April 13th and 14th are two days that have left me carefully trying to piece together why I was given so many gifts in a 48 hour period.
In Part 1, I tried my best to explain the surreal combination of the violence of Mother Nature with the kindness of my friend Joel as we forged our way through the Zumbro woods. Joel delivered me at the start/ finish line with only one more lap to reach the journey of 100 miles. I had no idea that my last 16.7 miles would be a 7 hour 10 minute and 13 second reminder that life on the course truly prepares you for life off of it.
My Buddha was a complete stranger, but as I am continually learning we are all teachers and all students and sometimes we’re given the rare opportunity to learn in the most unexpected and beautiful places.
I had just finished Lap 5. My first time ever running an ultra with a pacer and I was facing Lap 6 by myself. Which really shouldn’t have brought up any emotional or mental hiccups but I felt this heavy sense of solitude that I usually embrace and look forward to on any lap at Zumbro. My wife Pam and I were making our way past the main aid station area and I was about to head back into the woods when I was approached by a man in street clothes. A person I didn’t know, he asked me a simple and direct question.
Do you need a pacer?
If you have read Part 1, I was having exactly the same moment again, but this time with a total stranger.
What did I do to deserve this offer?
Why would he offer to do this for me?
Why would he want to do this?
I stumbled to find an answer to these questions in my head, and his.
Ken explained he had been there to pace someone else and that person didn’t show and he could get into running gear in less than 5 minutes if I could wait.
I was having trouble saying yes, but I couldn’t say no. How could I say no after running Lap 5 with Joel? Yes came out of my heart, than my mouth. I was so grateful.
I went into the warming tent and waited for Clark Kent to change into his Superman outfit.
Why are you doing this Ken?
We were leaving the relative safety of the campground and heading into the mouth of the Zumbro woods when I asked Ken why he was doing this? I think fatigue and being physically and mentally beat down allowed me to blurt out a question I wouldn’t normally ask.
Ken turned to me and he said,
I just want to do something good for someone today.
Even after 24 hours 45 minutes and 43 seconds in the woods and no sleep, I felt the full impact of his words. What a simple, beautiful, incredibly difficult and completely unselfish mission. Imagine if we all woke up every day of our lives and just tried to accomplish that. I hadn’t left the campground and I was already given a invaluable life lesson.
Ken started out moving very well. I don’t think he understood where I was physically. We were going up the first long climb and I was trailing pretty far behind. He was working the hill, I was surviving it. My body was getting very angry with me.
I was doing my best to move and run when I could but the body was locking up and shutting down. I knew I was in for a long lap. A lap I’m not used to experiencing in so many ways.
I ran down the hill into aid station one to the sound of a cow bell ringing, little did I know that was the first finish line I was going to cross. My ability to run and move like a runner had fundamentally ended. It wasn’t something I was going to work through or around. My ankles hurt and it wasn’t the normal, this hurts, I can ignore it hurt. This was the you are doing damage hurt, but finish lines have price tags and my ankles were the cost. I had only 2 concerns on my mind, do I have enough time to finish and can I physically keep it together until the finish line. Ken assured me of both. He told me I would cross that line. I believed him. I had come to understand the power of belief. We left aid station one and things were a bit different. Ken lead but stayed close to me and he became more talkative. I believe he knew he needed to keep my mind engaged on anything but the pain I was experiencing.
Ken opened my eyes to the race I was in.
Ken had been volunteering long before our encounter so he started telling me the details of the race from that perspective, details of the race I had no idea about.
The 17 mile race had been cancelled. The 50 went off but with much trepidation. The amount of runners who had dropped out, runners pulled from the course, runners with hypothermia, this was all news to me. I was desperately trying to process all of this when he dropped a bombshell.
Ken told me about Susan Donnelly, she had been pulled from the course.
They pulled Susan Donnelly?
Susan Donnelly who had finished 9 out of 9 Zumbro 100’s would not finish her 10th?
The Susan Donnelly who had run and finished one hundred, 100 mile runs?
I ran my first 100 because of her, I’m pretty sure I’m just one of thousands of other people who have been inspired by this amazing human and warrior. I felt a great wave of sadness that she was removed from the race. I honestly didn’t believe it at first, but Ken was there when it happened. My heart broke for Susan, it was as heavy as my legs. I also felt extremely grateful and humbled that I had been given this unique privilege to still be out there, a place 111 other runners didn’t want to be or couldn’t be. I had the opportunity to willingly try to get across that finish line.
Ken had offered me something that being alone in the woods doesn’t always give you.
A view much bigger and wider and more vast that what you see in front of you or feel inside of you.
Ken the Buddha.
I don’t know what it is about being out in the woods with another human or humans but eventually at some point someone is sharing intimate things about themselves, their life, or their philosophy.
The woods started having their way with us and the deeper we went into the lap the deeper the conversation became.
Ken was in front of me and it was hard to hear him even in the quiet of the woods.
Ken decided to let me lead. Another gift.
It was medicinal to hear Ken’s voice as it was overriding the voice that was coming from my ankles that was telling my brain with every step how much it hated me.
I started looking at the sugar-coated trail and its insane beauty as Ken started slowly peeling back the onion of his amazing life.
I can not share details of what Ken told me out there on the trail. It would be breaking all kinds of codes and rules and ultimately I have no right, but I can tell you this.
