Time in the Ashes
Haliburton Forest 100 Mile Trail Run
Sept 1st, 2001
By John Prohira
What does the son do?
He turns away,
Goes outdoors to feed with wild
Things, lives among dens
And huts, eats distance and silence;
He grows long wings, enters the spiral, and ascends.
- Robert Bly from Iron John
Thoughts of ashes and their significance. Fairy tales like Cinderella (Cinder Girl) and of the Norwegian Askaladden (Ash Boy). I remembered the Catholicís churchís emphasis on Ash Wednesday. Ashes from warm and reassuring campfires at the aid stations in the Haliburton Forest during last weekendís 100-mile trail run there. Four 100-mile trail races in 16 weeks time and still this gnawing need in me to share the experience, to explain myself and actions, to find ample worth and value in what is done. Why? Thoughts this time turn towards ashes. Towards the value of endurance, of suffering.
Yes, those thoughts somehow interwoven into the logic and acceptance of ultra distances. Hereís what I read about ultrarunning and endurance recently, from Kirk Johnsonís book ďTo the Edge - A Man, Death Valley and the Mystery of EnduranceĒ - ďDistance becomes the prime variable of every equation. One foot in front of the other. Embrace the rhythm of the ultramarathon at its paradoxical heart: From slowing down comes going farther. By moving less in any half hour, you move more in any 12 hours. By throwing out the timed quarter mile, the 40-mile run comes within reach. Following this logic out to its full range of implications however is scary business. If slowing down equals going farther, then by coming to a complete stop you should reach some infinity of constant motion, right? Like the Zen, which teaches that all illumination comes through stillness of the mind as well as the body and that the lack of motion is not a measure of idleness, but rather of strength and discipline. Perhaps when they come to administer my Thorazine because Iíve stopped getting up out of my chair, Iíll respond that I have finally become the perfect ultramarathoner. Iíll have found the plateau of endless motion through complete motionlessnessĒ. Can you say ď. . . .Ahummmmmmmmmm...........Ē
OK Letís see if I can tie this together without it getting too weird. Traveling north to visit our Canadian neighbors over the long Labor Day weekend is always a treat. I was able to share parts of the adventure with my family this year. We left LeRoy, NY on Friday, the last day of August and arrived at the Silver Eagle Resort, about 25K from the Haliburton Forest and 3 hours north and east of Toronto. Here the women in my life spent the weekend in a cozy 2-bedroom cottage surrounded by Maple, Birch and Pine trees, beside clear and beautiful Eagle Lake. They enjoyed the sandy beach and chilly Canadian swimming, for itís getting cool at night with autumn approaching. On Saturday night and into early Sunday morning the temperatures dropped to near forty degrees F, making that about 5 C for those of us metrically literate. Part of my childrenís play at the lake included tubing and time spent lazily meandering the waters in paddleboats. And at dusk there was the ritual roasting of marshmallows around the bonfire while nearby loons serenaded them. All weekend the skies of summerís end were clear, filled with stars and a full moon.
I spent Friday and Sunday night with the family and Saturday in the woods. I awoke just before 4 oíclock that morning for the trip to the Forest. My friend Jim McKee from Interlaken gave me a ride into the base camp where our adventure began at 6AM after the reading of a pre-race prayer. Iíve enjoyed running here twice before and relished the feelings of pre race anticipation at the camp. I like to learn a bit about the who, when and whereís of the regions I visit while ultrarunning. These forest lands were first surveyed during the winters of 1862/63. The London based company taking possession of them from the Crown had planned on subdividing its holdings into 100-acre lots and selling them to English emigrants as farmland. But it soon became apparent that this land was unsuitable for agriculture. Logging was another option and from 1870 until 1960 that proved quite profitable until two detailed forest inventories in the 60ís suggested that the harvestable volume of timber was rapidly declining and that it was time to divest. Today 60,000 acres of that original property is what comprises the Haliburton Forest and Wild Life Reserve, the largest privately owned property in Central Ontario. The Forest operates as a multi-use forest, besides timber these lands offer year round recreation and scientific research opportunities. It uses integrated, sustainable resource management techniques and has become a model for this type of land use. The Haliburton Forest is now recognized as one of the best examples of renewable natural resources in North America. In this hardwood forest of over 50 lakes countless wildlife can be found including several packs of wild wolves. An average pack of 4 to 10 animals needs over 30,000 acres in which to find enough food for survival. Elk, caribou, deer, rabbit and rodents provide that. The wolves inhabiting the Haliburton Forest are not restricted to property boundaries, they live where they must, this year no sign of wolf was seen nor heard during the run. Iím not certain whether that was too my disappointment or not. I admit to being more than mildly disturbed the first time I heard wolf howls while alone on these forest trails at night.
