The feeling in my mouth that morning was the same as it is every race morning. 35 mornings of anticipating at least 26.2 miles or more hasn't cured me of the feeling. I looked at the pile of running gear heaped on the carpet in front of the bed. Long socks, tights, shorts, sports bra, tech tee, long sleeved tech tee, half zip shirt, jacket, buff, hat, tech gloves, fleece gloves. The weather app said 11°F as I donned all my apparel.
I climbed into my Jeep and it moaned slowly to life. Shivering, I navigated away from my sister's house and onto the highway towards the park. A parking attendant directed me into the last spot in the main lot and I sat in my car for a few minutes collecting my gear. The pavilion was warm and the volunteers chipper. I pinned on my race bib and searched the crowd for a familiar face. Announcements were made and despite the then balmy 16°F, it was decided we would all run start by just running through the double doors towards the start line.
My Garmin had naturally timed out from the start menu and I fumbled quickly to get it functioning again with two pairs of gloves. Approximately 20 runners were in front of me and I fell in line through the first section of single track. 6 loops of 5ish miles. A short section of single track up, a mile or so on flat and fast fire roads, a sharp descent down a fire road, single track along the river, the boulders, the stairs, the best part (flattish single track), the log stairs, and the steeper-with-each-loop climb to the start/finish.
The first lap was fantastic. I felt incredibly fresh despite the 35-36 miles I had raced the prior weekend. Everything was comfortable. Easy. No twinges from my legs, knees, or hips. No stomach conundrums. I ripped the buff from my face within the first half mile. Too hot.
At the fire road, I listened to snippets of conversations around me and settled into a comfortable pace as my body warmed up. At the steep descent, I barrelled down the road, arms out like wings. I'd pay for my recklessness later, but there are few things better in life than pushing the pace hard on technical downhill. It is the ultimate feeling of being strong and free.
366 days had passed since I had last run this course. Everything seemed so much easier. The hills seemed flatter, the stairs seemed fewer, and I felt better. I clamored over the boulders and charged the steep ascent after the stairs. Everything in the last mile and a half of the first loop was full of trail magic. The frost on the ground, the icicles hanging from the benches, and the sun shining through the barren trees was stunning.
I came through the aid station, grabbed a slice of peanut butter & jelly, threw off my jacket, and continued onto the next loop. The second loop proved just as a easygoing and despite a small belly rumble, I felt ready to run loops all day. I had one bottle half filled with water and the other half filled with Tailwind. Both were starting to turn to slush and I could only laugh at this rare problem in my running life.
At the end of the second loop, I took a small piece of potato and popped it into my mouth. My hydration seemed to be okay so I headed back out for loop #3. There was a guy with a blue shirt and Superman tattoo on his calf that had passed me in the 2nd loop, but he was right in front of me at the aid station. The RD ran after him to get his bib number as he had crumpled it up and messed up his timing chip. He continued on behind me and we ran side by side on the fire road.
"50K or 25K?" he asked.
"Awesome. You're almost done!"
He pushed on ahead and I held back, knowing it was fruitless to push when I still had more than half the race to finish. A short time later, I passed him back as he picked up the pants he left behind on the first lap. I tried to hold steady to my pace, but as I neared the end of the 3rd lap, I felt my spirit starting to sink. A few 25K runners blew past me in the last half mile. One female decidedly looking to secure a 3rd place finish without likely realizing I was still 16 miles from being done.
At the aid station, the volunteer offered me a hot grilled cheese.
The next lap was the best and worst thing about endurance racing. It was full of mental misery and physical pain. Some races skew towards one or the other. This was a healthy mix of leg bonk and the negative thought monster telling every cell in my body to STOP RUNNING. When I took a short tumble (on nothing), I yelled at myself. Eff Liebowitz. Get it together. I thought about dropping to the 25K, dropping to just a marathon distance, or hell, just dropping onto the side of the trail. I began making deals with the devil. If I finish this, I will never sign up....Oh shit, I am already signed up...Well, I will never do THIS RACE again.
I suffered through the lap. I scraped the back corner of the pain cave and overstayed my welcome. It was dark and defeating. And yet, I kept moving forward.
I wasn't out of the pain cave just yet, but I was determined to just get the last 2 laps over with by the time I arrived at the aid station. I sucked down a cup of Mountain Dew. I refilled my water bottle. I stopped at my car for aspirin. I slurped down a Huma gel packet.
When mile 22 clicked off, I gave myself 1 mile to snap out of my funk. Slowly, whatever cocktail of caffeine, sugar, and painkillers I mixed together took the edge off. I began to feel better. I opened a Roctane GU and squeezed the now-hardened packet of cherry lime into my mouth. My pace quickened and I knew that I only had to pass through each section just once more.
One more cup of Mountain Dew at the aid station. The volunteers asked if they could top off my water bottles and I joyfully exclaimed that I was headed out for my final loop. I was deliriously excited about being done in hopefully less than an hour.
A guy who had been leap-frogging with me all day stayed about 20 paces ahead of me for the first mile of the last loop. When we reached the fire road, he stopped briefly and bent over to stretch his legs. The monster was getting him. I shuffled passed him and said, "c'mon man, you've got this".
Sidenote: I never know what to say when passing someone. Some people want to be left alone. Some want words of encouragement.
He heeded the message and came shuffling up behind me. I played pacemaker for the next mile and he stayed within my shadow, our breathing and gravel crunching the only noises. It was the kind of moment that is shared only in events such as these. We didn't speak, we didn't look at each other, we just suffered together. I don't know his name and I wouldn't even know what his face looks like save for the fact I saw it after crossing the finish line.
But I lost him on the descent. The last rumble down the hill was enough to give me a spark of energy and I bounced from side-to-side as I navigated the safest place I could quickly put my foot down. As I hit the boulders, the stairs, and climb the gnarly hill one last time, I allowed myself to briefly look at my watch. Gauging distance was a bit tough, but I was on track for a personal course PR.
I struggled to run on the last ascents, but I didn't want to leave anything on the table. My legs were burning when I hit the gravel. I cringed as I touched the pavement and gave it one last push. 16 miles prior, I didn't want to take another step. But like some bullshit Cinderella story, I found a way to turn my race around.
I leaned again the pavilion wall, breathing heavily. I was cold, but undecided where to go. So I stood for a few minutes and just absorbed the activity around me. The guy I had run with briefly came through shortly after I finished and the RD called out to him "hey, you are 3rd!"
Then he sees me standing against the wall. "Wait, is that 329?"
I look at my number, look at him. "Yeah, I'm 329"
"Oh okay. I think you are 3rd overall. Definitely 1st female."
It's a small race. It was 16°F at the start. It was a free race without any swag. Lots of people didn't even start and plenty dropped out or dropped down mid-race. But that day, I was the fastest girl to finish. I'd be lying if I said first place didn't feel good. But I'd also be lying if it felt easy. The feeling of personal accomplishment is there regardless of the time on the clock or the placement in the race.
“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”
Edit 1.11.17: Results were posted and I was 4th OA, 1st Female! Oops.