by Brian McNeill
“Hello, my name’s Brian, and I’m an Ultrarunner.”
“Thank you for inviting me here tonight, to explain what it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now.
I guess I’ll start at the beginning and work my way forward, sharing my experience, strength and hope.
I didn’t set out to become an Ultrarunner, but then I don’t think anyone here in this meeting intended to do so either.
From social jogger to Ultrarunner
It all started about 12 years ago, when I first started running. You know, at first it was just me alone struggling to complete a mile without feeling winded or wanting to throw-up. Like a ten year old boy who discovers a pack of Lucky Strikes and turns green trying to “develop a taste” for coffin nails, I worked hard at being able to run three or four miles without feeling terrible. After working at it for several months, I was able to run from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial without walking. I mean, how could that hurt me? There are lots of peer-reviewed studies that say running a few days a week is actually good for the heart, right?
Then, I started running with some co-workers at lunch. You know, nothing too serious, four or five miles a day a couple of days a week. I tried to tell myself that it was just social running, and for my colleagues maybe it was, but deep down, I knew that I related to running differently than they did. They were able to take it or leave it, but I was the one always pushing the pace a little harder and the distance a little longer. About a year after my first run, I entered a 10-K. I was no longer just a social jogger; I had crossed over to become a runner. And I was proud of it. At last, I’d found something that I was really good at.
Just after that, I received a foreshadowing of things to come. While running on the mall one afternoon, I felt something move in my knee. It wasn’t really painful, but it was pretty clear that something wasn’t right. I’ll leave out the gory details, but I had my first encounter with an orthopedic surgeon. He was able to cut out some torn meniscus using a new-fangled “laparoscopic” technique. He counseled that I ought to quit running altogether. As soon as I came out of the anesthesia, I asked how soon I could start rehabbing my knee and then threw myself into the process harder than ever. My friends and surgeon were horrified. I reassured them that I knew what I was doing. After all, hadn’t Joan Benoit had the same surgery about two weeks before the Olympic Trials? I mean, nobody said that she had her priorities wrong, did they?
For the next five years or so, my running stabilized. I could safely have a few miles during the week without a problem, but I started ‘going long’ nearly every weekend. My wife began to call attention to the missed family events, overdue bills, and neglected car maintenance. Worst of all, she started referring to herself as a ‘running widow,’ as I’d disappear for three or four hours every Sunday morning. Of course, I didn’t care, and as long as I could get my 8x800s on Wednesday night and my 20 miles on Sunday morning, nothing else really mattered. Things were beginning to slip, but I couldn’t see it.
In 1998, a neighbor, Kevin S., introduced me to the crack-cocaine of running—trail running. By then, I was ready for the hard stuff, so I took to it like a duck to water. Within four months of my first trail run, I entered and completed the JFK 50 miler. I knew then that there was no turning back. It had to end badly, and I didn’t even care.
I began to choose my friends based on whether or not they ran trails. My whole life changed and at an ever accelerating pace. Everything centered around getting out in the woods for six, eight, twelve hours or more. How much was too much? I didn’t know. All I knew was that whatever I had wasn’t enough.. I lost interest in watching professional sports and completely lost track of what was on television on the weekends. As a consequence, I couldn’t even make small talk with my colleagues at work or with most ‘earth people’ I met.
Thus isolated from the world as a whole, I retreated farther and farther into the Ultrarunning sub-culture. Of course, I felt comfortable around these people. They knew the difference between the MMT and MMTR, could tell you the difference between the Old Dominion and the Old Dominion Memorial, and didn’t bat an eye when someone talked about having the dry heaves for eight hours. I could explain the fresh five-inch scar on my knee by simply saying ‘Dickey Ridge Trail,’ and they’d simply nod, not pressing more, lest they have to divulge their own ugly stories.
Best of all, I could always justify my own running when challenged, ‘Yes, but I can’t have a problem. Look at X, I don’t run nearly as much as he does.’ I didn’t know it at the time, but my wife had joined Run-Anon, which is designed for runners’ spouses.
