A return to Phoenix for the Rock n’ Roll Arizona Marathon.
This was more an excuse to get our family out of the snow of hypoxic Flagstaff and less of an actual focused race. It would mean a weekend with my love Steph Catudal (@scatudal) and the little girls, a pool, a hot tub, some cheap dinners out, & some sun.
If I ran well and made some money that would be a plus. But 2 days before go-time, I got a list of the elite men, and I realized how much I actually wanted to win. I guess it occurred to me how much I actually needed to win. Among those listed were 2 returning champs, 3 Eritrean nationals, and a couple of fast Americans. I read through their best times. 2:11, 2:12, 2:14, 2:16.
“Damn.” I mumbled to myself.
Guys that fast are not supposed to show up to races with that small of a prize purse. I felt frustration well inside. This was not going to be the sustainable grind I had planned for.
I was tired. The last 3 three years have tested my limits and pushed me into realms that I’m not fond of.
A broken tibia in 2014 nudged me into a doctorate program. 18 months later, I was healthy again, but drowning in the throes of academia. Not overwhelmed so much by the course content, but by the long hours, the time away from home, and the maddening requisite of stroking fragile egos and navigating the politics of professional academics; nauseous as I was forced into subservience by some who crept under the guise of “educators” but who sought nothing more than to climb the echelons in the hierarchy of academia. Daily, my mind returned to the quote that adorned the wall of my childhood home, etched in beautiful calligraphy by my artist mother. “Academic institutions are notorious for the persistence, intensity, and pettiness of their intrigues and power struggles. Academic politics is the most vicious kind because the stakes are so small.”
She had penned it and beautifully framed it at the request of my father to help him maintain proper perspective as he trudged for more than a decade through the burden of grad school and then became a college professor himself. In the end, with multiple graduate degrees and a family in tow, he abandoned formal academia, and chose instead to farm in Northern New Mexico.
I am now less than two months away from completing 26th grade. That will be 5 college degrees between @scatudal and I.
“I hate homework.” My oldest little bear Harper complains on nearly a daily basis. “Me too sweet girl.” I respond just as often.
It has been a struggle.
Three little bears in tow, a full time job, full time clinic responsibilities in a Neurologic Rehab Facility, and a desire to have some sort of interaction with my family. It has been a combination of early mornings (more like middle of the nights), sleepless nights, missed opportunities, 24 mile daily run commutes with a 15lb backpack containing a laptop, food and books, life shortening stress, and a desperate attempt for some semblance of a relationship with my love Steph.
People ask almost daily, “Wow, how do you juggle all of it? Life, family, school, work, sleep, running 130 miles a week?”
The truth is that I don’t. Steph does.
She is the parent.
She builds the cosmology for the little ones. She answers the hard questions. She wipes the blood away from scraped knees. She is the comforter. She is the encourager and the sympathy. She feeds the goats, and the python, and the babes. She pays the bills. She forgoes sleep and wakes with the babies in the night and loves them and entertains them during the day. She cleans the house, and washes the dishes, and takes out the trash, and cooks breakfast, and cooks lunch, and cooks dinner, and makes sure the babes brush their teeth.
She is the one who picks me up when it’s raining and 34 degrees outside, and its dark, and I’m hypothermic and can’t make it another step.
She’s the one who turns the shower on, and makes me tea, and then rubs my achy shoulders. She teaches Spanish homework. She runs in the direction of the screams. On the rare occasion when we got a night out together I get mad-dogged by all the hasty frat boys with looks of “How the hell did a guy like you end up with a girl like that?” The answer, is that “I have no idea, but I know I won the lottery.” It is an entirely disproportionate relationship. I’m the creepy, bearded, voluntarily emaciated bald guy hanging out with the wicked smaht, stunning beauty.
She keeps the entire world revolving.
She is the one who gave up the life as a college professor in Hawaii and a budding conflict journalist so that we could move to a frozen mountain town and she could work as a late night waitress so that we can make whole thing work.
I run. I work. I study.
I play the academic game. And after all of it, I try to have some meaningful interactions with my baby girls, but that typically looks like a 3 minute cuddle session, and a couple of tired lullabies on a worn out, poorly tuned guitar with 9 year old strings.
If I’m still awake, there might be a short “Netflix and chill” session with Steph, but a 20 minute episode typically takes 3 nights to complete because I fall asleep in the first 5 minutes. The only way this is all possible is because Steph is willing to make it work. She makes sacrifices every single day. She does it lovingly and without making me feel guilty. None of it would be possible without her.
That is what life looks like to be the spouse of a professional endurance athlete. Pretty glamorous right?
That said, I’m spread thin. She is too. So are those baby girls who want their Daddy to come home.
