Today, standing here in the frigid February pre-dawn amongst a hodgepodge of disheveled veteran runners, I'm going to attempt to run further than I've ever run before. I'm shivering from head to toe as David Horton, a legend among distance runners, starts the race by trumpeting an air horn so loud it cracks the air in two. Nervous whoops break across the crowd and feet start shuffling forward, finding their footing across rocks in the darkness.
Its slow going at first, with bottlenecks at the trailhead as runners wait anxiously to enter the woods. We face a 17 mile loop today, around Holiday Lake in Appomattox, the heart of historic Virginia Civil War country. We'll be tackling the loop twice.
A few miles out the crowds thin and I can finally settle into my own pace. I hate the early miles of a long race, after the excitement of the start has dissipated but the bulk of the mileage still looms before me, an unknown. It becomes a waiting game, loping step by step.
It isn't until mile 10 that I start feeling good about things. I've fallen once, when a tree root grappled with my right foot, but no harm was done. And now, with a decent chunk of mileage behind me I can relax and enjoy the solitude of nature and running. The race breaks off in clips from aid station to aid station. These aren't the typical aid stations of my beloved marathons, stocked with water or Gatorade and Gu. Oh no, these aid stations are like a full buffet. Runners scarf down salted potatoes, oreos, Mountain Dew, and at one shocking station grilled burgers. Avoiding the heavier fare, I slip pretzels over my pinky fingers to nibble along the way, and brave a few M+Ms, hoping they don't wreak havoc on my intestines later.
At the halfway point of 17 miles, I'm feeling decent. I'm well under the time limit cutof and my feet don't have any blisters, in spite of a knee-deep icy river crossing in the early miles. I stretch lightly and pop a couple of ibuprofin for minor aches, sharing two with an injured runner. Eight pinky pretzels and two minutes later I'm back on the trail.
It isn't until mile 25 that I run, literally, into trouble. One minute I'm feeling fine and the next pain is shooting up my iliotibial (IT) band. It's hobbling, this pain. I stretch, but it doesn't help. Finally, I am reduced to walking, with a long nine mile stretch to go. Runners, bit by bit, began to pass me by. Crunch, crunch, crunch, I'm walking. Surrounded by oaks, with woods as far as the eye can see, quitting is not an option.
It's now that I think of Lauren. An ultrarunner and newlywed, she recently lost her husband to an unusual and aggressive cancer. So young, both of them, and now she struggles to hold it together while raising 13 month old twins that will never remember their father. Somehow, through all this strife, the light of Lauren's personality doesn't wilt, she continues to bring joy and strength to others. Her courage carries me through the slow, crippled miles. Warm thoughts for the remnants of her family lift my heavy feet over logs, through a stream, up rustic steps and across a bridge.
With three miles to go, I must pick it up. I'm getting close to the seven hour time limit, and if I don't finish within the limit I won't get my finisher's technical running shirt. I want that shirt.
I try for the tenth time since mile 25 to run. Pain bursts viciously up my thigh. I resign myself to walking, but faster. Shamefully, almost everyone has passed me now, except for the truly wizened old runners. Even now one of them shuffles past, gray beard flapping down to his waist. "You okay?" he asks. I want to cry. Instead I answer, "Oh yeah. My IT band just went out, but I'm fine." I watch his bobbing, frizzled head as it pulls away.
I finally hear the cheers of the finish line. Buoyed with hope, I try to run, but my body won't have it. Instead, I walk across the line that marks the 34th mile, 6 hours and 52 minutes after the airhorn blew so long ago. I collapse into the hugs and congratulations of my friends. "I'm never running another ultramarathon again!" I tell them, and they only nod, knowingly, and then smirk at each other when they think I'm not looking.
I ran (well, mostly ran) this disasterous race back in 2008. I wrote this post in response to this prompt from The Red Dress Club, because I feel like some of my strongest true-self traits are perseverance and dare I say...a stubborn streak:
Imagine you are meeting someone for the first time. You want to tell them about yourself.Instead of reciting a laundry list of what you do or where you're from, please give us a scene from your life that best illustrates your true self.
This is an exercise in showing, not telling. You need to show us why this particular moment defines you, or why you want someone to know this truth about you. Be descriptive without bogging us down in extraneous details.
Please stop by and enter my giveaway for a cedar bluebird house and squirrel proof feeder here.