Words by: Matt McAllister
Images provided by: Rock the Ridge
“Competition has been shown to be useful up to a certain point and no further, but cooperation, which is the thing we must strive for today, begins where competition leaves off.” ~ Franklin D. Roosevelt
Rock the Ridge is a 50-mile endurance challenge and environmental fundraiser set in the natural beauty of New York’s Hudson Valley. The scene of my first ultramarathon unfolds high in The Shawangunk Mountains, billed for its “million-dollar views of the Catskills,” Nature Conservatory Magazine dubbed it “one of Earth’s last great places.” But to the locals, it’s known simply as “The Gunks.”
Despite the lofty scenic descriptions, I’d spend the day moving through the woods in a fog bubble of low hanging clouds with minimum visibility. Instead of looking outward over the mountain vistas, I’d spend the day looking inwards, contemplating lessons learned while running extreme distances within a group of strangers.
As a collegiate lacrosse player, my understanding of “race day” is derived from my experience on “game day,” except in an ultramarathon the entire “season” is condensed into a single day. This carries considerable weight and the promise of competition to come ignites the fire within me. I’m ready to dominate. Lingering in my psyche from years of team sport is the belief that competition is a zero-sum game, an outlook that defines my approach to racing. Victory for me equals defeat for my opponent.
I’m realistic enough to know that I won’t be competing for a podium spot, but that doesn’t sap my desire to beat everyone I can. I know 50 miles is a distance that deserves nothing but respect, so I try to keep my ego in check, but ego is a funny thing. When addressed directly it slips out of sight, not gone but lurking, ready to dupe you once your guard is down.
As the race began to unfold, everything was going according to plan. I was completely focused on myself and running regular systems checks: monitoring heart rate on the climbs, pacing on the flats, maintaining consistent nutrition and hydration. My plan was to release energy in a slow drip from miles 0-30 where I would reassess race goals and pacing for the final 20.
Although, as the miles ticked on, I fell into a habit of making mental enemies on the course. Making superficial judgments and manufacturing grudges; anything to spur further competition. “Don’t get caught by the wannabe tough guy with no shirt” and “drop this old lady, she’s not even going to finish.” One group of runners in particular raised my ire in the beginning of the race. They were hooting and hollering at every aid station, laughing about the whole affair. They were having too much fun for my liking; “don’t they know this is a race!” I happily left them behind around the 10-mile mark with a vow to never see them again. I convinced myself I could out race this group – out compete them. Ego was creeping in.
As I neared mile 25 I could hear them closing in on me through the climbing switchbacks, so I pressed on with only a quick stop at the first major aid station. Staying just long enough to hastily scald my tongue on some broth and not take in much else. What lay beyond was the highest point on the course and my first revelation in ultra-running. Beyond the 30-mile mark, as stressed sinews seized,true transcendence began. The course was grating away at my mental constructs and replacing them with physical pain. If I was going to finish, my focus had to shift away from the people around me and instead to providing mental therapy to mounting ailments.
As the balance of the race shrank, my mind felt purified by a pain which grew increasingly disconnected. It persisted almost as a given outside my current state of mind. Ever there but disregarded. If the knees can bear the load, the mind can force the body onward.
I’d been worn to a point where competition was no longer an option; I was no longer racing, but simply running – running amongst runners. Early in the race I’d been absorbed by my “game day” mentality, this shadow of my past stifled conversation when amongst the pack, but as that slipped away it was replaced by a simple gratitude for my fellow runners. Now a part of the pack, I began to feel stronger, and through cooperation with those around me I was free to run on unencumbered.
Eventually that jovial group from earlier in the race caught up and passed me, but not without a parting gift – a straggler left behind. She’d been dropped by her crew and could no longer keep a steady pace. For the next five miles I paced her through a treacherous stretch of course until she was composed enough to power on without me. Having shared so personally in the struggle of those final miles, I found joy in her success. I found myself happy to have helped someone beat me.
On the football and lacrosse fields of my youth, I honed a competitive game day mentality in order to protect myself against weakness. In hindsight, it may have been nothing more than baggage which proved to be an isolating and self-defeating weakness on the course. By cooperating with my fellow runners and sharing in the collective struggle, I was able to shed that weight. Competition may get you to the starting line but, once you’re there, it’s cooperation which gets you to the finish.