“I’m going out for a run, probably up to Post. I’ll be back… after midnight, probably after 1,” I said to my wife, as I laced up my shoes. I’d been making noise about going for a longer run, since it was the Thursday night starting a long weekend, and really, I didn’t think my wife was listening to me. We’d just finished dinner, there was still plenty of summer sunlight, I had a good full belly, and was feeling strong.
“Uh huh,” she said, “yeah.” Followed by, “Wait, what?”
I tell a lot of stories about my former running life. Former, because I’ve had to retire, post-surgery to repair what I learned was a broken hip. Retire, because the surgery didn’t fix it and I’m waiting to hear what they’re going to do next about said hip.
I wasn’t a runner of my own volition. I became one because the Army makes everyone a runner. And then I became a distance runner when the Army said that my hip was fine. That there was nothing wrong with it. That I should stop complaining and get on with life, that really, I should get back to the business of combat.
When, in fact, I had broken it, and pieces were floating around inside it, slowly eating it, and giving me what I was describing as some mild discomfort.
I’d become a runner, because the Army doesn’t walk anywhere. You march, you crawl, or you run. Those are your choices.
I became a runner.
When I talk about my life as a runner, I usually tell tales along two themes. The first is about the sheer joy of it. How awesome and phenomenal it is to be a runner. To find solace in running, to be out there alone, on trails and in the woods and jungles, you and what you carry and whatever path you choose to follow. I share photos from all the places I’ve been, and just how awesome it can be to run. Running through both a jungle and a torrential downpour. Running up the side of a mountain as the sun is just rising. Running along a long, winding trail, tall grasses swaying on either side, no signs of humans for as far as the human eye can see.
And when I talk about my life as a runner, I also talk about the stupid things I’ve done. Like taking up marathon running when my hip was broken. Knowing my body well enough to turn around and run again right after injuring something. My habit of not stretching, ever. Or pausing a run long enough for the mortar attack to end, before resuming what I was doing – running 20 miles at night in Baghdad.
But that summer night in 2010, when I slipped out the door to run towards Schofield Barracks, I wasn’t running for any of those reasons. I was running to run. I wanted to see if I could run 50km. I wanted to see if, on a whim, unplanned, unsupported, all on my own, on a seemingly random Thursday night, I could just take off after dinner with my Camelbak and a few things, and run 50 kilometers. Fifty. Kilometers.
It’s a run I don’t talk about. Back then, I was writing actively about most of my new running routes – I was blogging on the Running Oahu website, with a strict format and with great discipline. But this was different. It was, and has remained a run for me.
That’s partly because only about a mile of it was on publicly accessibly roads. One of my rules for the Running Oahu website was that I blogged about trails that were publicly accessible; I didn’t run trails that were trespassing. Only sparingly did I write about running on Schofield itself, since in the post-9/11 world, Schofield Barracks and the military installations had become closed to general public access, so it really wasn’t right, in my mind, to talk about great runs on a military post, when readers might not be able to run there. I did so, sparingly.
But that night, I knew I was going to be doing it all wrong. The work day had ended, and the fields were empty. So I headed out into the neighboring pineapple fields – my secret joy – to run across the Waipahu planes north towards Schofield Barracks. Such a sinful indulgence. There are great trails through the fields, all of them trespassing, that dump out just before Wheeler Barracks and across the street from Schofield Barracks. I figured I would, at a minimum, run through the fields, up to Schofield, and back. If I went as far as the main flagpole on base, that would be 18 miles roundtrip – I knew this, since I was sometimes making that trip as often as two mornings a week. (See note above: stupid).
But deep down, I wanted to then loop around to the far side of Post and circle the weapons ranges there on Schofield. At night, especially with a three day weekend, there would be no one there. Schofield would be mine. I had 3 liters of water with me – plenty, given the dropping temperatures, and my full belly – and as I got to Schofield, my legs felt strong. I pushed on.
After dinner, on the start of a long weekend, is when all of the Soldiers from the barracks either 1) start getting drunk in the barracks, or 2) start making plans to go out in order to go get drunk. That’s not really true, but when you’re on post and you’re looking for observable activity, that’s what you see. Coming onto post, in civilian running gear, already stinking to high holy hell from the 9 mile run getting there, eating a peanut butter sandwich and sucking a Camelbak dry, is an odd sight at such times.
I really didn’t care. I was feeling great.
Looping around the weapons ranges dropped me onto the west side of post. There’s nothing on the west side of post, except for a single, two-lane road the goes up and over and through KoleKole Pass, and down into the adjacent Navy installation on the other side of the Waianae ridge. It was already dark. I was already through most of my water. There’s nothing up that road, except a blocked gate. There’s truly no reason to go running up a mountain pass, after I’d already run, what, 12 miles to get to this point.
Soldiers assigned to Schofield know this long climb, and many don’t do it while starting from on Schofield. I’d started near Pearl Harbor.
See note above: stupid.
I headed up KoleKole Pass, in the dark of the night, alone. It’s a route I was running often, back then. Two, three, sometimes 4 days a week, as part of morning run routes that were anywhere from 6 to 13 miles long. You might be thinking, with frequency comes anything other than familiarity. I was only more familiar with how painful it was going to be to start running up that mountain pass, on unfresh legs, when I didn’t even normally enjoy doing it on fresh legs.
But I did it. I ran to the top of the mountain pass. And I ran, I didn’t walk. On a normal morning, it was so quiet up there. So few Soldiers run up there, and it’s so remote – a road to nowhere – that it’s the nearest place I had to go, to be close to alone. And here I was, sometime around 9:30pm I would guess, tagging the fence, having some more food, finishing my water, listening to the noises, and staring at the stars.
