By Daniele Seiss
Rocks on the Road. I knew to expect them.
The MMT course is not an easy one, with over 16,000 feet of ascension over 103.7 miles, and the weather conditions (approaching 90 F and humid on race day, followed by an afternoon deluge and off and on showers throughout the night) made it even more interesting. But the hardest part for me was yet to come a few days later from an offhanded comment containing the word “crazy.”
If you run ultras, you hear it often enough. Usually it is easy to shrug off. This time, though, it bit deep. I thought I knew myself. I thought I knew who I was and who I am a bit better. Thicker skin, I thought I had.
My 3rd 100-mile race, and 15th ultra, MMT was to date, the toughest by far. I had been so proud of finishing under the grueling conditions, for sticking it out, for stomaching the heat and all of its extra trials: the blisters, the chafing, the cramping, nausea and dehydration. I am no heat runner. Heat has always been a problem for me. But I stayed strong. I stayed positive. My movement over the rocks, if not fast, was at least steady. And my good friends and all of the wonderful, wonderful runners and volunteers, made the experience a sheer joy.
One of the best things about ultras, (I will say again), is ultrarunners. A most compassionate, gritty and resilient bunch, to me they demonstrate the best of the best traits when it comes to human character. I am proud to share trails and trials with all of them.
We all run for many different reasons. A lot of us have undergone or are attempting to overcome hardships greater than a mere race in the woods. The running helps. It builds fortitude. On many levels, it helps in the procuration of grace.
For a few stretches this weekend, I shared the trail with a runner battling Parkinson’s disease. He described the rapid decline in his running abilities; his frustration when his muscles refused to respond to his brain’s command. He worried he would not make it to the end. But his determination was a thing of great beauty to behold. I tried to show it to him. Though he had his doubts, I never had any doubt he would finish the race that weekend. (Of course, he did finish, and he finished strong.)
A lot of runners, like me, ran for Tom Green, a good friend to many and a bit of a local hero for his ultra fetes. (Tom had been gravely injured in a tree trimming accident not long before the race, and is making a slow but steady recovery.)
The ultra community showed its true colors in banding together on several occasions to help Tom and his family–financially and with well-wishing videos and photos. So many of us were reminded in the wee hours on the trail that Tom would likely give anything to be sharing our experience. Especially when the going got tough, we ran with him in mind.
Like for many, running–especially running long on mountain trails–has saved my life.
It has made me spiritually, mentally, emotionally and physically stronger with each new experience, and has given me a sense of belonging and purpose I had never imagined I could have. It has taken me to places and to states of mind where I have experienced the beauty and awe of our world and our existence to a degree I would never have arrived at in any other circumstance.
Unfortunately, this is not something that is easily related to those who have not also experienced it first-hand. After all of my weekend’s trials and elations, successfully wrestling rocks and heat and inner demons to see the beauty of the sunrise and appreciate the miracle that is a wildflower, here I was a few days later emotionally faltering at some silly, offhanded comment.
I know there will always be people who don’t understand ultra. But sometimes they are not the ones you would expect. I try not to have too many expectations of people with this regard, but sometimes they still disappoint. I know that is my problem, not theirs.
In truth, I have been fighting the stigma of mental illness for nearly all of my life. There are decades of harsh judgement, hurtful words and ill sentiment to work through, and it seems I still harbor some sensitivity around that word “crazy.”
It can be difficult to overcome stigma. It is one the longest runs I will ever undertake. I hope someday to finish, and to finish it in one piece–perhaps will a little help from my friends.