With this view at the start, how could I doubt anything? Photo by Glenn Tachiyama
I ran the Peterson Ridge Rumble 40 Miler this spring and I’m finally getting around to writing about it. I know, the race was April – pause to go look it up- 14th. Yeah, it was THAT long ago. I just haven’t been able to write about it for a number of reasons.
#1 – Time. I work full time now. My days are packed for 14-17 hour stretches. I’m trying to keep this wonderful Run Momma Run mojo alive, keep two kids and hubby happy and healthy, train for my next running journey and everything in between.
#2 – Space. I haven’t been in the right space for writing about the race. As you’ll see from my notes below, while it was incredible in many ways – good incredible – it was also incredibly hard and emotional and it’s been difficult to put that into words.
#3 – Sadness. The Boston Marathon tragedies happened the morning after my race and, while I sat working at my computer at home that day, bags of frozen corn under my feet, the shocking news hit the Internet and I was consumed with sadness, racked with sobs for days and could not even begin to think of my own 40 miler in terms beyond a shoulder shrug. Who cares about my efforts? My sport and its people were hurting.
#4 – Change. This race changed me. In wonderful, deep ways. But it also changed the way people see me. And how I see myself. I wasn’t prepared for that. I am still processing that and trying to accept it.
Training and signing up for my first 40 miler (an odd distance) was a consolation prize. I really wanted to run a 50. I figured that, mentally, I wanted to make the jump from 50K to 50M, but the race I was hoping to run filled up before I could register. My crazy schedule pointed me to the 40, so I hit submit.
My longest run was a 30 miler. It turned out to be the second worst run of my life so far. I was getting over a deep chest cold, running on shoes that were giving me fits and I was just flat out exhausted. It was a cold day, just below 30 degrees at the start and, despite the cold, I ended up sweat-chaffing in places you don’t want to know about. As I sat in the ice bath afterwards, skin literally burning in places, my legs and feet throbbing, my head aching, I experienced a mild panic attack and the questions started coming… What was I doing to myself? Are the people right who say running long distance is crazy? Is my husband who looks at me with a combination of pity, frustration, worry and WTF right? Had I crossed a line? Was I wrong to want to run and keep running? If hurting myself and pushing myself was wrong – wrong for my body, wrong for my family, the wrong way to spend my time, the wrong way to live, was it the wrong thing to love?
This was a huge blow to my sense of self. While the questions felt overwhelming, I knew the answers could only be found by running farther.
But the 40 Miler Was Weeks Away
I had to sit with these questions for almost a month. I thought about it while recovering from that damned cold, the chaffing and the lousy 30 mile training run. Tapering is challenging enough. It’s more challenging when you think that maybe what you’re tapering for is the worst thing for you.
Crossing the Line
As you might have guessed, this post is not about the finish line. The finish line in any race is just a scribble on the road or a smudge the dirt. It’s the months of hills and speed and ache and exhaustion and niggles and pains and fun and frolic and pure running that make up the story about crossing that little line in the sand. Of course it’s an achievement. It’s wonderful to be done. But sometimes the most climactic part of the journey has nothing to do with what everyone agrees is “the end”.
As I spent the next few weeks in taper, knowing that something might be wrong with me to want to go out and pump my legs for hours on end just to come home beaten and silly, bruised and high, limping and singing, I had something else happen that made me question my passion.
I went to a birthday party of a new friend’s 4 year old. Grown ups gathered downstairs with beer, chips and chit chat while the kids played dress up and games upstairs. I was talking with women I hadn’t met before, getting the run down on their schools, plans for the summer, recipes, gardening tips…the usual meet and greet things when I suddenly felt very relaxed and happy. I had finished my longest run. I could chill until the 40. I could eat and sit and put my feet up and yes I’ll have another beer, thank you. It was nice to talk with people who didn’t know me. I didn’t have to talk about running. About my burning questions.
And then my friend outed me.
Without warning he walked across the kitchen and in a booming voice proclaimed, “…AND LAURA IS GOING TO RUN A 40 MILE RACE NEXT WEEK!”
I winced. I was in the middle of struggling with the sanity of what I do for hours on end and now 10 people were looking at me like I was nuts. It was confirmed. I had indeed crossed the line. The rest of the afternoon was spent trying to fend off questions like, “how much do you eat?” and “how many days a week do you run?” and “who watches the kids?” Suddenly I didn’t fit in. It made me sad.
