was very nice. I asked her if she finished. Yes she did; but it took 11 hours to finish that 50k. Oh my. I don't think I could have done that regardless of dehydration.
7 am, off we go onto a one mile out and back course. It is a nice park and it turns out that I like seeing all the racers, so I don't mind out and back. But clearly, this type of race offers no challenge but the inner challenge.
I step up to the plate with Step 1: "who cares to admit complete defeat?" Wow, how do I start a race with that? But really, such a thought smacks my ego right at the start. I get rid of any expectations of what "I" think "I" will do. Right from the start, I accept that my ego will be defeated. No grandiosity. No glory. No bragging rights.
"...unless he has accepted his devastating weakness and all its consequences..." The toes are my devastating weakness. The eventual pain of toes and legs which will force me to quit are my devastating weakness. I am powerless. It is only a matter of when. My ego hates quitting.
"... no amount of human will power..." Well, this caused me to think about the normal approach to ultra marathons which is successful for most people. They decide that they will finish the race no matter what. And they do, come injury or whatever, they finish. I've never done this. And now, my Step 1 has told me that no amount of human will power will do it. Other people can do it, but it doesn't work for me. In other words, I can't. I agree.
4 laps done in just under an hour. On to Step 2: "Having reduced us to a state of absolute helplessness, you now declare that none but a higher power ...." Really? Only a higher power will get me through this race. New thinking for me in the context of a ultra marathon.
" ...all you need is a truly open mind..." I looked at my mind. How closed is it? I could see some places where it was closed.
"...I had only to cease fighting..." I fight alot in many areas of my life, but regarding this race here and now, what am I fighting? Shoes, food, heat, race management, other people, the rough patches of pavement, porta-potties... This concept turned out useful a bit later when it was very hot and I decided to walk instead of fighting the heat. At the end of step 2, two hours into the race, I thought I might like to eat one of my sandwiches and some fruit, only to realize that those things had been forgotten at home. I'd have to eat course food. Rats! I'm not in control.
"...road blocks of indifference, fancied self-sufficiency, prejudice and defiance..." All of these ideas have application in life and in a race. But my theme for the day seemed to be realizing that self reliance would not work for me.
"...provided we place humility first...we received the gift of faith..." Now I had to think about my pride and gain humility. My pride causes me to go too fast in the early part of a race because I want to be done at a certain time. Or I look at the other lady who is my age and I want to beat her. Or the fat person. Or the guy talking too much. Or... God, my head is full of crap.
"...we had substituted negative for positive thinking...this trait had been an ego feeding proposition..." Now this really hit me. I suddenly saw my whole pattern of thinking, for the past 11 years since leaving the monastery, as negative and how that fed my ego. Amazing. I've never seen this before. The race is my spiritual adviser.
"...at no time had we asked what God's will was for us." Here, I had to realize my race goals and plans were mine, not God's. And then throw up the silent prayer of wonderment, "What are Your goals for me?" Remember I forgot my food? Well, now, the Race Director and his plans for the aid station became the higher power and God's will for me.
Completing 8 laps, I moved on to Step 3: "...cut away the self will that has blocked the entry of God" My self will.... hummmm. I had an inner niggle related to self will blocking God, or Higher Self if you please. That enlightenment which many others get always comes at a moment of defeating self will.
" ... instinct and logic always seek to bolster egotism, and so frustrate spiritual development" Oh yes, another sudden revelation of how "I", logic and instinct, was bolstering egotism. And it is egotism which is causing all my unhappiness and hatefulness in life.
"...dependence on a higher power is really a way of gaining true independence of spirit." I really would like independence of spirit.
"...some problems refuse to be solved by all the sheer personal determination and courage he can muster" Well, here I am, My own courage is not going to finish this race.
"It is when we try to conform our will with God's that we begin to use it rightly" True, but do I do this? Not really.
Now, about 3 hours into the race. A guy from work shows up. I am truly surprised. He had called me one day last week and in the course of the conversation, I had mentioned I was going in this race. I only vaguely mentioned where it was. And I was joking about him coming. But he did come! And he was there for quite awhile. He walked some with me and he went off to practice his Frisbee.
I went on to Step 4, now with this guy from work as part of the mix: "...total inability to form a true partnership with another human being...we have no once sought to be a worker among workers...of true brotherhood we had small comprehension..." Here is this guy from work who has driven 40 miles to this race. I would never have done that. But he did. Why has he done it? I really don't know. I do know that being "just one of the engineers" is very hard for me. He takes my picture.
