Tuesday, September 11, 2012

What’s it Worth to You to Dope for the Tour de France?

As if I wasn’t already thinking about Lance…Armstrong, that is (because who has not given at least one nanosecond of thought to the current swirl of events around cycling’s icon for the last many years); I was reading Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl over the weekend, in which the male protagonist prefers to go by his middle name, Nick, instead of his first name, Lance, because the latter sounds too slick, entitled and, yes, untrustworthy; an apt coincidence given Lance A’s situation.  
  Until yesterday, I hadn’t given too much thought to what I actually thought-thought about The Lance Events.  My conversations on the topic tended to the anodyne agreement with others, “yes, I think he probably was doping” and “yes, the zeal of the investigation seems extreme, but…” And so on.  But then in the way ideas have of coming upon us suddenly, apropos of nothing, I had this series of thoughts about The Lance Events, which pertain not so much to Lance, the individual, but to sports in general and why we participate in them and what “sport” is about. 
So here goes:
I am disappointed, though not surprised, to learn that Lance may well have doped.
I think it’s true, too, that the investigation into allegations against him was a bit of a witch-hunt.  Although I think the more apt description would be of the restive ruling classes toppling a too-popular king (throw in a little French history in honour of the Tour de F), not ignorant citizens chasing after older, single women with the gift of healing (what witch-hunts usually entailed).  Whether or not the investigation was more zealous than others is both beside the point and understandable.  Lance has been the standard bearer for cycling and it would be wrong to allow a cheater to maintain that status. 
The more important question, to my mind, is what is the world of cycling actually doing about the rampant doping in the sport?  More testing?  Harsher after-the-fact individual sanctions?  Those measures aren’t nearly enough, because they do not get to the heart of the matter.  Why do cyclists dope?  What is at stake?  And the answer is, as is so often the case, money.  Lance is not some poor cyclist, carrying his bike down five flights of stairs from his mean garret every morning to hit the streets rain or shine in whatever second-hand gear he can scrape together.  No, he is a super-endorsed athlete, training with the best of the best of everything, not to mention living a storybook lifestyle.    
To be at the top of cycling is to enjoy the trappings of the endorsements that come with it.  Sport is big money.  No wonder athletes cheat.  After all, as we’ve seen, cheating is rampant in the financial world, too.  The Tour de France has become a major media event, a spectacle that commands big advertising budgets (it’s not the Superbowl, but still…). 
So I have two proposals.
First, if any cyclist riding in the Tour de France gets caught doping next year, then the Tour de France will be cancelled for 2014.  Oh yes, I am aware that’s an extreme proposal, but the sport is dirty.  Not every cyclist, but far too many.  Unless there are real sanctions that matter beyond the individual; who can always “redeem” themselves with a tell-all book, salacious television interviews and maybe even a reality show; change will not happen.  Where’s the incentive to the whole sport to get itself clean?  (And this reasoning extends to other sports, of course).
Second, the money issue needs to be tackled.  And I’ll provide a spoiler alert here—I am going to get socialist on you.  I’ve been reading E. F. Schumacher’s 1970’s classic, Small is Beautiful, a thought provoking look at the dehumanizing effect of much economic theory.  Cyclists (not just cyclists, people, many people) cheat because money is at stake, because if they don’t win, they don’t earn the livelihood they need.  And the winners, like Lance, need their competition.  They need other cyclists who are top-tier athletes to keep the races interesting.  Yet many of those cyclists are not earning enough and/or the gap between what they earn and what the Lances earns is so large, that it is hard to be immune from the temptation to cheat.  Because if they could just win, then…The solution is to shrink the gap, to spread the wealth, as it were (I warned you!), to acknowledge that cycling needs all its athletes, not just the winners.  All cyclists earning above a certain amount should be required to tithe (a church concept of donating 10% of one’s wealth—and no, I’m not endorsing religion, only the charitable impulse, of which Lance, by the way, is a great example), or contribute some other percentage to their respective national cycling federation and the applicable international cycling body, which money will go into a general pool, then distributed out in some fairly apportioned fashion to the athletes who participate in events throughout the year.  By “earning,” I mean everything they earn by virtue of the fact that they are a successful cyclist.
Of course, I recognize that there are many parameters that need precise definition in this proposal.  It is the bones of the idea I’m throwing out for your consideration—that cheating risks the sport, not just self; and that winning and succeeding financially wins for the sport, not just for self. 
After all, isn’t that what sport is supposed to be about?—a forum to which we bring the physical manifestation of our highest selves, in competition with other worthy opponents.  Isn’t that what the Greeks and Romans were after with sport?  Sport is about the purity of the physical pursuit, and yes, about winning, but not just for the money (and for the dubious privilege of appearing in advertisements purporting to adore some watch or shoe or some hyper-scientized sports drink), but also for the love of the sport.
My proposal both ensures a clean sport and a high level of competition.    
Cycling is a beautiful sport at risk of sinking under the weight of its own dirt.  I propose we not let that happen.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Beach Reading