A couple of years ago, things started to really unravel. I decided to do my first 100 miler and began training. Now, what had been mere day-long binges on the weekends, turned into whole weekends that I wouldn’t come home. Sometimes, things would get out of control, and I’d have to call in sick on Monday morning, because I couldn’t get out of bed. I had another knee surgery, running 14 miles on the day before the procedure. I tore up my right ankle badly while staggering blindly through the woods in the dark early one Sunday morning. It was only a matter of time before I ended in an institution.
I began to have black-outs. You know the kind I mean. After an especially grueling race in lousy weather or on a tough course, I’d solemnly swear that I was going to quit running forever, that I knew I was crazy, and that I couldn’t believe that I had done it again. Of course, the next day, my wife would tell me what I’d said, and I would deny that I had ever said any such thing.
Last summer, I spent night after night in cheap motels in the Shenandoah Valley as my Ultrarunning took me to places that I’d never dared to go, if it hadn’t been for running. Some of those nights, I’d lie down, but be unable to sleep, as all I could think about was the next run. Sometimes, I close my eyes, but I could see rocks coming at me. Big rocks, little rocks, mean rocks, rocks with teeth! I’d open my eyes, but they still wouldn’t go away. They just kept coming. I now know that I was experiencing delirium trailums.The end arrives
The bottom finally came this spring at the Massanutten Mountain Trails, 100 Mile Run, where I trudged to a 34:47 finish in the race. Again, I’ll skip all the details, but I knew that it was all over when I lay in bed that evening in a cheesy motel in downtown Front Royal after the race, surrounded by empty O’Douls and Pepsi bottles, smelly clothes, and with mud splattered shoes, socks, and athletic tape strewn about the room. I wanted badly to go for dinner, but I was unable to walk any further than the bathroom—and that took five minutes. Instead, I lay helpless as my calves jumped across the bed.
The next day, a long, hot bath, a huge American breakfast and several cups of coffee helped me to forget what I’d just put myself through. We Ultrarunners sure have selective amnesia. I cleaned everything up, organized the car, and headed home, enjoying another missed Monday at work, because of Ultrarunning. Little did I know what awaited me at home.
When I got home, I ferried everything into the kitchen and started carrying things to their appropriate location. My wife called out,
‘Honey, we’re in the living room, would you please come in?’
I was surprised and pleased that she was even at home on a work-day, but the ‘we’ puzzled me.
I stuck my head around the corner, and sitting in the living room, was my beloved wife Kathy as well as my massage therapist, my orthopedic surgeon, my podiatrist, and two different insurance agents.
‘Brian, please sit down. We want to talk to you.’
‘Uh-oh,’ I thought, ‘I know what this is about.’
My wife started a little unsteadily, but gathered force as she spoke, ‘Brian, we want you to know that we’re doing this because we care about you and that all of us believe that you’re killing yourself. I for one don’t intend to hang around and watch. Either you can get well or you can get out!’
My massage therapist, Marjorie, continued, ‘I’ve been chasing baseball-sized knots across your quads for the past eight years or more, and it’s been lucrative, but I don’t want your business anymore. It’s too much like blood-money, and I don’t want it.’
Dr. Gilsdorf, the surgeon who’d nursed me through several major injuries and lots of minor aches and pains—the very physician who taught me the difference between an obdurator and a piriformis—also said much the same thing. He was followed by Dr. Levine, my podiatrist, who said that he wouldn’t tape, splint, or otherwise ‘enable’ my Ultrarunning addiction.
In turn, everyone had his or her say. The room fell quiet. I sat for a few minutes thinking about what they had said and also looking for a way out.
‘What do you propose?’ I asked meekly.
‘We want you to go to a runners’ rehab,’ my wife said. ‘I’ve already made arrangements for you to attend a 14-day residential treatment program, and then enroll in a 30 day outpatient program.’
‘But what about work? Tomorrow’s...’ I started to protest.
