Destination Unknown: This Is Not the Zone

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“This time ‘round I’m searchin’ down to where I used to go, and it’s been on my mind to make it shine…”…I awoke abruptly, startled by the obnoxiousness of my alarm. “You can say I want to be free; I can say some day I will be…” …The last song on the iconic James Taylor album I had been relaxing to, what seemed like minutes earlier, echoed on in my muddled mind. What the…? Confused, I looked at my clock. It was 4:15 a.m. This never happened.

The evening before I had crawled into the back of my truck with the last beams of sunlight still illuminating the tops of the pines in the nearly deserted Laguna Campground, disbelieving how dialed in I was. No frantic last minute fumbling with drops bags and overly-detailed race plans. No late meal scrambling. Coffee-brewing works awaited pre-dawn duty. Watching the depth and contours of the forest slowly congeal into uniform darkness, I pressed play and sank deep into luxurious down.

Anticipating a typically long and restless pre-race night of taking a meaningless red mental pen to the chapters of life already published, I nearly smashed my startled head into the camper shell ceiling. The San Diego 100 would start in less than two hours. Miraculously, I had slept soundly for almost eight. The nearly unabated lethargy I had been cocooned within for the previous two weeks was gone. The excitable energy of possibilities had replaced the resignation of simply getting it done. Was it a sign? Or was the fact that the migrating tightness in my left leg had recently jumped ship from my hip and hamstring to my calf and foot a sign?

Runners. Within a species made up of sign-seekers, we’re quite possibly the worst demographic outside of astrologers. Constantly dreaming up signs seems to me nothing more than another illustration of our insecurity with uncertainty; but like the myriad nervous tics teased out by a starting line, we can’t stop.

In 2014 I showed up at Lake Cuyamaca with a uniquely-blended cocktail of confidence from a fairy tale training cycle mixed with the gun-shy sours of many hundreds gone south, Tierra del Fuego south. A fabulous crew and pacing team combined with a “this is not a race”-approach, no expectations outside of taking care of myself and, perhaps, a bit of mysterious in-the-moment alchemy, otherwise known as being in the zone for the last 40 miles, led to the race of my life.

Going it alone, as I did this year, and with a pacer, as in 2014, are very different experiences, both worth having. perhaps it was Willy Logan’s relaxed & nonstop storytelling as we dropped into Noble Canyon that opened the door to The Zone. Photo: Margo Lella

As a lifelong runner I couldn’t have scripted a more memorable way to turn 40. I always knew I wanted to return. This time around though I was on a solo road trip, crewless and pacerless, with one drop bag. As life was getting more complicated, I felt the need to simplify the one thing that should always be that way. If freedom is an illusion, running has always been my magician.

Tantalizing hints of cooler air were finally infiltrating the sweltering heat of the day as I threaded my way along the Pacific Crest Trail southbound to Cibbetts Flat at mile 64. I hadn’t seen anyone since the bottom of the Noble Canyon climb, a marathon ago. The lead pack of three appeared suddenly, easily 4+ miles ahead. Then came fourth; maybe two miles up. Despite religious attention to cooling detail, the heat and exposure of the day had kept my energy at bay. I felt permanently stuck in the ‘okay’ zone, somewhere in between crawling and cruising.

Out of nowhere, on the final plunging descent to Cibbetts, I felt the power, and shifted through a few gears. Leaving the aid ahead of another runner, I was now in 5th. I felt not the remotest sense of contact with the guys ahead of me but I also detected that subtle shift that leads paradoxically to a faster pace at an easier effort. The course was configured completely differently from 2014 so there was no comparing, but I was powerless to prevent my mind from wandering back to the climb out of Noble Canyon when I had entered the mythical flow state; the zone. Could I possibly be about to enter it again?

