A Remedy For Soggy Life
By John Prohira
If one advances in the direction of his dreams and endeavors to live the life in which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. - Thoreau
The first Saturday in September is supposed to be cool but this was not the case, it was still as hot as mid July. Evidently there has been enough of a weather change to hint to Canadian geese that it is time to begin their flight south for winter. I've seen the first of these long distance travelers in the skies over Western New York. Summer's end was the signal to seven Rochester area runners that it was time to go from where the geese came, to journey across the border and visit our northern friends. We would congregate in the Haliburton Forest of Central Ontario and run the next day, night and following morning. Something I liken to finding big medicine in the woods!
My traveling companion for the trip there was Dashing Dan Lapota who came to my house on Friday morning. While I was packing my gear in his car he visited with my eldest daughter Elizabeth, age 14 who was home from school recovering from some dental work done the previous day. In between trips from house to car I attempted to coax her into eating some cold cereal. She wasn't hungry but I knew that we both would feel better if she'd just pour some milk on her favorite cereal LIFE and eat it. While I was at the car Dan tried helping by asking her to do that. "I'm not hungry now", was Lizzie's reply. "I don't want to make it and then let it sit there and become mushy. LIFE can get soggy fast." My traveling companion liked that! When I returned to the house Dan was laughing and telling me that my daughter was a budding philosopher.
We left my house at 8AM on Sept. 6th heading east into Rochester where we met another three intrepid travelers, all five of us had 100 miles of trail on our minds. We would meet the rest of our contingent, two friends running the 50 mile Haliburton option in the Forest later that day. We reached Canada by way of the 1000 Islands, a very scenic route. I enjoy traveling with Dan, he always brings the coolest music. This on jaunt we "tripped down musical memory lane", listening to rock and roll from younger days - Hendrix, Led Zepplin and Johnny Winters to name some. We arrived at the Haliburton Forest at 5:30PM with just enough time to place our drop bags where they belonged and set up camp before the pre race feed. Here after dinner of salad, pasta and sauce, our race director Helen Malmburg described the course to us. During this meeting a Haliburton ritual that always pleases me was performed as each of us in the room stood and told the group gathered who we were and what we planned to do that weekend. I like this, it tends to bond us together as a community.
After dinner it was off to the tents and sleep, the wake up call at 4:30-5 AM comes pretty early. The sky was huge! I mean really big and full of stars! We were spending the weekend in a 60000 square acre forest under the darkest sky I've ever seen. I say dark sky meaning there was absolutely no light pollution what so ever. And no moon, just stars and lots of them. I never realized that there were so many in the heavens. During the entire weekend I never saw a jet or any telltale signs of one above our heads. Just twinkling lights that appeared almost close enough to touch.
Morning came and we prepared for the adventure. Our campsite was about ½ of a mile from the restaurant where pre race coffee and bagels were offered. The walk there helped loosen me up. I enjoy chatting with my fellow runners before the start, it's reassuring. Then out to the start line where attendance was taken and a quick prayer of sorts offered. Then one of my favorite words were spoken, go and our day began. So at 6AM, before sunrise about 100 runners started down a dirt road away from the Haliburton Forest base camp, running into the dawn.
The field was evenly divided between runners choosing either 50K, 50 or the 100 miles distance. The course was a mixture of dirt and dusty road, rough logging road and trail. The trail was at times single track with the forest's edge close enough to the Haliburton runner to caresses his shoulders. At other times the trail could be described as technical in terms of inclines and or the rockiness of the path through the woods. Elsewhere the trail was smooth, soft on the feet and wide enough for two to three to run abreast.
I always view this section of the North American continent as one that's nurturing and alive. Which surprised me during my first visit here four years ago because the Haliburton Forest is a working forest, timber is still harvested there. I'd had naïve expectations about what I'd see, misguided impressions of what modern logging could be. I thought that I'd come upon acre after acre of clear cut forest with piles of timber strewn along makeshift roads littered with logging equipment. This is not the case at all! Logging is conducted on an extensive scale but in a way that actually improves the quality of the forest, a major reversal of past practices. Rather than taking the best wood, Haliburton Reserve foresters mark and take out the inferior and mature trees. The result is a very high quality, healthy forest for the future. I saw only the occasional mound of harvested trees and no machinery used for that purpose along our journey away from base camp.