"...discover a chink in the walls my ego has built..." I imagine myself as behind an ego wall and I can't really see any chinks. But as I mentally decide to inspect the wall closely, maybe a small chink can be found. The main thing is that I realize it is a wall. All the metaphysical teaching of A Course in Miracles and Paul Brunton and Eckhart Tolle and Plotinus speak of the separation caused by the ego. Step 5 of the 12 Steps is meant to take down the wall and put you on The Broad Highway.
"...pride, leading to self-justification, always spurred by conscious or unconscious fears..." Now, I suddenly realize how much of my thinking is self justification. I am continually silently telling stories to various people about why I have failed them. Now I see it is self-justification. Now I see it was pride and that behind pride is fear. If I can only become conscious of the fear.
"...all the faulty foundation of my life will have to be torn out and built anew on bedrock..." The race is doing this, step by step, mile by mile.
"...why do I lack the ability to accept conditions I cannot change?" I need to let go of my plans and go along with the conditions of this race. I wish I could accept conditions at work.
Now it is 4 hours into the race and I'm at Step 5: "humility...a clear recognition of who and what we really are, followed by a sincere attempt to become what we could be." Back to humility as a concept for an ultra marathoner.
"we began to suspect how much trouble self delusion had been causing us." Self delusion is another metaphysical proposition: that the world we see is an ego world and not the Real World. I accept self delusion and feel a slight inner nudge; but can't attache any conscious realization.
"...that mysterious barrier we could neither surmount nor understand..." Yes, I again inspect the ego wall. I see that it is there. I see I have no plans to change it.
"...the steps all deflate our egos..." I knew this. I also know for it now. I am beginning to suffer as the miles pile up. It is getting warmer.
"...things which really bother and burn us..." Again I look inside. I haven't lately really tried to define the categories of situations which really bother and burn me. Certain things are my hot buttons. But I haven't tried to define the ego aspects and say consciously that this ego button bothers and burns me. And, now in the race, the idea is too slippery.
Now it is five hours and 20 miles into the race. My toes hurt and I am upset because they shouldn't. Something is very wrong. I run marathons without toe tape and don't have so much problems. Now, I have taped the toes and am in serious difficulty after only 20 miles. The tape is taking up space in the toe box. The tape job is not good. And, it is hot.
Step 6: "...who doesn't like to feel superior..." I can again identify a habitual trait within me. I can feel superior to certain other people on the course; or worse, the fat people having bar-b-q and not exercising at all. But then I also know those people I scorn will also stay out there longer than me and go farther because they are willing to slow down and shuffle forward regardless. Or the bar-b-q people are being kind to one another and enjoying family. I'll decide that the pain is enough and quit.
"Self righteous anger can be enjoyable..." I again identify a habitual trait within me. I think about this more in terms of my work relationships. Its bad.
"we take satisfaction from the fact that many people annoy us, for it brings a comfortable feeling of superiority." My thoughts go to conversations I typically have with others, especially related to those slow drivers.
"abandon our limited objectives and move towards God's will for us..." Now, I arrive at the race itself. I have limited objectives. Is it possible that God has a further limit? This part comes true when I get to 26 miles. I can pick up a medal for 26 miles. The next medal is 50 miles. If I go past 26 miles but not to 50, then I have nothing to show for it.
I had planned to walk and jog for 30 miles, then switch shoes and walk only. But my toes are bad. It is hot. ok, I need to change myself and accept where I am at. The steps are making this possible. At 24 miles, I change the shoes and decide to walk. I say to myself, "I am used to going for 10 miles walks in these shoes. I will forget the previous 24 miles and now start a new 10 mile walk."
And on to Step 7: "the attainment of greater humility is the foundation principle of each of AAs 12 Steps" No kidding. This was the 7th hour of the race. If, I made it through 4 laps, I'd be at 28 miles, an ultra marathon. My legs were in pain but not the injury kind of pain. My toes were bad. It was hot. I'm out long past a normal training run. I'm approaching a marathon, when normally the race would be over. Yes, the race is kicking my butt; and my ego is insisting that this should not be. But it is. Accept it. I am under performing according to my ego.