As the last weekend of summer approaches, I wanted to offer up a Labour Day weekend beach read to everyone.  Castle Peak is an RLAG flavoured, outdoorsy short story I wrote recently as an updated, woman's homage to Jack London's 1908 story, To Build a Fire.

Hope you enjoy!

And apologies to anyone who got this twice--via blog and FB, just trying to cover my bases.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Fear Factor

My mountain bike and I have been getting more closely acquainted lately, and I think I can say that we are becoming friends in a way we never were before.  This morning, as my bike slipped sideways in some sand on a steep-ish downhill, I thought to myself, my bike really wants to stay upright, I just have to get out of the way of my bike’s heart-desire.  Oh yes, a mountain bike deserves anthropomorphization.  I’m not 100% sure where my Rocky Mountain Oxygen’s heart is, but I know it’s there, even when I’m crashing sideways, adding to the colour-burst of bruises across my bum. 
My renewed interest was partly fueled by knowing I was headed to Leadville, CO, to support my brother in the Leadville 100 Mountain Bike Race this past Saturday, and by riding with him in the week leading up to the race.  I suppose I should clarify that me riding with my brother is really more me straggling some great distance behind, sometimes on my bike and sometimes off my bike, while he gets lovely rests to enjoy the scenery, the dense mountains, the high altitude meadows and, most special to the area we were riding, the Aspen forests, the trees’ brilliant white trunks, so straight and narrow, creating a dappled, dream-world maze.  Oh the places we can go…    
Let me pause here for a short shout out to one of the women of RLAG—Rebecca Rusch—who rode phenomenally well in the Leadville race and flew over the finish line in a course record time for women (beating her own course record by more than 4 minutes).  I snapped the pic above of her as she was making final preparations for the race start. 
Watching Rebecca, my brother, oh and also Nicole DeBoom, the founder of Skirt Sports’ husband, Tim, and all the other superb riders was inspiration, but not, it turns out, quite enough to quell my fear.  The day following the race I woke up early, revved up by my spectation (I know—neologism, because it’s just the right word) the day before.  I decided to ride some trails I’d already ridden on our CO sojourn, eager to see how I would do the second time out on them.  Well…the up was all well and good, but on the second part of the down all my newfound enthusiasm went on strike.  A trail I had ridden without much trouble two days earlier loomed up ahead of me in the most terrifying manner.  What had seemed straightforward 48 hours before became squirrely and scary. 
Now, I knew, knew, knew that I could ride the trail much better than I was.  Yet I could not.  I knew, knew, knew that the fear was in my head and if I could just let it dissipate, then all would be well.  Easier said than done.   In the end, I settled on being fascinated by the power of my mind to obstruct.  Back here in Truckee, CA, on the more familiar trails I ride, I’ve been noticing more sharply where I’m letting things get easier and where I’m still blocking myself.  Because it is amazing how one day, two big fat rocks seem too close together to ride between, and the next day the gap has widened to a comfortable, slip-through space.   
Isn’t that just the way of all things in life?  The biggest obstruction to anything I want to do (you want to do) is fear. 
