Arkansas Traveler 100If you have for some reason missed the title of this post I want you to stop. Go back up there and read it again.

It’s been two days and I’m still trying to get my head around it: that not only did I finish the Arkansas Traveler, 100 miles of sometimes very rough terrain (trails, forest service roads, jeep trail, and ohhh, the hills!) but I finished it third of all the women in the race.

Third place, with first place being a woman in her 20s and second place being a woman in her early 30s, both with a LOT more ultra running experience than me.

This is crazy, but there’s more. I finished it in a year with a record rate of non-finishers, of DNFs (did not finish) as they are called in running lingo. The heat, the humidity, the loose rocks on trail slippery with moss from the rains we had earlier this year, all joined forces to make it a really rough day for some of my friends out there on the trail.

That actually made it hard, too. One of the things about ultra running is you get really close to people; you’re rooting for them. You want to see them run their best race. To see them at an aid station because they didn’t make cutoff, or to hear they fell on trail and did something to their knee and had to drop early … that takes the wind out of your sails a bit.

I finished the race with a time of 24 hours, 31 minutes, only 32 minutes shy of the coveted “sub-24” that gets you a special gold belt buckle. That’s kind of cool, I think, because it gives me something to work towards next year.

But of course the purpose of writing this is not to brag on myself, but to record what I learned. So if you don’t remember the title, go back up and check it out again: You Live the Story You Tell Yourself.

Every race is its own story, and obviously a 100 mile race has a pretty good story. At the beginning of my race I got the chance to hear a lot about someone’s life. At the time I didn’t appreciate it maybe as much as I should have because I was trying to concentrate on not falling on the trail, and because it sounded very complaining to me and that’s not something I’m really down with.

But it was a blessing, really. Because somewhere around 9:30 a.m., as we were coming down the hill into the fourth aid station, I was inspired to say, “You know [name]: We live the story we tell ourselves.”

Yesterday I got an awesome massage from Cora Crain, who was my doula when I had my second child, and she knew just where I got that. One of the midwives at the birth center tells every class: “The difference between pain and suffering is the story you tell yourself.”

And how true it is, for races, and for life! I was able to run the rest of the race with that as my basic mantra. One of my favorite ultra runners (for that matter she’s one of my all-time favorite people) Chrissy Ferguson, told us runners Friday that she has found herself in a dark place on every 100 miler except for one. At least this race, there was no dark place for me. You live the story you tell yourself.

So of course, then, the question becomes how to tell yourself the right story.

I have some little tricks for the trail, and some for life, that I’ve learned. Since I’m only a new baby as an ultra runner, I’m sure I’ll learn more but here’s the scoop for now.

The trick, I’ve found, is triggers that can make you stop when you’re about to slide into that dark place, and turn you in a different direction. Here are mine:

  • Stars. It’s dark out there for much of the race, but for many hours the clouds held off and I saw the stars. When I was four I told my grandma that after we died we would visit every one of the stars. Later she remembered and told me. For me, stars always represent those who have gone on before me. Their energy is constantly present, uplifting and supporting me.
  • Animals. I wished so bad my kids could be there, at least for the finish, but I couldn’t make that happen. But on the section of the trail where my boys had walked with me just a few weeks before, there was a little green snake, right next to the trail, just calmly watching the race. Since my oldest has always communed with snakes (one zoo visit was especially Harry Potter-ish, minus the dissolving glass) I told myself the fun little story that the snake was watching for him.
  • Music. I don’t take an iPod because earbuds really bug me, but I know a lot of songs, some so well I can even remember the words after 70-ish miles. I was determined to wait until after midnight to sing “Walking After Midnight.” Yesterday I was talking to a friend and we came up with a short list of time-based songs that will certainly be part of my lineup for the next all-night run! Then there’s the Ralph Stanley song “Great High Mountain” that I sing to get me over the hardest hill.
  • Poetry. This isn’t for everyone … but I memorize poetry, partly for occasions just such as this. I’ve always loved words and the play and rhythm of them against each other. There’s a somewhat hard to obtain translation of “Duino Elegies” that does this very well, there’s Leaves of Grass, and Kubla Khan … such a delight in the sheer force and velocity of words! And then there’s the one that can draw me out of any dark place, this tiny little poem by James Wright called The Jewel.
  • Friends. It can be a lonely run, but there are other runners, and there are pacers who help you during the nighttime hours. When you do see friends, at the aid stations, they are always full of enthusiasm. I’m telling you, the most fabulous people out there are the ones who stay up all night for us, without the benefit of running and getting the blood pumping through their veins, to wait sometimes long stretches of time before another runner comes through. Then when we get there we frequently just shove a water bottle or hydration pack at them and grab it back because we’re trying to beat a person or a personal goal time. Those people are my heroes.

So there you go. The trick of using these little signals, like little bookmarks to get you to the right place in the story, is of course one I learned from photography, from creating artwork that is a bookmark for my clients to return to their best selves. I also take care to try and teach my clients how to get the most out of their artwork by connecting it to their most important stories. Because life, like a 100 mile race, can seem to be a long hard slog sometimes. It’s essential to know the tricks that will keep you telling yourself the story you want to live.