Running on Oahu is amazing. It really is.
As I was making my way slowly down the pass, no lights, just the moon to light my way, my peaceful calm was spoiled my a military police cruiser. “Hey, you can’t run up here after 8.”
“I’m not, I’m running down,” I said, as I kept running.
Damnit. When an MP tells you to stop, you kinda sorta have to.
It was some Private First Class. Alone. Large, and in Charge.
“You can’t be up here after 2000” he said, meaning 8pm to you and me.
“Where is that posted? It’s not an installation policy, I checked. Is there a new sign at the bottom of the hill that states this?”
“What? No. You just… You just can’t be up here after 2000.”
After I explained to this wee young private that he couldn’t just make stuff up, I agreed that I would continue to run down the hill and to never run up there again on a Thursday night of a three day weekend that year. It was an exchange that was beyond idiotic, all the more comical because I was half way into a 50km run and I was, literally, on the downward run home.
As I passed the 18 mile mark, I duly hit the wall. Marathon runners face this – I’d hit it before. I was a half mile from the shoppette on post, where I had planned to stop to refill my Camelbak anyway, so it wasn’t a bad place or time to hit the wall. What was bad was that my iPod decided to hate me and start serving up music that I didn’t even know I had in my iTunes library.
These are things you only really discover when you take up distance running, by the way. My iPod had this small hiccup, but I got it back in shape. It can only be stupid for so long.
Then I took a small break. I stopped in to the shoppette – imagine a cheap 7/11 knock off – to buy some more jelly-beans, water, and a gator-aide, and there was a line for the register – just one was open – that stretched to the back of the store. I am guessing they did not get the memo, or ignored it, about Thursday night being the start of a three-day weekend. Everyone was stocking up on party supplies, either for their barracks room or for going out.
And then there was me. I smelled like hell. I looked like hell. Because I had stopped actively running, I was now sweating like a broken pipe. I was even grossing myself out. I didn’t want to stand in line, in part because I felt bad for the others who had to stand near me, but in large part because I didn’t want to stand near me. There really is a level of stink reserved for marathon runners. Dante didn’t include that in his hell-theory thing.
I sat for a while, outside on a curb, drinking and eating some jelly-beans. They really are the best long distance running fuel food. I had already had three peanut butter sandwiches. I drank my gatoraide, refilled my Camelbak with water, got back up, and realized I still had legs. This was my last decent spot from which to call my wife for a ride.
But my legs were solid. My head was clear. I had this.
And when we talk about goals, about quests – that’s an important moment. When you can envision the end, and you can see yourself there. This was my moment. I had the legs.
So, I took off into the night. By now, I had my flashlight out. I was running home, not through the pineapple fields – it was too dark for this dehydrated and tired guy to do that – but down the side of the road, reflective belt proudly wrapped around my waist, light flashed at every car approaching. I needed only run down the hill towards Pearl Harbor. I could almost roll, and I’d make it.
Run, I did. I got home, and looked at the Garmin GPS on my wrist, and saw that I was about 2km short of my 50km goal. I had time and energy left for a victory lap through my neighborhood, because truly, that’s what it felt like. And when the Garmin hit 50, I stopped it. Right there. I walked it in from that point – it wasn’t far – but I was done running.
Fifty kilometers of running, complete.
I stripped down in the yard, and left my clothes there. I gave serious thought to trying to burn them, given their funk and smell, but they were so wet and crystallized with salt, I realized I’d have zero chance of lighting them on fire. That shower took forever; I was so tired, so sore, so slow, and oh my goodness, so slimy and smelly, everything worked against everything else. It seemed to take 19 hours to remove enough dirt and slime and grime in order to consider myself clean enough to go to bed.
Really. There’s this salt and slime level that comes with distance running. It gets compounded with jungle and humidity running, too. I’ve been dirty and nasty before, and gone weeks without access to a shower, but even during those times, I’d do my best along the way to try and clean up some. There’s no doing that with these types of runs. You just hit new lows in grime.
“Did you have a nice run,” was about all my wife asked, as I crawled into bed.
I had. I’d run 50km. I’d run it, on my own, unsupported, scavenging for food and water along the way as best I could. I’d done it without an organized event or race structure, crowds cheering, a clock or a finish line even (my Garmin was set only to display the distance.) And I’d done it on a whim, without some focused period of preparation.
I’d also done it on a broken hip. I didn’t know it at the time – I mean, I knew my hip really, really hurt, I just didn’t know it had actually been broken – but I didn’t let it stop me, either.
So, when I talk about running, I don’t really ever talk about this one, single 50 km run that I did. And a lot of that is because so much of this run was for and about, well, me. It was dark, there was nothing to see. It was on private property and on post, on a pretty unremarkable route. I was alone, without anyone to so much as look at my Garmin when I was done and say, Yep, that’s 50km. And I did it on the spur of the moment, as a pure gut check, just to see if I could reach down deep and find everything inside me necessary to do it.
I don’t talk about this run, because in many ways, we struggle to talk about our own hero’s quests. But this was one of mine. One – I’d had many, I am both happy and sad to say. But these experiences are important, both for us in understanding our own values and our own growth, but as tools to use in sharing and in helping others grow and develop.
This should be my next keynote topic.
(These photos? From my life and times and running adventures around Hawaii. Just random happy thoughts from that era.)