106 men and women began their journey before dawn. 42 had chosen to run 50K, 29 favored the 50-mile distance, and the others embraced as much of the trail as was offered, 100 miles and 30 hours in which to do it. Aid stations full of nourishment and cheerful and supportive people were placed approximately every 5 miles. The course is billed as being 50% dirt road and 50% rugged forest trail and Iíd guess that to be a fair statement. Itís an out and back course, something I always find comfort in. Whatís uphill on the way out is downhill on the return trip. So it was 25 miles out then return to base camp for 50 miles, simply repeated for 100. I like seeing other runners coming towards me while out there; I like looking into their eyes. Often what I see I recognize as important and meaningful. The course did at times climb or fall 300 ft or more in less than 1/4 mile, nothing more extreme than that. There were parts of course that ATVs had to detour around due to fallen trees. I know this because I watched one do so as I crawled on hands and knees under a downed hardwood. The terrains I attempt to describe here are those most often sought for trail ultrarunning, par for the course. Loose rock and stone littered our passage. Logging equipment had left odd haphazard ruts in the dirt that had become water puddles of varying depths that could be avoided and stepped around by day, not so after dark when tired feet became cold and wet if care was not taken. Itís said that fatigue makes cowards of us all. Fatigue also makes me sloppy. My running/walking style degrades and it becomes easier to trip and fall over stuff that presented no challenge when rested and strong. I fell down only once and was lucky enough to end up in the mud rather on stone.
This is one beautiful course. Saturday proved to be a near cloudless day and sunlight dappled in through the trees making bright designs on the world through which we moved. It warmed me, reassuring me that all was well. Although damper when close to water, which we often were, the views of these Ontario lakes and ponds were breathtaking, fish jumped and splashed and ducks and geese noisily came and went while long legged cranes and herons tip-toed along the shores in search of meals. The day went well. Coming into the 50-mile turnaround after 11 hours I was delighted to see my family waiting there. There was time for quick hugs and kisses, gently and gingerly offered and received, a function of my aroma and overall appearance and then back out. I never dawdle here at the halfway mark; itís just too easy to walk away towards the car rather than the woods and approaching night.
It would grow cold that night that I knew beforehand, Iíd had packed the appropriate clothing or so I thought. It was an uneventful trip back into the woods, wishing those coming in the best, receiving their salutations as I went out. 7:30 that evening I treated myself to a sit-down at the 60-mile station while putting on gloves, a jacket and headlamp. While chatting with a couple of Ironman veterans working there about Rochester area triathletes I was overcome with a wave of nausea that required my dashing away from their camp into the bush and violently vomiting. I donít know what instigated this, but it may have been a running related phenomenon. This was the knee buckling type of retching, the complete emptying of my stomach. My belly had been upset for a couple of hours and old tried and true remedies seemed not to touch my distress. Oh well. I felt better after that, only a little embarrassed but was reassured that these kind biking, swimming and marathoning people had seen much worse. I greeted the rising full moon and chilly night with an empty belly feeling as if the fire that had burned within me earlier in the day was waning.
