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Monday, November 12, 2012

WV 50 miler. WARNING, LONG POST!


Early mornings, track workouts, long runs, back-to-back days of running topped of with a full schedule of work, travel and family.  Getting ready for a 50-mile race takes a lot of work.  Yes, I said 50 miles.  Having spent my 38th birthday running 40 miles, I figured that it only made sense to spend my 39th birthday running 50 miles.

It was 6 am as we stood on the start line- well, more like we milled around in the general area of the start line.  Unlike other races where participants are toeing the line ready to take off like cheetahs, ultra runners are a bit more relaxed. There is a completely different energy at an ultra event compared to a road race marathon distance or shorter.  Strong and determined, but in a calm, laid back manner. There is camaraderie amongst ultra runners that you are hard pressed to find in any other group. Ultra runners are a different breed for sure.

The race director signaled the start of the race and we were off. It must have been an interesting sight as you could see nothing but our headlamps and the shine of any reflective gear caught in their path. The wind was cold and I was thankful I was wearing a hat, ear warmers and a hood.  Following the shoes of the runner in front of me I quickly noticed they had been collecting frost making it appear as though we had been running through snow.  I knew it was cold, but that was just ridiculous.  This Florida girl was missing the warmer weather for sure.

This 50 miler had its start and finish at The Mountain Institute in Circleville, WV.  Reading the words “mountain” and “West Virginia” should have been enough for me to realize that I would be climbing mountains, but it was not.  Just shy of 7 miles would bring us to the first of six aid stations, Spruce Knob, the highest point in West Virginia.  There was good running on this leg as the trail was mainly grassy with some pine needle covered climbs a few of which were quite steep. I had mentally planned for about 9 hours and knowing we would be out there at least that long I knew it was best to conserve energy and walk.

Not long after we passed the first aid station we had our first encounter with some questionable terrain.  The trail seemed to be a dried riverbed complete with large loose rocks.  I was hopscotching from one to another to another feeling much like I did as a child running through the woods, I started to laugh. This was fun!

The rock covered trail gave way to a leaf covered trail.  Unfortunately the leaves were covering loose rocks that were covering mud.  One wrong step and you were in up to your knees.  Thankfully my shoes were on tight otherwise I might have lost them!  It seemed to go on for miles.  The longer it continued the less I laughed.  I tried to think of it as one big mud run. That worked for a few minutes before my mind switched gears- that isn’t what I had signed up for. That isn’t what I wanted to be doing.  I just wanted to run.  I tried.  I’d get lucky for a step or two, maybe even three before I would sink into the mud or slip on a rock or even step on a stick whose opposite end would somehow find its way into my other foot. OUCH! I was reduced to walking regardless of the flat ground.


Unlike running a road race some of the inherent excitement of trail running is actually finding the trail.  Following the markers can often be a challenge.  Miss one and you’re in the middle of the woods with no map and no cell phone service.
At one point the ribbons we were following seemed to stop.  I looked around and saw some on the opposite side of the creek.

 Crossing the creek I found myself climbing up the side of a mountain.  Literally.  Huffing and puffing hiking my way up, up, up. Somehow I had already forgotten that we had made our way from Spruce Knob down the mountain to the creek in the valley- OF COURSE we were climbing back up. The climb seemed to go on for miles until once again we were on top of a mountain. A small respite form the climb lasted maybe a quarter of a mile and once again we were headed down. From 4200 ft down to about 2400 ft. Downhill often sounds good when you offer someone the choice of uphill or downhill.  Unfortunately down is not always fun.  Too steep to run, never mind the loose rocks and sticks covered in fallen leaves- oh the fun of fall racing. It is fun to look at pretty leaves when they are on the trees, not so fun when they are under your feet.

Running generally gives me plenty of time to think.  Not this time, I had to concentrate so hard on where I was putting my feet, where the rocks were, where the sticks were, where the ribbons marking the course were that I couldn’t think about anything else. Those distractions helped me avoid the thought that I would have to turn around and run back the way I came. Five hours and 48 minutes after the race began I reached the 25-mile mark. Time to head back up the 2000 ft we had just descended.

