Running With Bear

How becoming a new father helped me run 100 miles in the most unpredictable way.

– Steven Blackburn. This article was originally published in Kiwi Trail Runner Magazine.

Ultramarathon father

The longest walk

I have been running for 10 years now and, like anyone who takes up the shoes, I have experienced the incredible highs and deep lows. In the dark hours waking up before the day really began there were two books in those early years that got me through and felt like my link to likeminded people on similar pointless and wonderful journeys. The first was “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall – the inspiring heroic tale of Caballo Blanco and the Tarahumara. The other was “Ultramarathon Man” by Dean Karnazes.

While “Born to Run” was a pinnacle in running texts (IMHO) with mythic legendary figures and amazing tales, “Ultramarathon Man” was more prosaic in some ways. Karnazes’ book, and Karnazes himself, came in for quite a bit of flak which always felt very unfair to me since his message was get out there and run – there was little more to it than that and he was proof that a regular person can, if they have the desire, push themselves physically and mentally so beyond what we typically define as normal.

What struck me about Dean’s book was his description of The Western States Endurance Run – a 100 mile foot race through the Californian mountains that began as a horse race until one fateful day when competitor Gordy Ainsleigh’s horse was lame and thought hell I’ll run the race with the horses and see what happens. Again someone who hoped and guessed they could do it and pushed off into the unknown.

Dean’s book was his discovery, or rediscovery, of running in his 30s (don’t we all rediscover running?) and how he heard about the Western States and thought – well there’s a challenge worth undertaking.

The story of that race blew me away. It lasts chapters and isn’t so much a race report but more a Homeric journey with Dean battling exhaustion, altitude, a fall, night blindness and crawling through a town avoiding traffic towards the finish line. It was epic, it was beyond imagining, it was terrifying and I really wanted to do it. Preparing for races and long trail runs, passages would come back to me. I’d read pieces the night before a run to get my juices flowing. For a runner this was inspo porn on steroids. Well maybe on some electrolytes.

Flash forward.

I’ve escalated.

It started as half marathons, then full marathons.

My first 50K left me pale and exhausted. Then came 100K races across trails and climbs that we describe as technical, in an effort to make them sound like professional summations and yet that word never fully depicting the rocky root strewn mudfest out there.

All the time, the Western States Endurance Run carried on with limited places, meaning a lottery has to be held every year to choose runners who had managed the to hit the criteria and qualified in a race that counted. In New Zealand, this means Tarawera Ultramarathon and that’s a race I have loved since I first set foot on the course.

I’d run various distances of Tarawera in previous years and loved every painful minute. I’d run the course that was rerouted because of the fire risk, I’d run the full “original” 100km course to Kawerau, I’d run the course that went back on itself in the middle of a cyclone to avoid the risks of the forest falling on runners. And then, in 2017, the organisers announced the inaugural 100 mile race for February 2018. This was the hellish challenge I needed, and a massive step forward in the process to qualify for the lottery to the race of my dreams. Even if it took years to get in it had to start somewhere – and that place was the start line of my first 100 miler.

There was only one hugely complicating overwhelming wonderful factor: we call her the Bear.

The bear’s real name is Eva and she was born on one sunny afternoon in the summer of 2017, about a week before the 2017 Tarawera Ultramarathon, the wonderful reason I skipped that year’s race. Instead of a trail, in 2017 I ran the excruciatingly beautiful ultra that is the beginning of parenthood.

The bear is a delight. She radiates so much happiness and wonder and fills our days. We become giddy at so many things and feel a passion for the everyday that we had thought we’d lost outside the trails.

My wife wants to go back to work so, early on, we make the decision that I’ll quit my job to be home with the bear and start my own little business, in between naps and nappies. A year later business is falling into place but, looking back, it was a crazy, terrifying, risky big step. However hip it sounded, we spent a lot of time stressing and came near to running out of funds completely but her belief in me, in us, never wavered.

The bear throughout is stunning – she never stops surprising us. Belief in us is all she has.

She is hilarious and cheeky and wonderful but…

The bear hates sleep.

We find what works, as parents do – walking with her prone in my arms she moans her way to sleep, head pressed against my chest listening to my steady heart beats. It works but it takes a terrible toll on us, on me. Hours walking through the nights, through the day.

My back and arm muscles strengthen but I still wince in pain when I bend.