Kathy interrupted, ‘They know about it, and they agree. In fact your boss said that you wouldn’t be missed anyway, that all you do is write inane race reports, cruise the VHTRC website, and plot race splits in Excel all day long.’
I finally gave up. ‘Okay, I’ll give it a try, but no promises. I’ll try it, but I haven’t agreed to give up running forever.’
A second chance
With that half-hearted commitment, things began to turn around. I packed a bag of cotton and wool clothes—no wicking fabrics, race logos, or running shoes were permitted where I was going—and was in the car. They also checked my toiletries for GU packs and Clif Bars when I arrived.
I met with an intake counselor when I first arrived at the rehab. During an hour long discussion, we talked about Ultrarunning, road racing, hill-repeats, lactic acid thresholds, and other topics near and dear to my heart. It was clear that this fellow knew what he was talking about. The counselor also told me that he’d been a 100 mile a week runner, a 33:00 10-K racer, and a 50-states-and-DC marathoner. I was a light-weight by comparison. He also said that he had been able to stop running one-day-at-a-time for nearly 15 years. He went on to describe the subtle mental obsession that avid Ultrarunners develop over time. It vaguely made sense to me.
‘But how do I know, if this all applies to me. How do I know if I’m an Ultrarunning addict?’ I asked more in protest against what I really knew to be the case, than in genuine curiosity.
‘Here’s a guide that thousands before you have consulted,’ he said, pushing a small brochure into my hand. ‘You read it this afternoon, and then you tell me tomorrow.’
I looked at the brochure, ‘20 Questions about Ultrarunning addiction’. That evening, I quietly read that brochure over and over again, answering each question honestly (for a change). I rang up a solid 19 for 20. I knew that this was the jumping off point. It was either get well or die.
The next morning, when I met with my counselor, I said simply. ‘Okay, I’m an addict. I want in. What do I have to do?’
Things happened quickly after that.
I met with the clinician, who reviewed my case, and prescribed my course of treatment. I was given an 84” wide-screen television, two satellite services with all the sports packages, an overstuffed recliner, two cases of beer, and a catheter (so I didn’t have to get out of the recliner). I was instructed to watch at least 16 hours of television for each of the next 6 days. Periodically, nurses would come around to monitor my vital signs and inject extra LDL cholesterol into my blood. Late every evening, I’d have to sing at least three new t.v. theme songs that I’d learned that day during my group therapy sessions.
The nutrition cart came around every hour, delivering Lard-lover’s double-cheese, Big Macs and super-sized fries with gravy. In my first week, I gained 10 pounds and my cholesterol level jumped 40 points. I was clearly reclaiming my place among the rest of American Society.
On the middle weekend, I was allowed a four-hour pass to leave the center with my wife. We went to a shopping mall and then had lunch at a Golden Corral buffet. It was the first time since we’d been married, that we had spent time in the mall on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. The old Brian would have been on some mountain top or beside some isolated river eating trail mix.
In the final week, I was given instruction in how to avoid temptation and to lower the risk of relapse. I’ve incorporated much of what I was taught there into my daily program.
Although I’m citing my own experience here, not conference-approved literature, for the new-comers here tonight, I’ll list some of the highlights:
I stay away from running-shoes. If I must wear athletic shoes, I stick only to overpriced Nike models appropriately endorsed by thuggish young NBA stars.
I stay out of the woods on the weekend, to avoid breaking into a trot, and then a shuffle, and then a full-relapse—a run. Instead, I’ve found that there’s a lot of great stuff on television on the weekends. Only last week, I was able to enjoy a 12 hour ‘Who’s the Boss?’ Marathon. I mean Tony Danza, now there’s an actor!
Whenever I think about taking a run, instead I eat something. I find that McDonalds and Burger King work best, although a drippy meat-lover’s pizza will do in a pinch.
I have to nurture that newly won sense of inertia. The longer I can stay stopped, the easier it gets to stay stopped.
Thank you for inviting me here this evening.