The course involved traversing 25 miles of the forest and roads through it then turning around and returning to base camp the way one came. If 100 miles was your pleasure then the out and back was repeated. I find the hardest part of this race is doing just that, turning around and getting out of camp after 50 miles of running. By the time I came into the halfway point I'd been running for almost 11 hours and it was supper time and time to relax in the real world. I fantasized about that a bit. My tent was just over there and a comfy chair even closer. But I am an experienced Haliburton 100 runner, I gave myself no excuses to dawdle at base camp. My drop bag contained a single can of Ensure and a tooth brush. Everything else was 5 miles down the road away from camp. In and out fast, before I came to my senses, back to embrace full force what 100 miles on foot means.
This has always been a difficult course for me. My excuses include that it comes at the end of the season and I am tired but I think the real reason is that this course lulls the runner into thinking an easy day is being offered. The dirt road sections are very runnable, even the inclines and many including myself over extend themselves early and pay for that folly later. No single climb was more than a couple of hundred feet long but many were steep and attention getters. Early in the race the downs were glorious, I love running down on trail, it's a very liberating feeling. Bugs were not a factor during our Haliburton passage although I did get stung by a bee on top of my hatless head. Ouch! As much as that hurt all signs of the bee's assault on me left quickly. My head did not swell any larger than it already was. Aid stations came every 5 miles filled with the friendliest of people willing to do most anything to accommodate their guests. I had placed plenty of vanilla Ensure in my drop bags and diluted one can with water everytime I stopped. All manner of finger foods like candy, fruit and sandwiches were offered as well as drinks of pop, a sports drink and water. Later in the day we were tempted to sit a bit and enjoy hot soups and coffee. My drop bags also contained changes of clothing and little treats and pick me ups.
Another pleasing aspect of this event is it's out and back configuration. Everyone is seen more than once including the front runners who do inspire. We came upon the eventual winner before dusk around our 65 mile mark. He was 20 miles ahead of us headed towards his finish and was still running up the hills, hopping from rock to rock like a mountain goat. And it was a race for much of the day and night with the second male runner only 10 to 60 minutes behind him. Anything can happen during these distances that were being covered and I don't think the front runner was ever comfortable enough with his lead to relax. The woman's race was won when the second lady caught the first at around 75 miles. This is often a race of attrition with experience being a valuable asset. But this year's overall winner had never run the distance before. Go figure! As my second loop began others came into camp as I was going out and we wished one another well. I bid the 50 milers goodnight and congratulated them on their job well done. My fellow 100 milers I cheered and told them that they'd find me just up ahead after they left camp and that I hoped we'd chat during the night. I like watching my fellow ultrarunner work his magic. I like looking into their eyes and recognizing what I see there. We view the world around us in like manner and understand that the effort we are expending is towards something meaningful and important.
The day had been quite hot but without humidity which would have complicated matters. We were shielded from the sun much of the time we ran in the forest under the trees' canopy. As the sun moved lower in the western sky and eventually kissed the horizon a chill could be felt in the air. The Haliburton Forest is in Ontario also known as the land of lakes. We were never far from water, never removed from the more than 50 lakes and ponds and streams that fill the forest. All that water made the night hours cool. Although I had run the trail now illuminated by the glow of my headlamp during the day, darkness does tend to lend a not always subtle charm to running and walking. The noises heard as background distraction during the day can take on grander significance if one allows that to happen. For example all day I had watched toads hop across the dirt trail sections into the dry leaves covering the forest floor. These little creatures made a lot of noise moving about. After dark the noise of their efforts sounded as if a much larger animal perhaps a carnivore was there along side me. I've done this sort of thing enough not to let my imagination run away with me and instead enjoyed the night noises for what they were, only the sounds of small Haliburton residents.