We walk. Early on the midwife tells us the bear likes my low heart rate. Because of all the time we spend together, she is also locked in on my smell, my pace, my heartbeat. In seconds, she relaxes with me. But still she won’t sleep easily. Never easily.

And so, day and night, we walk.

We walk through the night hours. We walk and sooth.

She sleeps on me. She is safe there.

We try all sorts of other approaches to calm her, to help her rest but nothing works and so on we walk. Day and night we walk.

And my training. Oh yeah that. That 100 mile race that seemed so far away now looms rapidly. At 5am I should be out running 20 or 30kms. I manage some runs each week but other times I’ve only just hit the bed when the alarm goes off for my run, after a night of walking the bear, so I roll over and do what they tell us to do: sleep when she sleeps.

I am starting to not believe. V, bear mum and my person, continues to believe in me. She sees me dropping weight, she sees me tired and pushing on. She listens to my complaints and then gives me the support to get back up again.

And then we walk. Day and night we walk. I can only get on roads to run these days. Time is so precious and I just don’t have the hours to spare on return drives to trailheads, so I grab slices of moments when I can get away and run straight out of the door. My longest single training run is 54km and only thanks to V insisting I have to train –  The big day is a few weeks away and I can’t neglect any more.

Still, we walk. Day and night, we walk. It gets easier but the walking never fails. Listening to the bear breathing deeply. Waiting for the soft sag of her little body that tells me she’s given up and is asleep enough to be put in her cot.

Sleep deprivation is just the new normal. One hour of light sleep and then we walk. Two hours of light sleep and then we walk.

I’m not sure I can do this race – I just haven’t put the work in.

A month away now. This is crazy.

We walk, the bear and I, through the quiet blackness of the night.


Steven Blackburn at the Tarawera 100 MIle Endurance Run

The longest run

Flash forward.

It’s around 2am although, to be honest, I have lost track of the time again.

I’m not walking the bear around the room like I usually am around this time. I’m somewhere in the dark on the infamously “undulating” Okataina track, surrounded by trees, glow worms and mud. Heaps of mud. So much mud. That’s when the hallucinations start kicking in. Shadows in the headlamp that at first are peripheral but then, as the sleep deprivation and just sheer physical and mental exhaustion continues through the hours, grow stronger – the small alien that I know is a fern but smiles and hops up and down, the Vegas style sign cowboy who lingers twirling a gun. They become odder, sometimes scary companions on this trip into the physical and mental unknown and breakdown.

22 hours. Running right through the night and watching, almost detached, like some out of body experience as my world boils down to simpleness. Easy decisions that seem life or death. A whole day ago, before I started running, my worries were different. I was different. There are only a few things that matter now – can I take the pain in my feet? Is that chafing getting worse? I haven’t peed blood for hours now and it’s running clear, how far to the top of this hill? Am I hungry? But above all: keep going forward. Onwards. Don’t quit.

Steven and Vera at the Tarawera 100 mile endurance run

Beware the chair, they say.  I embrace the chair and the aid stations like never before. Oases of smiles and care from people who even now I tear up thinking about, weeks later. Just regular folks who are out there in this carnage of weather, under torrential rain, doing this for us. Getting us through this. The dropped blanket over my shoulders as I attend to my swollen feet, the tape and scissors handed to me for my bleeding heels, the insistence on food, warm soup. “Do you need anything else?” Again tears at how wonderful humanity can be. I don’t know you, I don’t know any of these people surrounding me asking what else I need. These strangers in the cold hours having been rained on all day are only concerned that the next survivor into the tent is going to make it. They will go to work on Monday morning with bags under their eyes and aches and sneezing, with no medals and only stories of the people they saw. They’re witnesses to someone else’s glory and by choosing to be that, they hold in them all of the world’s humanity. It can’t be but it should be something talked about every day.

4am and the rain is sideways. The world is reduced to a cone of light from my headlamp and the vision is a scratched white hiss of rain stinging my face. The forestry roads cycle up and up and back on themselves in confusing spirals. Have I been here before? 24 hours now. Random calculations endlessly turn over in my head as I compute and compute finishing times whilst my body bleeds and aches breaking to sort painful pieces but keeps moving ever onwards. “You know how to hurt,” my love told me before I started. I know how to hurt, I tell myself while hurting. Do I?