Which brings me around to the Spartan Race—one of the premier obstacle course race series (similar to the Tough Mudderwhich I wrote about a few months ago).  I recently spoke to a couple of organizers involved with the race and three of the top women participants in the race series.  The race tag line, “You’ll know at the finish line,” succinctly captures the spirit of a race that presents different challenges every time.  Obstacles are kept secret from racers until they are in the midst of the course.  So although veterans can guess at what they may face, the precise blend of obstacles and order will never be certain.   The race aims to make the racer a better person when they cross the finish line—by facing their fears and overcoming the obstacles thrown at them; which brings the Spartan race goal back around to my earlier observations about mountain biking as life. 
The Spartan has a special focus on increasing women’s participation—hurrah!  They call it the Spartan Chick’d program and it includes a closed network on Facebook with more than 5000 women.  The program is working.  Whereas a typical road race might have as many as 60% women, in 2011 the Spartan racers were only 25% women.  In 2012, thanks to their concerted effort to encourage women to give it a go, the race has closer to 35% women now.  And true to their goal, Spartan’s women are changing.  Here’s what I learned from three of the top-placing women.     
Margaret Schlachter has always had sports in her life, but for her the Spartan experience “helps unlock an extra piece of ourselves.”  In her case that’s meant that a month before her 29th birthday, she quit her day job working in Admissions and College Placement, as well as coaching a few sports at Killington Mountain School, and is devoting herself full time to the risky proposition of depending on race sponsors, writing her blog Dirt in Your Skirt, and helping other women get active through her coaching programs.
For Andi Jory Hardy, the Spartan race tipped the scales at a turning point in her life.   Summer 2011, her marriage was in trouble, the private school she had started was struggling financially, as so many new ventures, and she had to close her dream down.  And 16 knee surgeries had scared her into a sedentary lifestyle.  But enough was enough for Andi, she decided it was time to eat healthier and get some exercise and after doing triathlon in October, she signed up for a “little” mud run.  Famous last words.  She hasn’t looked back.  So far her knees are holding up, but, as Andi says, she never knows when her racing days could be over.  In the meantime, she’s in the best shape of her life at 43; she’s inspiring women of all ages at the races she participates in, and the racing has given her renewed energy for her teaching job with special needs children.  The kids love learning about her training and applying the same principles in their own goals of conquering reading and other scary subjects.  That feeling of being up against wall in her life is gone.  Andi is happy.
  Ella Kociuba aspires to be the “face of” Spartan racing.  Although only 18 years old, she’s had way more than her share of obstacles, and that’s before she got hooked on Spartans.  When she was 13 years old, a horseback riding accident, aggravated significantly by a birth defect in which her spine was not connected to her sacrum, resulted in a broken back.  Four metal rods and screws, and a year and a half later, Ella was back on her feet and running, even if it was painful; okay, very painful.  For someone with every reason to blame the physical for any setbacks, Ella still firmly believes that the first thing to break down is the mind and for her the racing is an opportunity to touch her limits, something she finds “very intriguing;” fostering a toughness that will, no doubt, come in handy as life unfolds. 
Whether it’s mountain biking, or the Spartan, or something else that tweaks your fear factor, take a moment to notice the way your mind can seize up, cramped with fear, or, alternatively, open up the space between two rocks, so that you have just enough room to pass through on the way to your future. 

