Ultra Eye Syndrome.
This phenomenon is the development of corneal edema, which can impair vision. That means that the cornea — the outer surface of the eye — has swollen to the point where it obstructs vision. It’s not yet clear why this happens to ultra runners, but it can get so bad that people can’t continue. Basically, all you can see is some light and maybe some shadows.
Light and shadows.
It was somewhere after 66.8 miles that I was introduced to this peculiar syndrome. It was also the middle of the night in the pitch black woods of the Zumbro River Bottoms near Theilman, Minnesota while running a 100 mile race.
The Zumbro endurance race is known for its diversity of landscape, ranging from deep fertile glacial-tills to steep sandy soils of the bluffs. Much of the region characterized by karst geology. It boasts exposed sedimentary bedrock and portions of Zumbro woods are included in the “drift-less area” which was by-passed by the last continental glacier. It’s a beautiful but harsh environment.
The statement, ‘this is as far as I can go’ is code for ‘I’m blind, I’m scared’, or both.
– Craig D. Lounsbrough
I felt my way into aid station 4, the same way you cautiously search for the light switch in the bathroom at 2 A.M.
My new running partner Ultra Eye and I, had been sharing the trail together for over 2 hours at this point. Aid station 4 was very well-lit and at the end of a wide service road. As I entered people were just large dark shapes. Alien like creatures. Lights had giant halos around them and the center was a circular blur. I took some momentary comfort in the fact I wasn’t in the woods by myself but this wasn’t exactly reassuring.
I’m not sure if Ultra Brain Syndrome exists, but I may have been suffering from that also. In retrospect, I felt like my decision-making capabilities were also obstructed.
I did a quick evaluation. It was about 2.5 miles from the start/finish line. It was mostly single track that curved and switched back and forth. Then a service road, a left-hand turn and into the camp ground and I would finish lap 5 of 6.
“Keep running” said some unknown, fearless, primal voice deep in my head. I obeyed.
At this point I couldn’t properly see trail markers. Which is a slight problem. Unknowingly, I had wandered off trail, but the universe was on my side that night. Some other runners were passing by, I heard them in the silence of the woods and then caught a glimpse of their blurred headlamps. I followed the light and wandered back to the trail.
Thank you light.
This was officially the first time I felt that sharp jolt of fear. I accepted what was happening but getting lost wasn’t a welcome addition. It was a bit strange how much I was willing to deal with to get lap 5 done. Honestly I’m not sure why. I don’t know why as I write this. I only knew I wanted to get back to that start/finish line. Everything happens for a reason.
There is a manifesto around Ultra events. Keep moving. One step at a time. Always forward. I leaned into it. One step at a time.
I was running right by our campsite that was about 100 feet from the finish line, although that fact wasn’t clear to me until I heard through the darkness the voice of my wife Pam yell “O’leary!” She saw me in the darkness.
She always does.
Then the words just came out. I told Pam I couldn’t see. I finally said those words out loud to another human. It was like a confession. I felt such relief. These were words I was secretly saying to myself in my head for hours and then immediately ignoring. They finally became real. It became real.
I asked Pam if she could please just get me to the finish line. I was mentally worn out. She took my hand and we walked together across that finish line.
We crossed it at mile 83.5.
Our race was over.
We were going to come up 16.7 miles short.
We had one year of training into this idea.
We were at 19 hours and some change.
We had a lifetime to make the time cutoff.
I just couldn’t see.
No one needed to say it, but the room overflowed with that sort of blessing. The combination of loss and abundance. The abundance that has no guilt. The loss that has no fix. The simple tiredness that is not weary. The hope not built on blindness.
– Aimee bender
We walked, my hand in hers, back to the Winnebago. There was a sweetness and a necessity that dictated it. From darkness of the night I was introduced back into light.
Bright white light inside the rented Winnebago we call home during the Zumbro weekend. Blinding me in another way.