The view of that starting list was more than I had wanted to take on.
The gun went off.
Anticipation grew. The East Africans moved to the front and dictated the pace.
The first two miles felt somewhat pedestrian. Rather than feeling relieved at the seemingly easy pace, this infuriated me. “If you’re going to put in all the effort to come here and ruin my day, at least put in an honest effort.” I thought. “How dare you insult me by assuming that you can just cruise your way to a victory and the pay check that I based my budget on?” I took the lead and made a rash push.
We rolled through 3 miles in 15:21 and I realized that we weren’t running as slow as I had previously thought. I eased up a bit and the Eritrean runners took the lead.
Suddenly the pace began to slow.
It felt like I was being toyed with. I hate games. I felt anger begin build. My perspective began to shift. I was certain that I was going to lose, but if I was going to get beat by these guys, I was going to at least make them hurt in the process. Maybe then they would reconsider coming back to this race.
I took the lead again and began to push. My trepidation morphed into rage. 4 miles in and it already hurt. I didn’t care.
I looked down the road and pressed harder.
We came through the 10k just above 32 minutes. “That’s a 10k PR.” I thought to myself as I we passed the timer.
There were still 5 of us.
I could hear them breathing down my back.
In moments of agony, my internal play list typically reverts to Sam Beam to calm me, or it claws back to my roots and hums George Strait and thoughts of Amarillo by Morning, or Garth reminding me that “I’m much too young to feel this damn old.” Mournful songs about the lonely life of a rodeo cowboy are the most accurate thing I’ve found to describing the melancholy living of a blue collar endurance athlete. I try to stay positive when I race; to run with gratitude and love in my heart. It was different this time. It was as if 3 years of frustration, stress, and anger had reached their boiling point and had now made their way to the surface.
Anger continued to build. My eyes looked forward as if possessed.
Rational thinking had fled.
New lyrics began to dance through my head, and a course of self-destruction began to play out.
Marshal Mathers III began to whisper.
“He’s so mad, but he won’t give up that easy, no he won’t have it, he knows his whole back’s to these ropes, it don’t matter, he’s dope, he knows that but he’s broke…”
My body ached.
My right hip began to scream; remnants of a broken ankle this summer that took place two weeks before my first 100 mile race. Worker’s comp doesn’t exist though when you make a living as a hired gun who runs races so I kept training and ran through the freezing Colorado night to finish in the money at the 100 miler. It was too much sacrifice from everyone in my family to not follow through.
I had spent the entire summer training for this one race.
3 am wake up calls. Weekends that consisted of 90 mile, 3 days blocks. Back to back to back 30 mile days, which would climb up above 12,000 feet. Of course as a medical clinician I knew it was stupid to run through that kind of injury, and of course I would discourage any of my patients from doing such, but as a father I didn’t see any other choice. I hadn’t had time to address it because I was too busy working on other people’s broken ankles.
My ankle still doesn’t move properly
(despite working it now every morning) so the lack of dorsiflexion transfers the stress to my knee, then up to my hip. The fact that I knew the intricacies of the injury – to a level considered medical expertise – yet didn’t even have the time to treat myself only fueled the anger. I pushed harder.
There was no thought of what lay beyond, just an overwhelming desire to punish those who had decided to show up on the starting line, take away that pay check which was just as much rightfully theirs, and who 8 miles in were still breathing down my back. I had been glancing at the mile splits. 5:12, 5:10, 5:08.
They covered every move I made.
I took tangents. We jockeyed for positioning around corners and at water stations as if we were racing a cross country 5k. Elbows began to collide and tension rose. This was 5 blue collar workers; husbands & fathers who had put in the work over months & years, fighting for a single pay check.
Marshal continued to whisper in my head.
“Lonely roads, god only knows, he’s grown farther from home, he’s no father, he goes home and barely knows his own daughter.”
I remembered my girls and all the time I had missed.
“F*** it.” I thought.
I thought about Steph and all the sacrifices she had made.
I thought about the fact that I had been awake since 2:00 am because I had been cuddling little Irie girl who was cold and couldn’t sleep in a hotel bed. She would wake up and whimper. That would wake up baby poppy who would cry. That would wake up our little fireball Harper, who would yell, “Everyone SHUT UP!”. Finally, everyone would settle, but it seemed that as soon as we had all drifted back to sleep, baby Poppy, who is getting her first top teeth, would wake up and cry and start the whole thing over again.
I felt guilty for being away from them as much as I had.
I wanted to cry, but I was too angry.
I wanted to punch something but I have a degree in conflict resolution and I’m a pacifist a heart.
We came through the half. I glanced at the clock. 1:08 low.