Moments of exhilaration with even a little dance or two, singing standards in the dark like I’m banishing my fears on purpose. My legs despite the feet and groin feel fantastic – something is working down there, somehow.

The ghost white wallaby in my headlamp is not a hallucination. The orange eyes of possums watching me as I slowly pass.

Sleep deprivation and the incessant rain – over 30 hours so far of rain –  is taking the field apart. I see people stagger in tears.

I see people bed down in emergency sacks off the trail in the rain.

One guy passes me going the wrong  way – “Can I help?” I say “I have a pack of gear – what do you need?”

“It’s not physical, it’s mental, I can’t do this” he says and he staggers off back down the track in the dark.

I pat people on the back. “Keep going” I say “Not far to the aid station and believe it or not some tarmac” I sound like I am trying to persuade myself.

In the darks the thoughts of V and the bear. I see their faces. Feel their embraces. The sleep deprivation is now a welcome friend. It’s been with me now so long. The bear got me ready for this. The whole time I thought she was stopping me from training, she was training me. Coach bear and her questionable training plan.

Then the dawn and the head lifts an inch or two. Gotta keep pushing. 29 hours and my love is there again with me. How does she do this? She has given as much as me to get this done. So much excitement and happiness for me. For this. She must be exhausted but runs at me all hugs and hair and kisses and what do I need and keep going, keep going. Me shattered and staggering the only words I have are “destroyed” and “broken”. Broken but, as they say, unbowed. This is love at its most raw and primal and all consuming.

Tears in my eyes at the pain in my feet, alone again moving sideways on the trail. The burning around my groin and waist. My favourite shorts that never chafed me once are now razors after 30 plus hours of rain. My body leaks blood like osmosis whenever I check painful areas. The slow but scarily rapid descent the physical and mental parts of us take when pushed to extremes.

5KM to go. V is driving like a banshee from the last aid station to be at the finish line to welcome me. Friends Mal and Carl both appear separately from out of nowhere to “run” with me to the finish. I hobble behind them and we talk and muse on life and running. My pace picks up a little.

The night seems a lifetime away as the morning is in full force now. Normal people on the streets nod and clap and cheer me on. Then there I am at the finishing chute alone watching my love running towards me and drawing me on. “Run to the finish,” she says and, despite my protests, run I do on broken feet and numbed body. Holding her hand tightly as the rain lashes us yet again. 30.5 hours and my first 100 miler is complete. I’m dazed.

I sit in a tent near the finish line. People stare at me like I can explain what happened out there. I have no words. No explanation.


The full loop

Snapshots of memory. I sit eating a wrap. The bear is there at my feet she reaches up and takes a bite of my food (it’s the usual bear tax, she needs to try it all). I give her the medal to play with – it was always hers anyway. I’m in a strange disconnected mode watching me as I quietly exist. The bear, my love V there waiting with me as I try to reassemble myself to leave the finish area.

All those nights were my training for this. Carrying the bear whilst my brain screamed sleep – that was my training even if I never knew it.

How did you walk on those feet someone asks? So much blood and pain. I practised walking. I walked miles and miles even when I couldn’t run. I didn’t know it but the bear was training me.

I have missed the cut off time for the Western States qualifier entrance but what happened to me out there is more marked than I can express. I honestly don’t care. Couldn’t care at all. A circle has been completed that I didn’t even know was being drawn over the last year. She came into the world and her birth changed my life and one year on I have walked this planet with her and for her and these 100 miles were only the latest of the hundreds of miles we’ve done.

I never want to do this again and yet I want to do this as soon as the cuts, blisters, aches and pain subside. My socks that tore mid race are binned, bloodied bandages litter the ground and I drink a beer and coffee in unison. The bear now sits on my knee. I never want to run again but maybe in a couple of days I can.

This is a part of me now, deep and quiet inside and although it hasn’t sunk in I know this will change everything.

I think I’m ready to attempt getting up from this chair. My little crew take me to the motel to sleep and to heal and to build me back up. Out of the rain we walk.

And, day and night, we’ll keep walking some more.Walking forward, walking around, walking in circles, we won’t stop moving. Not until the bear finally sleeps.

Steven is currently easing back into training and hoping to compete in the Javelina Jundred in Arizona in October to start his lottery process for The Western States next year. He kind of cared a little more about taking part in that race than the above would suggest.

The bear still likes to be carried to sleep. We still walk through the night while most sleep.



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