Dale’s Kitchen, at mile 72, served up another turning point. Learning that no time had been gained on fourth, I became suddenly aware that the occasional cramping in my left calf and arch had now transformed into a throbbing tightness. The 3.5 miles of easy terrain to Todd’s Cabin channeled a portal to a new reality. Running became favoring became awkward shuffling as I tried various ways to alleviate the foot strike impact on my left arch.

The single digit bib number had read like a talking point memo all day. With last year’s winner, Kris Brown, not returning, RD Scott Mills had handed me what felt like distant past honors. Somewhere around mile 75 four years earlier I had unknowingly taken the lead; not paying attention to place and then passing eight people in less than 10 miles will discombobulate you, especially when you’ve grown accustomed to cratering after 100k.

The Todd’s Cabin volunteers were no less inquisitive. I tried to explain ‘The Zone,’ like a bubble of altered reality and effort that had carried me to a dream-like win. As always, it failed…I failed, to translate it adequately into words.

As the hum of the generator and a thousand yard-stare threatened to take over, I casually pointed at the bench I was sitting on, the stack of quesadilla triangles piled haphazardly in my lap, and the Styrofoam cup of broth in my hand and stated emphatically, “This. This is not The Zone.” Everyone erupted in laughter, myself included. It was the transition moment I needed to get moving. There would be no magic carpet trail ride back to Lake Cuyamaca again this year; but I would get it done.

The eastern edge of the San Diego 100 course runs along the precipitous borderline between mountains and desert. It is a spectacular setting for an ultra with equally amazing race leadership and volunteers. Photo: Jeff Kozak

There is a section of the PCT that the course uses between Pioneer Mail and Sunrise aid where the trail hugs the precipitous drop from the Laguna Mountains high country to the stark and arid Anza-Borrego desert floor several thousand feet below. It is spectacular at any time of day. In 2014 I hit that section at sunset with the landscape lit up in the fleeting glow that transitions us daily from light to dark and back again. The fire I had found within after so many years of flameouts burned through the ensuing darkness to the finish.

As I walked and hobble-ran this magnificent stretch of trail in the viewless dark, under completely different circumstances, the frustration of the present moment was completely neutralized by gratitude for the past experience. It registered more strongly than ever how lucky I was to have had that transcendent, shining moment at all; and to have been able to share it with others.

A good chunk of the San Diego 100 course from Mt Laguna. Photo: Jeff Kozak

From the summit of Mt Laguna you can see the vastness of the Pacific Ocean to the west and the expansiveness of the desert to the east with the mountainous and mostly forested San Diego 100 course at your feet in between. It is remarkable in the scope of the contrast in such a short geographical distance; which makes it a metaphorically-perfect location for a 100-mile race. It mirrors the sharply divergent range of experiences from one race to the next, from one runner to the next, and within the same race and runner. To run is to temporarily feel liberated, but inevitably we also face our own mental and physical shackles.

We can say we want to be free. But even when we believe we are, it’s rarely so. I tried hard to be, but I was not completely free from the shadows of 2014. As this year’s race progressed, deep down I wanted to shine again.

A cornerstone of being in the zone is freedom from expectations. Expectations are projections into the future, based on the past. They are not in the moment. The present moment is a heady place to be. But that is the only place we will ever find the zone, ever find the fleeting feelings of freedom; on the run, or anywhere.

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About Author

Jeff Kozak discovered the mountains and trails through childhood summers spent at the family cabin in California’s Eastern Sierra. A passion for distance running ignited on the cross country courses and tracks of high school in Ohio. After the college years, also known as a directionless tour of the sciences culminating with a Psychology degree, the twin loves of the alpine and running quickly merged at the 1997 Baldy Peaks 50K, the first of nearly 100 ultras over the past two decades. The competitive fire still burns, but is increasingly tempered by adventure running, fastpacking and giving back to the sport that has given so much. He lives in the rainshadow of the Sierra Nevada in Bishop, CA with his girlfriend, Margo, and can be reached at jeff.kozak.1974@gmail.com.

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