Running through the forest alone it was time now to move from station to station, keeping it simple and trying to remember why. I was entertained all through the night hours with vivid hallucinations and thought patterns that seem to have little connection to the task at hand. I mentioned earlier how pleasing the sunlight was as it peeked itís way through the forestís canopy and onto the trail during the day. The full moonlight did the same but with many different effects. It shone so brightly that it appeared as if spotlights had been placed in the forestís many small openings. I kept thinking that I was closer to the next aid station than I was, the mirage being the moonlight I mistook for campfires. The moonlight reflected off tree leaves, seeming to glisten and shine. I thought I saw ten-foot high stonewalls surrounding a huge marble mansion atop a hill. How odd. These images disappeared as I approached. I was certain that dogs or wolves were quietly sitting next to the single-track trailís edge, just watching my slow progress. I saw a giraffe feeding under a stand of birch trees. And yet none of this really frightened me. Half of the time I was just too tired, the other I realized what I was seeing wasnít true. I could keep water down, everything else I attempted to put in my belly came back up. I was tired and hungry but nauseous. Wonderful combination! And I was growing sleepy, a completely different animal than tired.
So I began to promise myself little rewards like 5-minute breaks at every aid station, sitting down at each and warming up by the fire. Iíd been fascinated for a bit watching the mist and warmth come off the lake I stood near at one point during the night. Under my headlampís glow I observed the same thing happening to my heat, it looked as if my body was smoking, evaporating. My warmth and energy seemed to just wisp away like the foggy mist over water. The campfires were so nice, cozy and enticing, it was hard to leave that comfort. My fire was going out. I felt like the wood in the campfires turning to ashes and yet this began to console rather than alarm me.
My fatigue-fueled reasoning had started to offer me a lifeline back to base camp and the finish. I recently read the poet Robert Blyís book of prose about male initiation rites throughout history. In light of what I read I decided to view the ashes of my efforts not as the end but more a symbol of something else. Philosophical stretches like these come easy after 20 hours of running. I turned it over like this. Bly writes of how ashes (literally the death of the tree trunk) and cinders are code words for the sooty, depressed, ďout of itĒ time often used in ďcoming of ageĒ rituals. An important symbol of life cycles. Ashes time in South Pacific tribes is time set aside for the death of the ego-bound boy. The word ashes contain in it a dark feeling for death; ashes when put on the face whiten it as death does. In the Old Testament Job covered himself with ashes to say that the comfortable Job was dead; and that the living Job mourned the dead Job. Bly believes as so many rudimentary cultures around the world do that young people need to go down to face the darkness, accompanied by experienced elders and symbolically be shown lifeís harsher side. Then when misforunte and tragedy visit these initiates in later years they will remember the lessons taught them during their time in the ashes and be more resislient and accepting of tragedy. Life can taste sweeter after ashes. I think that more often than not modern manís scientific knowledge and the subsequent grandiosity keep us shielded from the truth that all is not light and when darkness is unexpectedly met for the first time we experience more trauma than necessary. We need to be aware of ashes time. But in the western 21th century world, how can we get a look at the cinders side of things when society is determined to create a world of shopping malls and entertainment complexes in which we are made to believe that there is no death, disfigurement, illness, insanity, poverty, lethargy, or misery? Disneyland means ďno ashesĒ.
Young men in Viking times were allowed two or three years in the ashes. Norwegians during those times lived in long communal houses, like those of some Native Americans. 30 to 40 people slept in the beds along the walls. Down the center of the hall was laid out a pavement that acted as a fireplace. Smoke went up through holes in the roof. Ashes lay in long heaps two or three feet from the pavement and the beds. Young men would sometimes lie down in that space and stay there for a couple of years. They might be seen constantly crouching over the fire, rolling themselves in the ashes, eating ashes, and neither caring to employ themselves in anything useful, nor keeping themselves in a state of cleanliness. Some chewed the cinders. They were called Cinder-Biters. Itís clear that the young men were going through some kind of hibernation or ritual lethargy and that was allowed. They came out of it stronger and ready for all of life.