This was a very tough race for me. I call it a race in spite of not caring who finished before me. I race against the clock, against time, don't we all? In order to be considered a 100 mile finisher the distance must be covered in less than 30 hours. I was out there for over 27. After the fact I wondered just what I'd have to say about the experience. What was the value gained over the weekend? Of course there were rewards. Perhaps not obvious ones, I just needed a few days to process the data that had flooded my senses while in the Canadian woods. This was my 5th 100 mile race of year 2002, had I'd gone to the well once too often? The result being my physical struggle in the forest? I had injured my back the end of July while taking fence down around my property. The entire month of August I ran a total of 40 miles. But I walked and walked and treated my bad back by stretching, visiting the chiropractor and resting. During the race that Saturday and Sunday my back was never an issue. But I tired easily, it seems that I did lose a bit of conditioning during my downtime. But I was well rested emotionally and fully recharged spiritually. Two important assets I'd trade any day for added conditioning.
As it turned out this race opened my eyes a little more to what it is I chase in the woods, and why I run long distances. I've run many a mile with friends and loved ones. But never for as long as I did with my Rochester friends in the Haliburton Forest. Wonderful, strong, capable and caring people all. As I watched them run the gauntlet of 50 and 100 miles I appreciated their challenges and realized that running these distances is really a huge undertaking. Why I never admitted that to myself before I don't know. I needed them to show me that. Perhaps I like others minimize my own abilities and efforts yet revel in the accomplishments of others. This revelation hit me like a ton of bricks and it frightened me a bit. I worried about my friends. How would they react to the rough times to come later during their races. How would they handle their finish or lack thereof. I hoped that they understood what I did, that the distance is a worthy opponent and that there was the real possibility that they might not finish. I hoped they understood that that was the point. It wasn't the finishing that was important but rather the beginning, making that decision to attempt something difficult and then learning the lessons presented along the way.
I am pleased to report that my friends all performed magic in the woods to the utmost of their ability on that particular weekend. And as stated earlier they helped me better see what this kind of running is all about. It's big! It's grand art! It's high drama! It's engaging in an act whose outcome is unknown and laying it all on the line in spite of that. I believe something lacking in our modern day to day lives is the ability to recognize our real heroes. Not ones the media parade in front of us but ones we can see with our own eyes and touch with our own hands. I think we go into the woods and mountains and deserts and run long so as to play hero. That's what was shown me that weekend. My fellow runners represented what heroes are. And when I came from the forest and returned to the real world I found it a little easier to recognize heroic behavior in the world around me. I saw it in the teacher, the preacher, the fireman and the grandmotherly lady up the street who works at the teenage safe house every weekend. All this was mine as the result of watching others test themselves physically, mentally and spiritually. Just by watching them perform their art, testifying to the fact that they were trying to be the good animals that God intended them to be.
During the night runners spread out, many traveled alone in order to run their own races and listen to the trail lessons being presented in privacy. During my time by myself I talked to my God and in my mind's eye and heart shared with those I love best what I saw, felt and heard. I told them of what was going on inside and what they meant to me.
Immersed in this physical meditation I needed to chatter of ravens to have me realize that dawn had arrived. Being lapped by the sun again did not bother me in the least. At 9:30 on Sunday morning I crested the last incline and could see the finish line 10 minutes away. My fellow runners waited for me, cheering and calling me in by name. Reminding me that I too could play hero but in humble fashion. For the trail demands humility. It shows me all my frailties which I must accept but also hints at my strengths which I've recently begun to appreciate.
Once again big medicine was found as was one way to keep life from getting soggy. All it took was a day and night in the northern woods with my friends and lots of time to think.
In closing one quotation only and a pointer to the Haliburton Forest website and photos not of runners but of the land and full time forest residents.
They've moved out of the society that would have protected them, and into the dark forest, into the world of fire, of original experience. Original experience has not been interpreted for you, and so you've got to work out life for yourself. Either you can take it or you can't. You don't have to go far off the interpreted path to find yourself in very difficult situations. The courage to face the trials and to bring a whole new body of possibilities into the field of interpreted experience for other people to experience - that is the hero's deed. - Joseph Campbell
Photos on the Haliburton Forest Web site
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