“That’s a new PR for the Half Marathon.” I thought for a second.
My own mind began to talk.
“Maybe I can make it to 20 miles. That should be enough distance to blow these guys up. I’m sure as hell not going to make it to the finish line, but maybe they won’t either. At least they won’t come back next year, and maybe my boy Roosevelt will win it.”
I pressed harder.
The anger morphed into all out fury, and Marshal’s voice grew from a whisper to a scream. (Sorry mom).
“No more games, I’mma change what you call rage. Tear this motherf***ing roof off like two dogs caged. I was playing in the beginning, but the mood all changed. I’ve been chewed up and spit out and booed off stage.”
I glanced at the split.
“All the pain inside amplified by the fact that I can’t get by with my 9 to 5, and I can’t provide the right type of life for my family, ’cause man, these g**damn food stamps don’t buy diapers.”
I was lost in my own head. So consumed with the wailing demons that I didn’t even realize that the breathing and the shuffle of feet behind me was gone. I knew I had broken them, but I was too afraid to look back.
I had lost all concept of time and place.
A sign off to my left read “Mile 16”, and it pulled me back to reality.
My legs began to buckle. I resisted the urge to let it scare me.
I mumbled at myself. “Focus. Relax your face. Why are you tightening your arms? Relax. Cadence. Keep moving. Breathe. Just make it to mile 20.”
I felt my quads on the verge of cramping. I had taken a whole flask of Ultra Endurance EFS gel on the start line, which I chased with a Redbull, but I had dropped the other flask of EFS which contained all of my calories for the race during an aid station jostle around mile 5. At first I panicked knowing it would come back to haunt me, but then I reminded myself not to focus on things beyond my control and to just let it go. Still, I knew that my muscles needed fuel and electrolytes.
“Don’t think about it.” I told myself. “Your option at this point is to take Gatorade at the aid stations. Just do that.”
I pushed away the urge to allow any doubt or fear into my mind.
I knew from years living in this realm of discomfort that there is a connection between the thoughts that I allow my mind to process and the physical state of my actual muscles, nerves and vascular system. If I give into the overwhelming urge to focus in on, and allow my mind to take hold of a negative, doubtful, or fearful thought, it will literally result in physiological changes throughout the rest of body. Chemicals will be released that will overwhelm processes, and thresholds will be crossed that will shut down systems.
My body’s survival instincts were imploring that I stop, insisting,
“You are literally suffocating. Your brain is not getting enough oxygen. You are going to die.”
My mind was calmly whispering back,
“Don’t listen. It’s a lie. You’re not going to die. Not today. Not from this. Keep your limbic system within the control of your own cerebral cortex. Circle within the square. You are in control. Be calm. Breathe. Move.”
I hit mile 18. I was still afraid to look back. I knew that by doing so I would be faced with two scenarios: 1, I would see no one and potentially ease up, or 2, I would see the guys running me down and it would result in fear, catastrophizing, and negative feedback loops.
I kept pushing.
A spectator told me that there was nobody in sight and then a strange thing happened. It was the first time in 72 hrs that it had occurred to me that I could actually win. A glimmer of hope welled up inside me, but I instantly felt it cause my heart rate to rise so I quickly dispelled the notion from my mind.
“Focus. Relax. Quick feet. Keep moving. Breathe.” I reminded myself.
My legs continued to buckle.
Lyrics continued to dance as my mind settled in on the last three years and my failure at the impossible balancing act of life.
“These times are so hard, and it’s getting even harder trying to feed and water my seed, plus
teeter totter caught up between being a father and a primadonna…too much for me to wanna stay in one spot, another day of monotony’s gotten me to the point, I’m like a snail, I’ve got to formulate a plot or I end up in jail or shot, success is my only mother****ing option, failure’s not.”
The lyrics were consistent with the rage I still felt, yet I had to fight the overwhelming doubt which whispered that I might not make it another mile.
I moved through water stations but I no longer had the energy to get anything to my mouth. I fumbled with the cups and spilled their contents down my front.
“Keep moving.” I told myself. Wondering if I would be able to make it to mile 20.
Time became distorted and I passed the next few miles with no recollection of any of it.
I was surprised as I passed mile 23 and saw the time.
“If I can run another 15 minute 3 mile split, that will get me to the finish in 2:16. That’s what some of my fast friends in Flagstaff run.”
Immediately though, the course began to climb. My legs buckled even more.
As I passed the next aid station the volunteers must have sensed that I was losing control.
Instead of handing me cups of water they just dumped them on by body as I passed.
A short downhill gave me back a tiny bit of rhythm before I began to climb again.
I tried to focus on the road in front of me, but darkness had begun to build around my periphery, forming a tunnel of vision.