I began to view my discomfort and disappointment as my own initiation, my own conscious rite of passage, my personal chance to gain from loss. Better late than never. Ashes time was what I was being offered. Take it or leave it. Leaving it meant stopping and ending the run before finish. I could sit down and remain next to the campfires, warm myself, stop the discomfort, stay in the ashes or reject them. Acceptance of the ashes meant embracing them completely then stepping away and out. In reality this personal challenge, this asinine running required only a bit of endurance on my part, using what Iíve learned about slowing down while moving forward when plans go awry. This suffering would end. I could now find the faith that told me this was true. I was being offered as a modern man something I may never have given a second thought to, an awareness of the value in suffering and disappointment. Such a lucky modern man! There would be some sooty suffering involved but while it is natural to recoil from suffering, suffering can also challenge us and at times even bring out the best in us. In the ďThird ManĒ, author Graham Green observes, ďIn Italy for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they have brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock.Ē I realize that I am more enamored with art than timepieces. Iíd take my ashes and make and learn what I can from them.
Predawn and the lifting fog brought with them the knowledge that less than 20K remained. Thatís a distance I can easily wrap my arms around. Those working the stations still smiled in spite of their fatigue, for many had performed their own marathon of sorts, staying awake and alert enough to guide us weary travelers on our way. After dawn I began to see people who were not part of the race here and there on and along the road back to camp, more soot began to fall from my eyes, I climbed further and further out of the cinders. My reconnection with the real world was made complete when I saw my Lisa and our children walking towards me at the 99-mile point. They had come to gather up what was left of me, take me back with them to base camp. We walked and shuffled along together, crossing the finish line 28 hours and 27 minutes after raceís start. And the aftertaste of ashes was sweet. At raceís end it was so nice not to move, to practice being Kirk Johnsonís perfect ultramarathoner, rising only to witness each of the last 6 runners coming into base camp, arisen from their ashes, finishing their journey. 100 mile runners come home.
The distance demands and takes so much from me. But the rewards are so grand; so much more than the beautifully crafted belt buckle commemorating my finish, bigger than the fleeting ego-stroke the finish provides, more than the cammerardie felt and enjoyed at the post race feed and awards ceremony. I continue to try to explain.
These ultra journeys also impose demands on the others in my life and I donít acknowledge that enough. There are the demands of time spent away from my family and then coming back to them from the woods or mountains spent, drained and emptied out, still sooty, with cinders still clinging to me. Itís hard for them to witness this. I donít have to see what they do. The view of the world from my eyes after 100 miles is very different than theirs. I do try to retain some of the lessons shown me over the distance. Maybe I can be gentler and more patient with those who sacrifice for me while I chase whatever it is I chase. My time in the Haliburton Forest has made me realize that I want to be there or find that mentor that can take my children into their ashes when it is time. And bring them back out into the light, better prepared for all of this life.
Part of the pre race prayer given included something George Sheehan had written about running, which was - ď The runner need not break four minutes in the mile or four hours in the marathon. It is only necessary that he runs and runs and sometimes suffers. Then one day he will wake up and discover that somewhere along the way he has begun to the see the order and law and love and truth that makes men free.Ē I think those words so very true and obvious after an effort like this. And I was able to share those sentiments with the others involved in the race that Saturday morning. For I was the lucky man reading what Sheehan wrote. I was flattered to have been asked by Helen Malmburg our raceís director to compose a prayer of sorts and read it to the Haliburton runners before the beginning of their journey. My words would have failed, but those I took from Sheehan and from the Sanskrit below worked.
Time to rest. Time to step away from 100-mile distances and process what theyíve meant to me. Next year will bring new opportunities to go out into the sun or down into the darkness, maybe again into the ashes or to go onto the mountaintop nearer the clouds. But Iíll remember and benefit from what was found in this Canadian forest. There will be other chances to be lapped by the sun. This Labor Day I saw some of natureís order and law in the Canadian woods. I ate the silence and distance that Robert Bly wrote of, went into the ashes and rose back out sensing some truth about suffering and appreciating the love and sacrifices extended and performed for me. A very lucky man, me. Even luckier should I be able to keep those memories close and ready for use when needed.
For yesterday is but a dream,
And tomorrow is only a vision,
But today well-lived makes
Every yesterday a dream of happiness,
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well, therefore, to this day!
Such is the salutation of the dawn.
- from the Sanskrit
ps For those wishing a less sappy and sentimental review and description of the Haliburton race(s) visit their site at http://ous.kw.net./results/01/hf01.htm
for complete results and photos.
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