The Out and Back Gamble

I was sitting in an emergency room in the south of Spain distracted by my pounding head and hacking cough. Supposedly I was on vacation with my family, but if you haven’t been following, 2021 isn’t a good year to be walking around a resort and coughing.

I had asked some friends for some of their favorite running stories, and one showed up just in time to keep me company as I sat waiting to see the doctor. I put my ear buds in and shut out the wheezing, coughing, and crying happening all around me in the ER. Now that I say it, it was strikingly similar to sitting at an aid station of a hundred miler.

Forrest is a friend of mine, mostly because we like to argue. It doesn’t matter what the topic is, we will find something to disagree on. Which is why we run together, it keeps our mind off of the pain in our feet.

When his message arrived, I needed a good dose of someone else’s pain for my enjoyment, and he didn’t disappoint. I listened to the story of what he called “his best and worst run.”

Years ago he had been training for his first marathon, Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota. That race would be followed up with his first 50 mile race a month later, since he had “basically trained for it anyway,” or so said the others in the running group. Thus began his steady descent into unreasonable distances in running.

That day he had accepted the offer to accompany Dave, his training partner, on a thirteen mile run on a trail near his home. The day was hot and humid, but thirteen miles isn’t that bad. Except that thirteen miles stretched into more as the negative influence of his running partner began to work on him. “Just a couple more miles and we will turn back.” 

Part of the excitement with out and back runs is the gamble – you wager your life on how you feel when you are furthest from home. Typically, you make the gamble while you are still feeling the endorphins, and hope to avoid the loan sharks at the end of the run. 

In this situation, Forrest lost and “Cousin Vinny” came knocking. Out of water and cramping up in the summer heat, the training run turned into a slog. As time dragged on, Forrest began to bequeath his possessions, his livelihood, his shoes to Dave, ironically the one who had lured him out there. What good is a car and house if you won’t survive to ever see it again?

About a half mile from home he convinced Dave to go on without him and that he could hobble home alone. But that was a lie. He couldn’t. Instead he crouched down on the road and called Dave to come pick him up. A while later Dave pulled up and helped Forrest into the passenger’s seat. When he was handed a can of Mountain Dew, Forrest didn’t even drink it. “My body got close to it and just absorbed it.”

Back at home he crawled, literally, in the door. He made it to the tub and just prayed for the pain to go away. “It was horrible! But I also think I learned some of the biggest lessons of my running career.”

These are the stories which become fixed points in our minds and which help us navigate hundreds, or thousands of runs, afterwards. On the days we bottom out and vow to never run again, we explore a new part of us, and also this disease we call running. We see what went wrong and we see how we react when we are physically at the end.

“I learned about electrolytes on that run…and about hydration. And I also learned…know who you are running with! Don’t ever trust that turkey because he will lie to you! Sometimes Dave doesn’t even realize it! A 13 mile run, my foot! How about 23 miles.”

The story ended and I sat on the gurney in the ER laughing, that is until the brain-tickling PCR swab went up my nose (negative by the way). But there was one other aspect brightened my day. Dave is my dad, and it feels good to know that he tricked someone else besides me into running ultras.

About the author: Seth writes about his family adventures and the kit that keeps him alive over at his website.

"When he was handed a can of Mountain Dew, Forrest didn’t even drink it. “My body got close to it and just absorbed it.”"

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