"without humility, they cannot live to much useful purpose or in adversity summon the faith that can meet any emergency" Well, I see that self will cannot help me in THIS emergency; or any other I realize. Never has.
"character building and spiritual values had to come first" The race is causing me to build character; mainly as I face the weakness of my pride and ego. Mainly as I face my personal physical shortcomings. Short fat toes get blisters no matter what. Shoes just don't fit them.
"we never thought of making honesty, tolerance and true love of man and God the daily basis of living" Yes, but how do you do that? I don't have the ability to not be egotistical. I mainly live by instincts: selfishly protect my self. But yet, there are many instances where I help someone else even though my ego has just told me not to. How do I become the person which is always helpful and not have to fight with self all the time?
"For just so long as we were convinced that we could live exclusively by our own strength and intelligence, for just that long was a working faith in a higher power impossible" I am beginning to realize my ability to focus on spirituality is failing. I'm hot and tired and in pain and higher thinking isn't happening.
"the process of gaining a new perspective was unbelievable painful" This only told me that I am in pain at that moment. If I was gaining a new perspective, it was certainly through the pain.
During the 7th step, 26 miles came and went. I passed the point of getting another medal since I didn't think I'd make it to 50 miles. Now, for the first time ever, I am doing miles for no gain. that is new. There won't be a material reward for what I am doing. I don't know the answer to why I do ultra marathons. The answer is somewhere out there in the miles and in the time.
I just passed my 50th lifetime marathon. One of the guys decides he will walk this lap with me. He says that the course is long. That his garmin just went past 27 miles even though we just past 26 miles. This is when I remember this is my 50th. I tell him and lift my hands in the air. We talk for this lap and it goes pretty fast. Then he quits.
7th Step Prayer: "My Creator, I am now willing that you should have all of me, good and bad. I pray that you now remove from me every single defect of character which stands in the way of my usefulness to you and my fellows. Grant me strength as I go out from here to do your bidding"
Step 8, 8th hour: ".... develop the best possible relations with every human being we know..." I don't try to do this. Now, at this moment of the race, I can't even figure this out. I'm ok with these people here. I'm not really able to want to fix my work life right at the moment. I am hot. My toes hurt.
"... Very deep, sometimes quite forgotten, damaging emotional conflicts persist below the level of consciousness..." Slippery again. I know I came from a bad family. I know the emotional problems are there. I can't do more right at the moment.
"...what happens when we wallow in depression, self-pity oozing from every pore..." I do this. My only hope is that when I return to work next week, I will become conscious of when this is happening. Right now in the race, I can't realize that I feel sorry for myself. Everyone else here hurts too. I know I am going to quit but they will keep going, no matter how slow, someone will be doing it. If I was unconscious of self-pity, I might quit and hate myself but not know why. Today, I will quit eventually, but not out of unconscious self-pity.
9th hour, 32 miles complete, Step 9: "...we should try to be absolutely sure that we are not delaying because we are afraid. For the readiness to take the full consequences of our past acts, and to take responsibility for the well-being of others at the same time, is the very spirit of step nine." This isn't helping me at all. I can't focus on it.
I changed my shoes after 32 miles. Now I am wearing shoes that have the toe box cut out. I decide to see how bad my toes hurt. I consider that if I quit, I won't finish the 12 Steps. My toes hurt even without anything touching them.
But here's what happened. Near the end of lap 33, I pull into the shade. Suddenly I think, "If there is a traffic jam on I45, you might as well stay here at the race." Suddenly, my race is to be decided by Houston traffic. I can't help myself. The iphone comes out and Houston Transtar app is opened. No traffic. 100 feet later, I am asking for the 26 mile medal and handing in my chip. Game over.
Last night, I could barely hobble around the house. I stayed in bed about 10 hours. This morning I feel quite good. Definitely, 33 miles is not as bad as 50 miles. I'm glad.
The major difference between this race and other similar events? While I did go a few more miles before quitting, and I didn't quit in hatefulness. I think that at other times, I have quit in seething hatefulness and self-justification. This time I quit with a peaceful mind and good attitude. So I quit at the proper time, but my ego was not involved. this is called serenity and I am grateful for it. Thank you 12 Steps.
Another part of the 12 Step program is the Serenity Prayer. This prayer did not occur to me yesterday but it does now as I reflect on the race. I got serenity yesterday. Serenity was the outcome.
"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."
Onward to life's next lesson.