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

How to Get Inside My Mind

This past Sunday I paid money for the opportunity to plunge into a pool of icy water and swim under a wall that divided the pool in half; and I don’t just mean ice cold, I mean water thick with a deep layer of floating ice cubes cozying up against one another (better suited to the inside of a martini shaker), so that when I, in my panic, tried to surface, it felt as if the ice cubes were pressing down on top of me.  I was participating in the Mt. Snow iteration of the latest “physical challenge event” phenomenon—a Tough Mudder. 
An event ostensibly designed by the British Military, this particular Tough Mudder involved 10 miles of running, much of it up or down the steep mountain side of Mt. Snow, very often in mid-calf mud, hiding treacherous rocks.  The running though is almost incidental to the event (and it’s running to be reckoned with), which also includes in the neighbourhood of 30 “obstacles.”  I lost count somewhere along the way and, in any event, didn’t even know if some obstacles were official, or just part of the terrain.  The obstacles included the above mentioned dumpster ice bath, crawling on your belly under barbed wire, crawling on your belly in muddy water beneath live electrical wires, crawling on your belly through underground tunnels and then again through metal culvert tunnels partially immersed in water (you’re seeing the military theme by now), slithering sloth-like across a cable suspended just above icy water, traversing monkey bars above icy water, walking a narrow balance beam across a pool of icy water, and jumping off high ledges into…yes, more heart-stoppingly icy water.  The bit where we ran through smoke and jumped over fire was actually a welcome relief from the cold.  It was also Vermont in early May, I might add, meaning it wasn’t exactly hot weather to begin with.  Then there were the obligatory walls to scale, and the grand finale involved more live electrical wire.  Hoo-rah, as many of the participants might say.
The event is not a race.  A point emphasized by the organizers and supported by an environment that prizes collaboration over speed, and gamely good attitude over finish time, and that’s all to the good.  The event is about facing down your fears and staying strong in the jaws of exhaustion…and having fun (lest we forget!) 
Well…I am a good swimmer, but very fearful of cold water.  I’m not a fan of that feeling of suffocation that sets in when I’m immersed in too-cold water.  Oh yes, I’m sure with a mad amount of training, I could learn, if not to love, then not to fear that feeling.  But how unpleasant would all that training be, and to what end?  These were the questions I asked myself, as I’d just settle into enjoying all the belly-crawling and, of course, running up and down steep hills (which I truly love), when another icy water obstacle would loom on the horizon.  WTF?—Again? 
I can do it.  By now I know I can.  And by “it” I mean plunge into icy water when necessary (or even when it’s an unnecessary event I’ve signed up for).  The question is, why? There are things we must do in life; and there are even things that are very good preparation for the things we must do in life, or for making the most of our life.  Anyone who has read a bit about my thinking, knows that I think sports is one of the most efficient and efficacious ways to train in a microcosm of life’s challenges and get invaluable glimpses into how much more we are capable of than we believe.
I agree with the general theory that it is a good thing for us to face our fears in some fashion, and that in so doing we strengthen our spirit (and possibly our bodies).  I agree, too, with the general theory that if we never challenge ourselves (which necessarily involves facing some version of fear, be it fear of a concrete thing, like cold water, or fear of failure), then we will cease to grow; that true engagement in the world demands of us a willingness, even a desire, to greet and even seek out challenges. 
The question the Tough Mudder posed for me was what challenges ought we to seek out simply for the sake of training our fear?  And where does enjoyment fit in?  Is a challenge a challenge, or is fear really fear, if the thing we fear ultimately turns out to be fun?  To that I’d answer a resounding yes.  In fact that’s the point, I think, to love challenge, to find joy in engagement.  I, for example, will be sleepless before an ultra-marathon, terrified I can’t finish or that I’ll hurt myself on the mountain or that the pain in general might be too much, but I also thrive on that fear and am all the more thrilled when I do finish.  There were many at the Tough Mudder who loved the challenges and derived huge pleasure from the whole event.  My compatriot throughout the event was an energetic, inspiring woman, and the group I attended the race with (including a dear friend) were wonderful spirits and I felt lucky to be among them, so for all that, and for having experienced the event, I am glad I participated.  But…I don’t think I would do it again.  I’ve proved to myself I can do it, and once was enough for that in this particular case.   
A little more than a month ago now I took on a challenge at the opposite end of the spectrum, far from the Hoo-rah and aggressive physicality of Sunday, but one which incited at least as much advance trepidation.  I went on a week long silent meditation retreat at the Insight Meditation Society.  In addition to the obvious, no talking, there was also no reading and no writing, and of course no music, no movies, no television, no computer, no nothing really, except me, and the inside of my mind.  Nor did I run, though once there I discovered that I might have. I went for a vigorous walk everyday. 
At the Tough Mudder, the intense externally generated focus of the physical activity forces you into the moment, that much vaunted “moment” we are often counseled to live in.  When we are fully committed to the activity, when we have reached the point of casting aside self-doubt and fear, then taking action, doing, may clear away the clutter of our minds and still the chatter, leaving only the glorious feeling of our body in motion, followed by the satisfaction of accomplishment. 
An extended period of silence and meditation on the other hand, approaches the same goal from stillness, from an internally generated focus.  And for me, generating the mindfulness that enables me to catch glimpses, to touch, even briefly, the radiant expansiveness of a clear mind, is at least as difficult as jumping in an ice bath.  Seven days alone with the contents of my head and I sometimes felt like my mind and I were barely on speaking terms anymore.  So much muck was in there, roiling around, vying for  my attention, trying to shade reality.  But sometimes, for the blink of an eye, a pause would occur between the thoughts, the mud would settle, and there, for an instant, would be clarity, a feeling like turning myself inside out and immersing myself in a mild effervescence.
I’m not sure which I prefer—a challenging physical activity that places me face to face with my own self, or the inward looking stillness of the meditation cushion.   Both have their place.  For me, they are complementary, nourishing each other’s efforts. 
What do you think?    