Whatever we face on the trail is nothing compared to what we are asked to face off the trail. I think we all know that, but when you hear another humans story and you are in the middle of forging through a tough race, you get a truly unique perspective on the two worlds.
I heard the suffering in his voice and I felt less of my own.
I heard the joy in his voice and it allowed me to even more grateful for what I was experiencing that day on the trail.
Yes, it was important for me to finish that race. But not that important. Ken was shining a bright light on that reality. I was so entrenched in his story and life that my story, guy trying to finish 100 mile race became far less important and interesting to me.
Ken told me with humor, humility and pride the ups and downs life had offered him. He told his story without apologies or asterisks. It was what it was, and you could tell it had only made him a kinder, more grateful and compassionate human.
All this was coming from a magical, colorful voice
that was following me
as I looked into the brown and white world
of snow and trees.
Ken was offering me what I’m always really looking for when I sign my name to an ultra event.
He made me see and feel it so clearly that day.
Enlightenment is suffering, without suffering.
Ken is the best medicine.
I went out without a headlamp on Lap 3. I never considered grabbing it. I had never run Zumbro and not come across the 50 mile mark without the light still shining brightly in the sky. Between the slower laps due to mud-pocalyspe and the approaching blizzard the light was leaving the woods sooner than I ever expected or considered.
I arrived at aid station 4 and knew I was in trouble. I quickly left and started racing the light. For over 2 miles it was a slow decent into darkness. I was losing badly. I exited the switch back single track and arrived at the last service road in total darkness. I was fumbling in the dark and the mud and was hoping I would see the lights of the campground soon.
I saw headlamps coming towards me, I heard my name being yelled. My wife Pam and our dear friend Lisa had made their way down the trail to find me.
There she was again, Pam helping me out of the darkness.
It was just another obstacle conquered along the path that was this race.
I shared this story with Ken. He was sympathetic, at first. But quickly it turned into a punch line and a source of humor for both of us. Ken delivered it with master comedic timing and precision. If something was going wrong or he was telling a story about something going sideways he would say,
It’s kinda like a guy who would get caught out in the woods without a headlamp.
Ken’s delivery was dry and not in search of a laugh. The first few times I was actually confused whether he was kidding me or really jabbing at me for being a ultra dummy. Which would have been fine also. It was clear after multiple version of the above line he was kidding.
Honestly, what is better than self-deprecating humor when you are being humbled physically and mentally by nature and distance and the story of another mans life.
Who better to laugh at than yourself?
Ken I loved that you kept repeating the joke.
I hope you knew at the time how much I loved it.
Ken I loved it.
Ken and impermanence.
I can’t remember where we were on the course but Ken and I started talking about life and death. This is a subject I love to talk about so I remember I was the most engaged in a two-way conversation instead of being an honored guest at the storytelling of Ken. We are both in our 50’s and we exchanged thoughts about our aging parents and the time we have left with them. We also recognized that our aging parents are keeping the spot warm for us, as we will be just that to our children soon enough.
This conversation about impermanence while fully engaged in living, surviving and suffering was so fulfilling to me on a personal and spiritual level. I struggle when people get depressed or saddened by the subject of our mortality. We all know how this is going to end. The point is to use it as a reminder to live life and not take it for granted. We were just two guys over the half way point of our lives, out in the woods after a blizzard talking about death and living life.
Speaking of living, Ken could have started up in his warm car, drove to his warm house, sat in his comfy chair and watched TV. Instead he volunteered to bare the cold and discomfort of the woods and the weather after already volunteering and baring the cold and discomfort for hours and hours prior to this lap.
Ken was squeezing the living daylights out of life that day.
Whatever I was feeling physically at that point didn’t exist.
I felt so alive, and grateful.
Ken to the end.
I had no idea where I was in the race in terms of place. My only goal was to finish and we were just about at the campground and I was going to accomplish that mission. I’m a big believer in never turning around to see what is behind you in a race. I can’t control what is behind me, in a race or in life. I try to only focus on the task in front of me.
I’m also competitive, in the past very competitive. Too competitive honestly. Especially in my younger years. I have learnt to enjoy racing and a successful race is not dictated solely by where I finish. Racing happy is ultimately my goal.
As we were approaching the end we discussed running through the campground to the finish line. I hadn’t run for many miles and running that section when I hadn’t been running didn’t feel like the right thing to do. It didn’t feel honest, I decided I was going to walk this one in.
Roughly 300 yards from the finish a runner passed me. My initial gut reaction was to run and not allow this person to pass me this close to the finish line. Old wiring, ancient lessons beat into me from the first time I ever lined up for a race.
Instead I said, great job
and I was left watching the runner leave me behind.
I asked Ken if he knew I was being chased down.
He said, yes.
I didn’t ask why he didn’t tell me. I’m glad he didn’t tell me.
It stung a little for the athlete and competitor in me, but that was just the ego reacting to ego stuff. I had made a decision and Ken wasn’t going to confuse it or change it with the information that another athlete was running me down.
Thank you Ken.
You did right by me and the person who ran by me.
I was the only one.
131 humans lined up on April 13th.
120 left the race for numerous reasons.
20 finished it on April 14th.
I was the only one who ran with Ken Corbett and Joel Andrychowicz.
Thank you for sharing your story with me Ken.
Thank you for doing something good for someone.
I was truly the winner.
Thank you for reading. Namaste.