Realities like bodily functions started making themselves aware. In the bathroom to my right was a mirror, all I saw was a blurry shape where my face usually resides.
No smile, no me.
It was like I didn’t exist and someday I won’t. The physical me. That truth was present and accounted for in that moment.
I sat down. Pam offered me a drink of water. I sipped the water. I felt the warmth of being inside and my thoughts unlike my sight became very clear and focused.
There was no mourning the death of an idea, run 100 miles. People who loved me wouldn’t see me differently because I failed. There was no anger, I had no idea what was happening. I didn’t even know what to be upset at or about. No disappointment, I had made the finish line, not the 6th and final one but I had made that 5th one.
Honestly, all I kept thinking about was how incredibly lucky I was and how much I had to be thankful for. I saw my life so clearly in that Winnebago.
Pam, my two children, Tyler and Paige, my friends, that day, my ability to run, all the people in my life I love and love me. All the joys I have been given that are too numerous to mention here. They just keep coming, all of them.
Gratitude and peace overwhelmed me like I had never felt before and quickly and silently I slipped into darkness again.
I fell asleep.
5 minutes after we die, we’ll know exactly how we should have lived.
– Randy Alcorn
Mr. Alcorn is swinging some extremely heavy lumber with that quote.
We are complicated machines, humans. On one side we have an amazing capacity for gratitude, compassion, and love and on the other the incredible ability to take all our gifts big and small for granted. I say that sentence with humility and compassion, because no one is more guilty of that than me. Specifically the side where you take things for granted. I’m trying to learn, I honestly am.
One step at a time. Always forward.
It has been said that a 100-mile run is the equivalent of living a life. Maybe that’s why I love this event so much. I get to practice a human lifetime in a relatively short time period. Out on the trail you simplify. You have to. You are forced to.
You run. You eat. You drink. You breathe. You be.
You see and feel nature and you get a pretty raw glimpse of yourself. A self you don’t get to see in modern society on a daily basis. The 100 mile journey is enjoyable if you are running with peace and joy and you feel true happiness and acceptance even through the suffering. You have to truly accept things out there. All kinds of things, from Mother Nature and your own flawed human nature.
You aren’t going to feel good. Things aren’t going to be perfect. Bad things are going to happen. These are truths. No one escapes them. How you deal with it dictates how you run and if you see the finish line.
Other times you are going to feel more amazing than you have ever felt in your life. A joy that surrounds you and becomes so sharp and focused that you feel superhuman or super alive. You sometimes can almost feel all the energy of the universe beating down on you and there is no separation between you and all that is.
Suffering and joy are both experienced without any guard rails out there on a path carved through the woods.
What good is there in being blind, you ask? Well, maybe it’s to see the beauty on the inside without being vainly distracted, or superficially blinded, by the ugly on the outside.
– Criss Jami
I have a lot of ugly. I’m human. I’m flawed. Maybe you’re lucky and you aren’t. The great teachers say the ugly on the outside starts diminishing slowly when you focus on the inside. One step at a time. Always forward.
100 mile races demand that exploration. Deep inner space exploration. We spend a lot of time and money trying to leave this planet and the most mysterious and unknown world is right here. Around us and inside us. You can’t hide from yourself out in the woods. I keep signing up for this race because I hope I can keep learning and going further within. The further I go the more I seem to learn.
Keep moving. Always forward. One step at a time.
I hope at the end of my journey here on planet earth Pam hands me a cup of water. I take a sip and I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the privilege to have lived this life. My hope is my death is like that moment in the rented Winnebago. You probably don’t hear that very often.
Peaceful. Beautiful. Aware. Humbled.
I hope I fall asleep and cross my last earthly finish line the way Pam and I crossed it after Lap 5.
Seeing the full naked beauty of gratitude.
*I woke up 2 hours later at sunrise. I could see well enough to run. I finished lap 6 and completed my first 100 mile race. The finish line of Lap 6 had my eyes full of tears and light. Thank you light.
Thank you for reading, Namaste.