“You’re ok.” I told myself.
“You’ve been here before.”
“Your brain is just not getting enough oxygen and your body is out of glycogen.”
“Don’t listen to them.”
“You’re not going to die.”
“You’re not going to die.”
“You’re not going to die.”
My hearing began to come and go.
My body began to shiver.
My eyes caught sight of a bridge and I knew I was less than a mile from the finish. I weaved as though drunk back and forth on the road. I tried to keep my eyes on it, but I couldn’t see.
I noticed a man to my right.
“Please don’t try to high five me.” I thought.
Yet as I got closer I saw his hand raise in my direction. His mouth was saying something but I couldn’t hear.
I struggled to lift my own hand in his direction, but I kept my fading sight on the road ahead of me.
The force of our colliding hands nearly caused me to fall to the ground. I strained for something to keep me moving forward.
New words began to stumble through my mind.
“Till the roof comes off, till the lights go out, till my legs give out, can’t shut my mouth. Till the smoke clears out. Am I high? Perhaps. I’ma rip this s*** till my bones collapse.”
I tried to gain strength from the notion, but my body was done. Thresholds had been crossed. My body was shutting down.
As I crossed the bridge I thought back on a conversation I had a few days before with one of the patient’s I work with.
He is a hard old cowboy. A few years ago he had a stroke making his entire right side dysfunctional. It has become a full-time job for him to relearn how to speak, how to walk, how to eat, even how to wipe his own backside with his non-dominant hand. I am humbled by his humanity, and inspired by his hell-bent determination with every interaction I am fortunate enough to have with him. His optimism sobers me and instantly puts my petty problems into perspective. He recently gave up his cane. Multiple times a week I watch exert all the energy and focus he can muster to pick up small wooden blocks and put them into a plastic container. The monotony and frustration is maddening. Witnessing his daily fight is the boldest, bravest, most bad-ass athletic achievement I’ve ever witnessed.
“I saw you on the news last year when you won that marathon.” He said.
I smiled uncomfortably.
“How did you know it was me?” I asked.
“I knew cause it was a skinny ass guy with a big old beard.” He said.
“Are you racing again this year?” He asked
“I think so.” I said with a sheepish chuckle.
“Do it boy. Win the whole damn thing. And bring me that f***king medal, ok?”
“Ok.” I replied. “But only if I win.”
“Well dammit boy, don’t be a candyass. Just win the g**damn thing! Cause you never know when you won’t be able to try again.” He replied.
“Alright. I’ll bring you that medal.” I said, before we shook on it; he squeezing my own hand uncomfortably tight with his right hand.
I ran down the back side of the bridge and made a sharp right.
The finish line was less than 200 meters away, but I still doubted that I would make it. I wondered if I could make good on the promise to my old cowboy friend, as my body swayed back and forth, my legs buckling every few steps. And yet I somehow knew I had to. Not because I felt like I could, but because, you don’t shake on something with a cowboy and not follow through. You just don’t.
I beat my chest as I broke the tape and crumbled into a heap on the road, in disbelief that I’d actualy made it to the finish line.
One of the volunteer urgently instead that I get up.
“You have to get up!” She said.
“No… I don’t.” I calmly whispered back without opening my eyes.
“It’s bad for your body.” She countered.
“That’s not true.” I mumbled.
“You could die!” She insisted.
“Highly unlikely.” I whispered.
3 minutes later I finally opened my eyes with an irrational sense of panic.
“Did I cross the finish line?” I gasped.
“Yes you did. Congratulations.”
I struggled to my feet and gave a sweaty hug to the concerned volunteer.
That hurt a lot more than I had planned on, but I’m grateful to Roosevelt Cook and my Eritrean brothers for pushing me into new realms of my own potential.
I’m also grateful for organized races such as this that provide a socially acceptable cathartic outlet to channel my occasional rage – a healthy alternative considering that head hunting is frowned upon and to my knowledge, Renato Rosaldo was the last westerner the Ilongots accepted into their tribe.
I’m grateful for the body that allows me to move.
I’m grateful for my patients who inspire me more than I could ever describe.
I’m grateful for my loves who waited for hours in the rain just to see me stumble across the finish line.
I’m grateful for life.
Every. Single. Breath.
It is a gift.
Don’t take it for granted.
It may be gone tomorrow.
A new PR for the day, and a glimmer of hope. 3 more miles with a solid pair of legs and maybe I’ll earn an invite to the starting line of the Tokyo Olympic trials where all my Flagstaff friends will be 3 years from now.
Follow Steph’s perspective at “Chronicles of an Endurance Athlete’s Wife”.
Race Photos Provided by AZ Central.