A Week Later I Ran 40 Miles
And, as starting lines have a way of doing, my doubts about my abilities or my love of running were washed away like the scuttle of dirt that flies from your shoes during those first eager steps of any race.
I smiled for miles on end. Literally. And when I would catch myself smiling, I would smile bigger. I felt fantastic. 10 miles was a nice warm up. 20 was a fantastic half-way point. It smelled like my childhood: sage, juniper, dry dirt and cold, crisp air. The aid station oranges and potatoes were better than any delicacy anywhere. My fueling was perfectly timed and executed. Even my face plant in the thick dirt at mile 18 was entertaining.
And then I got off course.
At mile 29 I crested the second of two hills, proud that I ran all the way up given the distance I had just come and the fact that snow was now pelting me in the face. I drafted behind a group of 10 or so runners that had passed me from the regular start time. We all had our heads down because of the wind and snow and all of us missed our trail marker at the top of the hill. We headed off course and down a steep road for over a mile. At the bottom we gathered and realized that none of us had seen a course marker for some time. Not wanting to go back up and not sure if we were truly off course, we all kept going. Looking behind me I saw 8 to 10 more runners coming down the hill behind us. Surely, not all of us were lost. Or were we?
I had run 30 miles. The runners I was with, having started at the regular start time, were faster than I was. It was snowing. I wasn’t sure where I was. I had to pee badly. Running alone was fine. Running lost alone was not fine. Mostly, I didn’t want to over shoot or under shoot the total mileage. I took stock: I had just filled my pack with water. I had enough Gu in my bag to choke a horse. I still had on my extra light jacket. I would be ok if I had to be lost for a while longer.
Then I hooked up with a guy who helped me get the map out of my pack. I have to admit, being the one in the group with a map cleverly folded in a waterproof zip lock did wonders for my confidence in that moment. From the map and the general distance and direction we were heading, we surmised that we were running parallel to the course. I took a quick pee and ran with him for a couple miles. In my worry about not wanting to be lost alone, I was determined to keep up. Looking at my splits later, I saw I had run 8:30 min/miles to stick with him. Doing tempo miles after running a 50K tells you something about yourself.
After a while we saw a shiny object through the trees. It was a beautiful blue tarp! A tarp covering supplies at the mile 35 aid station! We ran into the woods, drawn to the tarp like an ultra runner to a salty potato, had our fill of food and water and carried on.
The last five miles were peaceful. I was back on track. I was going to finish. I was going to run the entire way. I was going to cross the line.
A Tearful Finish
I had told myself when I realized I was off course that I couldn’t afford to have a freak out. There was no time for that even though I just wanted to sit down and cry. There would be plenty of time for that later. As soon as I crossed the finish line, I told myself I could let it go. And that’s what I did. I cried. I wandered around the finisher’s area. I got wonderful hugs from friends. I had a shower, cried some more, ate a burrito, I sat in the sun. Then I drove home alone.
I did it. I ran 40 miles. I ran longer than I had ever run before.
Were My Questions Answered?
I listen to news of the Boston tragedies over the next week. I rested, I limped around. I told a few close friends about my race, about getting off course, about the beauty, about how it felt pointless to talk about my adventure given the suffering that was happening in Massachusetts.
And I still wasn’t sure if I was sane. I didn’t want to see the look in someone’s eyes when I told them I had just run 40 miles. The look most people gave me was not a reflection of how I felt. For the first time, I felt like an alien.
Until I told Chris.
Chris is the mother of a friend of mine, Polly. She’s a very active grandma and I often see her taking Polly’s kids to school. Chris and I were sitting at school three weeks after the race watching first graders sing thank you songs to volunteers. She leaned over between songs and asked how my race went. Knowing she loves to run and has always been active all of her life, I was ready to tell her how amazing it was. I looked over and her face was a shining light with a beaming smile, eager to hear about an epiphany or devour a story about the trail. I told her it was an incredible experience. She sighed and shook her head in the knowing that comes only from experiencing exactly the same thing. There was absolutely no hint of “you’re crazy” in her eyes. There was no judgement. There was only the deep appreciation of someone who “gets” how much I learned about myself out there on my journey.
When I saw the excitement in Chris’ eyes, I knew I had the answer to my looming questions. Some might say I was trying to find acceptance of myself from someone else, but I see it differently. Chris held up a mirror to me. She wisely and freely gave me a view into myself. She shone the light on why I love running. She helped me to see that place within myself that is all mine. That secret, beautiful place I can go on every run. I just have to cross that line of doubt within myself and I’m home free.