When I ran the Iron Masters 50K on April 24. I did not know that Pine Grove Furnace State Park is where rocks are born and go to die.
I had a good race and finished in a good time to win the women’s race and come in sixth overall. Like every ultra, this was a metaphor for life itself, where either defeat or success comes from struggle.
It was also a metaphor for a more relaxed “Weltanschauung.” This personal philosophy believes that fighting too hard against an obstacle is detrimental, and once you relax, that obstacle will become smaller and seem more approachable. The protagonists of this metaphor are the race, myself, and the never-ending, soul-grinding rocks of Pennsylvania.
The race begins with a half mile of benign gravel road and then makes a sharp turn onto the trail. From single track, the trail very quickly turns into a rock scramble for a few miles. After that, it is just one big rock after small rock after big rock.
Every rock moves. Some are bigger, some are smaller and every single step needs attention and split second decisions on where to place your foot next.
On this sort of terrain, the mind cannot wander, and there is absolutely, under no circumstances, no looking around. Your brain is constantly thinking: “Hop, jump, don’t fall, don’t die, duck, rock, root, skip, jump!”
For the first few miles, I tried to find a rhythm and took some time on the more technical scrambles. Everyone was frantic to pass me, stressing me out in the process. I started fighting, trying to jump quickly from rock to rock, taking longer steps, risking more than I should in order to make good time.
I tripped, huffing and puffing on the scrambles and trying to catch up on the few and far between runnable sections.
This type of running wears you out because the severe acceleration and slowing down leads very quickly to muscle fatigue. Moreover, it’s stressful.
After about 8 miles, I was finally alone and started to relax. I was perhaps thirtieth overall and, again, I was trying to fight my way through the rocks. Being alone helped me to find a rhythm and, with that, came the realization that the more I relaxed, the easier running on the rocks became.
After years of doing this, I should know this instinctively. My body knows it, but my brain gets in the way with doubt and the fear of breaking down.
Once I stopped thinking, my body started working, and the rocky obstacles became smaller, more manageable and fun.
As I relaxed and allowed my body to take over, I felt beautiful feelings of fitness, strength and confidence. Ten miles in, I knew I would pass quite a few people and win the race.
What I knew already but had temporarily forgotten was that patience, kindness and fluidity are the best allies of a long distance runner. Every mile of the race was still very difficult. I left a lot of sweat out there, but fighting the rocks was not the right strategy.
Like an ancient fable, if you are kind to the rocks, the rocks will be kind to you and allow you to pass more easily. If you believe that even inanimate objects are part of the greater mystery of life itself, then this makes perfect sense.
It works for me, in running and in life. Rock on!
Francesca Conte is a professional runner, race director, and co-founder of Bad to the Bone Endurance Sports. She has won numerous 50K, 50 mile and 100 mile races. Born in Italy amidst the Alps, Francesca calls the mountains home and now splits her time between Virginia and Colorado.