Running to Conception

By Steven Specht No comments

This is an excerpted chapter from my nonfiction work I Suck at Everything. If you like this excerpt, buy the book at the link below.

I suppose you could look at my failure in pararescue training and my success at DLI as a life lesson. Though my body is strong, my mind is the far superior tool.

To be clear, that’s not my view of it. I’m just saying, if that conclusion puts me in a positive light, I’m okay with it.

The same year I learned about the pararescue career field, I also found out about ultramarathoning. The short definition of ultramarathoning is running anything over the official marathon distance of 26.2 miles, though runs of 100 miles and even 200 miles are fairly common in the sport. My parents had me watching a Sunday morning news show covering the Badwater 135, a 135-mile foot race through Death Valley in the middle of August.

With the zeal of a 15-year-old, I said, “I want to do that.”

As a child, my undiagnosed astigmatism made me useless in team sports. However, my father wouldn’t stand for me not competing in SOMETHING and started me out on a one-mile loop that went through our property onto adjoining land. My first one-mile fun run was at the age of five in the first semester of kindergarten. I still have the trophy, finishing second in my age group to a girl in second grade.

Thus began my love of extreme endurance sports and women slightly older than me.

I ran cross country intermittently in middle school and high school, knocking out a respectable 16:50 for three miles in my senior year, but I was always drawn to extreme distance. I was fortunate not only to grow up on 40 acres of relative wilderness but to be adjacent to several thousand acres of dirt roads leased out by the Jack Creek Hunting Club. My father had been a member of the club when the family first moved to Florida and we routinely captured and returned lost hound dogs during winter. That relationship opened the door for me to run on that open acreage. It was understood that Specht’s son had permission to run out there as long as it wasn’t hunting season. It’s the only time in my life that my family name opened a door for me.

I was running 10-20 miles before I finished high school. I was not so sophisticated as to have one of those nifty water bags and often just drank straight from the tannic water of the creeks when I came to a ford. One of my very few regrets in life is not giving further consideration to several running scholarships that were dangled in front of me. I had some wrong-headed ideas on what constituted a “good school” and turned up my nose at some four-year programs offering 75-100% tuition. I didn’t even tell my parents about the scholarships. I was so dead set on flunking out of engineering at the University of Florida, I didn’t even bother applying to other schools.

However, at a major university, I was woefully unqualified for the competition and resigned myself to running local 5Ks, 10Ks, and trail runs.

Trail running on vacant land is one of the cheapest and rewarding hobbies, but paying to compete gets expensive fast. However, there is very little oversight in minor races and a fairly common practice is to run as a “bandit.” Running bandit means not paying the entry fee and showing up for a free competition.

From the vantage point of my late 30s, bandit running is a shitty thing to do, but at the time I justified the behavior on the fact that I didn’t use their water or food. Other than enjoying the protection provided by a handful of off duty sheriff deputies, I wasn’t really taking anything from the race directors.

One of my best friends from high school ended up being well liked in the Gainesville running community and volunteered with the local running club. Drunk dialing her in the middle of the night, I found out she was helping host a half-marathon in the morning. Before hanging up I told her I would see her at the starting line.

So, I did, still staggering drunk from the night before. She was furious with me, partially because I might embarrass her, partially because if I ran 13.1 miles hungover without drinking any water, I would almost certainly injure myself.

“I stayed up all night drinking and eating pizza. I’ve carb-loaded!”

“I’m paying for your race bib; you can pay me back later.”

I spent the first half of the 13.1 miles sobering up and had a negative split for the second half. I ended with a decent time of 1:31:30 or an average of seven minutes per mile.

Based off that performance I decided to enter a half-Ironman in Panama City Beach the following spring.

Running bandit is not an option in a half ironman. Even if one could complete the 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike, and 13.1-mile run without partaking in the provided refreshments, the pit where people leave their equipment between iterations is extremely secure. Only paid entrants can enter the holding area where gear was stored and swimsuits were changed for cycling shorts.

I had been able to scrape together the money to pay for the entry fee several months earlier but coming up on the endless summer of 2004, I had no money to pay for lodging. Ten years later, Oxford Steve would have had some pretty good advice for 2004 Half-Ironman Steve, but at the time I didn’t know how to sleep on the streets. I had several interrupted attempts at sleeping, first in the lobby of the Hampton Inn that was hosting the event and then in the front seat of a Chevy S10 until store clerks would eventually insist I leave.

I started the race on an hour of sleep, a bottle of Gatorade, and half a Cliff Bar handed out at a vendor event the day before.

My performance was a disaster. In the fog of sleep deprivation and exhaustion after the swim, I couldn’t find my running shorts and elected to finish the entire race in my very worn-out Speedo.

By “very worn-out Speedo,” I mean that it was so threadbare that a fellow cyclist pulled up beside me and said, “I don’t know if you are trying to make a statement but we can see your entire ass back here.”

I was too tired to respond, but in my head, I said something about “dangerous curves” and pedaled faster.

I am not blessed with high melanin and over the course of the bike and run portion, my skin began to take on a color of red I have never seen before. Especially horrible was the area on the Speedo line that is normally never exposed to sunlight for more than a few minutes at a time in open-water swims. By the end of the race, I had second degree sunburn over most of my body.

To add insult to injury, a race bib was a required item and it had been attached to my missing running shorts. I was disqualified and never found out my final time. I think it was just under 5 hours which wasn’t bad on an hour of sleep, chafing from running 13.1 miles in a speedo, and some pretty severe sunburn.