Monday, March 5, 2012

Yoga Mirror

I tried out a new yoga studio the other day. Good girl, getting out of my studio rut. Oh no—mirrors—on two walls, no less. Inescapable. I am partial to the notion that our alignment in yoga ought to come from the inside, from learning to feel when we are correctly aligned, with, of course, lots of help from the hands on adjustments I so love. I tried not to look. Unsuccessfully. Was that really my standing split? My pyramid pose?

Gumby, I am not. I know that. I’m not naturally stretchy; and I’m even less flexible once you add in the compounding factors of running and old hamstring injuries. But that hasn’t discouraged me from doing yoga for the last 18 years and, at least in my mind, I’ve started to understand the poses from the inside out. There are some days in yoga when I feel strong and aligned and, yes, as if I’ve captured some of the grace of the practice in my pose.

Then I looked in the mirror. What I saw was how high my leg did not go in standing split (my poor hamstrings doth protest too much). How my upper body didn’t go past 90 degrees, as I bent toward my legs in pyramid pose (more hamstring chatter). My leg felt higher. My upper body felt closer to my legs. In my mind.

Because here’s the thing: inside of me, I was doing those poses to the highest level of excellence possible for me. But the mirror seemed to be telling me a different story, one that got me a little down.

Later that same day, I was having a conversation with a friend and mentioned that I’d had a big reality check in yoga that day. Here I thought maybe my practice was deepening, and instead I looked like a beginner. I get beginner mind. That’s one thing. But, beginner body? How deflating.

You’re so judgmental, my friend said. Where’s your humility?

What? Who? Me? Not humble? Wasn’t I just being self-critical? Isn’t that humble?

Turns out…not so much.

As my friend so wisely pointed out, who was I to judge what was excellence in my yoga practice? My ego, the judge, was arrogant enough to think it knew better than my body what was right and good for me. Where did my ego get off questioning that little piece of the divine that’s in me, in all of us, that part of us that strives for excellence, that strives to find the perfect balance between all that we are and all that we’re capable of. Where indeed? I guess it’s an ego, so we don’t look to it for humility. Who or what knows better—a mirror, or what my body is telling me it feels about my effort?

My experience with the mirror in yoga was, of course, an object lesson in how ill equipped we are to judge others on appearances. I had all the information about the woman I was seeing in the mirror, and still she fell short of where I thought she ought to be. Imagine how far wrong we can go when we have only the barest sliver of information about other people?

The grace of my practice comes from inside me and cannot be judged based on how closely I resemble a photo spread of, say, Christy Turlington, in Yoga Journal. I'll let you take the next step and apply that same idea to judging other's efforts in yoga and in life.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Cape Town's Peaks

4:30 a.m. Dark. Spitting rain. Cold. At least colder than I feel like it ought to be in South Africa’s summertime. We are barreling down the coast road from Llandudno, a seaside suburb of Cape Town, to the central market square, in my ex-pat friend’s pick-up truck. We’re cutting it fine to get to the 5 a.m. starting line for the Three Peaks Challenge, a race that defines the South African running sensibility—grueling fun in a gorgeous setting…oh, and if you’re not from here, well you better get familiar with the terrain, because there’s no course map, no actual “course” per se, only checkpoints.

In 1897, so the story goes, with nothing better to do that day, Carl Wilhelm Schneeberger decided to hike up all three peaks, which preside over Cape Town: Devil’s Peak, pointed as a wizard’s hat; Table Mountain, flat and fit for a banquet of the gods; Lion’s Head, the curl of the creature’s mane flowing down its back. In between each peak, he returned to the Old Johannesburg Hotel in Long Street to rest. A friend assisted at the occasion, timing the event for posterity. Possibly more posterity than CWS imagined. In 1927 and again in 1977, two others improved on CWS’s time and in 1997, Don Hartley, who had had an itch to take up the challenge for some 35 years, decided to scratch the itch in an official manner. So was born the Three Peaks Challenge, still run by Don Hartley, now assisted by Gavin Snell.