I had one last gasp of long distance before graduating from UF. Gainesville hosted the 2005 World AIDS Marathon, an underfunded and under-advertised charity event with a $25 entry fee for students. In a world where marathon fees often approach $200, the price was a steal. However, as with most things in life, you get what you pay for.

I was in the top ten when we passed the first water stop; there was no water.

We passed a second and third water stop with no water.

The people ahead of me began to falter and I kept my pace. All those summers of running without water on the hunting lease and running bandit were paying off as I was able to keep going. Thankfully the route passed by a gas station that I knew had a water spigot. I went off course for a minute to fill my camel gut for the last five miles.

I couldn’t walk after I finished but I won.

I’m not sure why I gravitate toward the extreme distance. I suspect I am self-medicating for a host of undiagnosed mental conditions including rampant body dysmorphia. I do know that the only time I can really think clearly is in an exhausted mental state post-run. Any other time and my mind is beehive of activity so loud I can’t hear myself think. A host of prescribed psychotropics have had little effect or when they do work, the side effects are worse than the disease. I can say Adderall works to calm down the noise but not being able to shit right for a week due to constipation isn’t a price I am willing to pay.

After 20 or 30 miles, I’m too fatigued to chase down the rabbit holes in my mind and focus on the task at hand. Most of my writing is done in my head on the trail and put down on paper later, fully fleshed out and needing only a single edit from someone who has attention to detail.

To be completely honest, any exhaustion will do, running is just the cheapest and most easily accessible.

Time and sagacity have tempered my worst instincts. I haven’t run while drunk in years, and with the exception of doing 3-4 miles in Afghanistan after ingesting raw opium, I’ve taken pretty good care of myself. The opium story is written about briefly in Notes from Afghanistan.

The summer after Afghanistan was when I did my first 50. My future wife dropped me off on the outskirts of San Diego and I rucked my way in with 10-12 minute miles with nothing but a small backpack filled with water bottles and a credit card. I staggered to my self-imposed finish line at the USS Midway Museum where Lauren presented me with a frozen beverage that sent me instantly into hypothermia. She rushed me home and I spent an hour in a fetal position in her shower with the water running over me, desperately trying to get rid of a bone-chilling cold that sometimes ensues after a long run.

After the 50-mile run (and a 50K shortly after it) I took a break from long distance running to prepare for a transcontinental cycling trip I’d been planning on for years. The route was fairly basic—San Diego, California to Saint Augustine, Florida. I had enough money to survive coming in from a rental property I’d vacated, I had no immediate job prospects, and I was waiting on hearing back from FSU College of Law on whether I had been admitted to the Class of 2016 that would be starting in the fall of 2013.

I returned to running the following summer when I was working at Yellowstone National Park. I took the no-skill job of bussing tables so I could run at high elevation and ideally complete work on an account of my cycling trip titled Silly Rider that I decided wasn’t publishable.

This is a place where every single trailhead came with a warning sign stating: 1) don’t run; 2) don’t hike alone; 3) carry bear spray.

I ran 500 miles that summer, always alone and only carried bear spray one time before casting it aside as an unnecessary hassle. Bears don’t like the sound of a human voice and I supplemented my risk taking by shouting every 50 meters, “ho bear!”

Over time I had written enough material to constitute the foundation for a book tentatively titled Adventures in Misfitness by an Outlaw Athlete. Outlaw for the fact that I had run bandit so many times and had trespassed on a number of occasions to get where I was going. But I wanted the book to be about more than just being a fuck up on a trail. I wanted to have some story of redemption and growth. About the time I started taking things seriously, I also started to not have fun anymore.

If running was my drug, I had started abusing it. Gone was the happy-go-lucky idiot, self-medicating with exhaustion or working off a night of partying too hard. Entered was the serious athlete, making detailed charts of his training schedule.

But when you actually care about something enough to plan for it, you care enough to be heartbroken when it doesn’t work out.

If a 30-mile training run goes badly, it’s easy to shrug shoulders and say “the first 20 went well.”

When yet again, after months of training, you pull up short at 60+ miles of a 100-mile run, sobbing in agony at the western edge of the Seven-Mile Bridge in the Florida Keys, it begins to get tiresome.

When you scale back to focus on “just running marathons” for a while and then pull an Achilles three weeks before the race, the emotion is hard to describe.

I try to be philosophical about it, most people would be happy to run a mile without stopping, so failing at 60 is still valuable. I’ve got my writing. I’ve got a good example of resilience and fortitude I want to demonstrate to my children. All of this philosophical waxing takes the edge off the failure.

And truly, it’s not all for nothing.

One of the side effects of extreme-distance running is an insatiable post-race libido.

My working theory is that it’s similar to pruning a fruit tree. Pruning makes the tree think it’s dying so as a result it sends out more flowers and fruit than it  normally would.

It’s the same effect after an ultramarathon. After running 40, 50, 100 miles, the body thinks its dying and wants to procreate one last time (or sometimes half a dozen last times on the same day).

In the best of circumstances, the act of coitus is comical. How there is $10 billion industry built around people being paid to groan, grunt, and moan their way through the act is beyond me.

In the day after a long run, every single muscle in the body is misfiring, spasming, and cramping. Everything from the arches of the feet to the back of the scalp is ready to betray you after putting it through the misery of extreme endurance. So, in this physical state, the normally comical coitus becomes hysterical.

The seizing major muscle groups, cramping and spasming make almost all positions untenable. As the body burns from the inside out with an insatiable need to inseminate, it lacks the capability to do anything except flop like a concussed dolphin.

In any case, just over 40 weeks after my attempt at the Keys100 Ultramarathon, my third son was born.

If I had to run 60 miles and flop like a concussed dolphin to get him here, it was all worth it.

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