The challenge is to make our way, via whatever we think is the fastest route, up to the top of each of the three peaks. The object is to scale each peak and return to the Greenmarket Square in between each ascent; a task which sounds benign, until I see the steepness of the roads, and the roads are supposed to be the easy part. For each leg of the race there are checkpoints at the market square, near the base of the main trail up the peak (which may lead to many other possible trails) and on the peak. As we pass through each of the waypoints, our bibs are marked with rune-like scratchings, confirming the integrity of our race.

I am clueless about Cape Town geography. Luckily I have my friend, India as a guide and companion. A devout runner (are there non-devout runners in SA? If so, I haven’t met them), she lives in Cape Town, and did the race the year before, not to mention that the peaks are her running backyard.

At the starting line we’re bundled up against the chill and misting rain. I have on a tank top, a long sleeve shirt and a jacket, not to mention my peaked cap against the hoped-for sunshine. My bare legs would be happier in tights, a clothing choice others have made, but I’m banking on daylight bringing some warmth.

Only 120 runners get into the race each year, 60 new and 60 veterans. Not all veterans are created equal either. Pale blue bibs indicate runners who have earned a permanent number, by completing the challenge 5 times. Orange bibs are the runners at 4 complete, going for the blue.

At 5 a.m. we aren’t the only people on the street. The clubbing crowd is winding down and they stand on the sidewalk, swaying gently, smoking cigarettes and staring at us. The start is collegial, in the way trail races are, at least in my experience, runners happy to be together, simultaneously relaxed and fired, chatting, with the added panache (to my Canadian ears) of the purring South African intonations.

The race starts without hoo-ha, and off we go. Within only a few blocks runners have branched off in different directions, following whatever theory they subscribe to: longer distance and shallower climbs, or shorter distance and steeper climbs. The latter is India’s philosophy, so in no time we’re headed straight up. I can’t tell you exactly what route we followed. I know it involved some trail-stairs past someone’s meticulous, newly planted vegetable garden and barking dog, and then up a steep, gravelly, dirt road to Tafelberg Road, which snakes around the base of the peaks. We can see the blinking headlamps of other runners far off to our left, taking a different route up to the mountain trails.

Light seeps in around us, grey and misty. After the first checkpoint, we start up the official trail, or more accurately, trails, which zigzag up Devil’s Peak. Dashes of red, blue, electric yellow and green spread across the mountainside, as runners fan out to their favoured routes. The mountain curves around us, like a giant coliseum, then nudges up against Table Mountain. Grey-green scrub bushes create the illusion of a soft blanket, pulled up to the mountain’s chin, above which the rock is dark and scrape-y and sharp looking. About three-quarters of the way up, the leaders come flying down the trails around us, with that gaspingly, sure-footed agility the best of the trail runners have. Not I.

The peak is cold and windy. We miscue and end up on a different trail on our way down, the low shrubs scraping along our legs like five o’clock shadow. The damp trails are slick and treacherous. Back through the checkpoint, and down to the market square.

Some people say that down is worse than up. To each her own. Without taking a position on that particular issue, I can say that there is no respite on this course, save the few moments of relative flat along the mountain road, which last less time than it takes to recover from an ascent or descent.

There is really only one trail up Table Mountain, unless you elect to do some serious scrambling. We don’t. The thigh high steps up are challenge enough. The addition of chicken wire covering some of the rock, misted with rain, adds an extra zing to the experience. If you don’t catch your foot on a rock, you can always get it tangled in some chicken wire. There are regular hikers on the trail, too. Girls in thin white sneakers and tight jeans. Mascara and eyeliner. Boys in jeans held up by belts midway down their boxers. Children who look to be 6 years old follow older siblings. Young couples stop for hand-holding breaks, making way for our flow of scientifically clad participants in numbered bibs.

I can’t decide if I’m impressed by the apparent unpreparedness of so many of the hikers, or if it makes me feel diminished somehow. After all, if they can climb up Table Mountain, what’s the big deal in me doing it? Except, I suppose, that I’m going at speed (well, perhaps not speed, but moving determinedly), without breaks; and Table Mountain is number two and three is coming. And in any case, why can’t I own the sturdiness of my accomplishment and the hikers’? What they do and I do are not mutually exclusive. Nor is it even a competition, except inside my mind, which likes to insert itself into the wide-open expanse of a long, long race. But I have India to talk to, and we haven’t seen each other in a while, so my mind doesn’t get as much of an opportunity as it would like to mess with me.

The top of Table Mountain is blowing like crazy. If it were raining, it would be raining sideways. Luckily it’s not. Though not for lack of trying. The air is dense with chill humidity. From below we had seen that there was a tablecloth today—what CapeTownians call the swath of clouds that often hovers atop Table Mountain, draping over the edges like fine linen. Any view is completely obscured by the mist. I put on my gloves and re-don my jacket, which I’d been happy to shed at the bottom of Devil’s Peak. The checkpoint is friendly, despite the less than ideal conditions they’re waiting in for us.

India is crazy for the potatoes with salt and butter they’re serving. I stick to my peanut butter and jam sandwich, cut up into tiny pieces—and yes, I’m that obsessive that I brought my own from New York, from my favourite PB, right down to the particular kind of multigrain bread I like.

The bad weather seems to lift as we head back down Table Mountain. Cape Town is spread out below us, grids of buildings and roads, cozying up right up to the edge of the sea. And by the time we’re heading back up, for a third time, out of the market square, I’ve stripped down to my tank top.

An aside, one lovely benefit of passing through the start/finish twice, is that it’s located at an Inn, with, yes, clean bathrooms. A special treat I avail myself of both times through. Not to mention that I can refill my camelback with water in my gear bag, and load up on more food, if I’m running short. India uses passing through the market square to do a complete change of all her layers of shirts.

The route we take to Lion’s Head passes by the German School, where they are having a huge fair the day of the race. Cars backed up trying to get into the parking lot and double-parked along the streets. Did I mention that the roads are not closed to traffic? One of the many extra little challenges is navigating the ever-increasing traffic as the day blooms into a full-fledged downtown Saturday. There’s nothing quite like trying to sprint through traffic seven hours into a run. And, in my case, deal with the fact that cars aren’t coming from the expected directions—a task that overtaxes my brain late in the race, so that I look like a chicken at every intersection, turning my head back and forth, back and forth, back and forth to verify I’m clear to cross.

Since we are still operating on the shortest, steepest philosophy, the top of Lion’s Head involves chains and ladders. I don’t have a fear of heights. Luckily. And though India tells me a long story about a teenage girl she brought up here on a hike, who fell down the side of the mountain about 30 feet and fractured her arm, I manage to perform the contortionistic mental feat of believing that kind of thing will only happen to other people. Instead, I wonder if the runner behind me has ever had the opportunity to look up another runner’s skirt in an ultra marathon before, even if it’s all very modest and there’s nothing to see. I’m the only woman wearing a skirt (and none of the men are either, which is worth adding, because you never know with the trail racing crowd, I suppose). For me, there’s something about a skirt that creates the right balance between the rugged trails and my maxed out body and psyche. Maybe it’s the reminder than I’m not doing this race to be “one of the boys.” I’m doing it, in some small part, as a statement of what I think femininity looks like.

The peak affords us 360-degree eyeful of views. I wonder if I’m disoriented, because it seems like the ocean is on every side of us. Looking at a map later, I realize that Cape Town juts out into the ocean, like a mini boot of Italy (without the toe), so in fact, the ocean is on three sides. On our way down the chains and ladders, more heart stopping than the up, we encounter a runner whose leg is cramping and shaking so much, India needs to pull him over the top of the ladder he’s trying to climb. It’s my good fortune that the rest of the trail down Lion’s Head is more benign than Devil’s Peak and Table Mountain (something I failed to notice on the way up, when the end seemed impossibly far), dusty, single track, with some rocks and steps, and sooner than I’m expecting we’re back on the road again, passing the cars jockeying for parking, through the city streets, which are, with each return, growing vaguely more familiar.

As seems to be my penchant, I want to cry when I cross the finish line. And, in this case, I breathe an enormous sigh of relief, too. Unharmed. By grace of the universe. The feeling of finishing, of actually finishing such an effort overwhelms me for just a moment. And I get that Proustian feeling, that feeling that I am a different person in some tiny, indefinable way now, sitting on the front porch of the Inn with my friend, than I was when I sat beside her in the truck at 4:30 a.m. racing toward the starting line on the coast road. So that when someone’s three-year old son starts dancing around our table, I join him for a minute, shimmying on my wobbly-stiff legs, my bare feet dusty and wizened from a glorious, long day in running shoes.

This post will appear in UltraRunning Magazine's April 2012 Adventure issue with photos.