It was during this ascent that I realized a few things.  I realized that I am not a good hiker.  I had never hiked before. Not a real mountain anyway, and I didn’t want to be doing it today.  Today I wanted to run. I found myself becoming more and more frustrated.  Knowing I would be dead in the water with a negative attitude, I tried to turn it around.  All I could think of was the movie Happy Gilmore when Adam Sandler’s character says “I’m a hockey player, but I’m playing golf today.”  I was thinking, “I’m a runner, but I’m hiking today.” Happy Gilmore, I understand your frustration! I wanted to cry.

I also realized what it felt like to want to quit, to really want to quit.  I was so frustrated, so over slipping, tripping, stabbing myself with sticks. Over hiking and climbing and trying not to trip down the mountain.  I was done. I knew I would make it to the next aid station before the cut off time. I didn’t care. I wanted to quit.  Then it happened, I thought of my clients.

I asked them to do challenging things all the time and I wouldn’t let them quit.  No matter their challenge I wouldn’t accept their quitting. What would they say if I quit? How could I let myself quit if I wouldn’t let them quit? I actually had this argument with myself, thankfully I was hiking uphill and did not need too much brain power to concentrate on my foot placement. Trudge, trudge, trudge.  I kept going.

I arrived at aid station #4, the 33.6-mile mark, 45 minutes before the nine and a half hour cut off. It had taken 2 hours and 45 minutes to get there from the 25-mile mark. Eight and a half miles, two hours and forty-five minutes. Miserable.


My friends were waiting for me smiling and cheering.  I feigned a smile. I could hardly say anything. I was afraid to open my mouth, I knew that if I did I would cry. 
I have no idea what Katie asked me.  She either asked how it was going or how I was doing.  It didn’t matter the answer was the same “pretty miserable, awful” was all I could manage as my eyes started to tear up.  She gave me a knowing look and just patted my shoulder “you’re doing great”.

I knew I wasn’t.

I’m not sure why, but I kept going.

Maybe 45 minutes later another runner, Dan, came up behind me.  Poor guy, he was trying to be nice and ask how I was doing. Mumble, mumble, mumble. I don’t even remember what I said, but I’m sure that it wasn’t very inviting or positive.  I had a negative remark for everything he said.  I even thought to myself, “Sheesh, just stop with the negativity!” but it kept coming.  He finally said “how are you on the downhill?” 
“Depends on the footing,” I said and off he went.

A few minutes later a thought ran through my head: after the next aid station I would only have 10 miles to go.  I could go 10 miles. I had gone 10 miles so many times during my training.

Then I had another thought: if I finish the race, but it takes more than 14 hours I will be disqualified. There was a strict 14-hour cutoff; cross the line at 14:01 and instead of having that time posted next to your name you would have the letters ‘DQ’.  If I didn’t post official results then this race wouldn’t count in my quest to run a race in each of the 50 states.  I would have to run West Virginia again.  No way was THAT going to happen.  I wasn’t going to be out here for hours climbing mountains and not have it count. 

I have no idea what specifically it was that brought about those thoughts, but I am sure it was something my fellow runner, Dan, had said. I started to run. Hop scotching from rock to rock as I had done some 30 miles earlier. I caught up with Dan at the next aid station.  I was thrilled to learn that we would follow along a creek for almost 2 miles before turned back into the trees and hit more mountain.
“C’mon, let’s run until we have to climb, “ I said as I started to jog away.  He was right behind me.  We must’ve run for a mile or so when my foot slipped on the edge of a rock. Didn’t seem like a big deal, but as I tried to take the next step the pressure on my toes was unbearable. I let out a few choice words and tried to keep going with a limp.  It didn’t take long to realize that wasn’t going to work very well.  I couldn’t tell if my toe was broken or if I had somehow ripped off a toenail. I sat down, took my shoe off, gingerly rubbed my toes and told him to keep going.

I was afraid to take my sock off knowing that if it looked bad I would feel like I needed to take care of it.  If I didn’t look then I could keep going.  Nothing felt too out of place and I put my shoe back on. Nope, that wasn’t going to work.  I took the shoe off again and started to run with my right shoe on and left one in my hand.  That worked for a few yards, but as soon as I stepped on some sharp rocks I realized that it wasn’t such a great idea.  Darn it, not now.

I refused to let it knock me out of the game at this point.  Had my head been where it was a few miles back, I may have gladly used this opportunity to exit. Mentally I was in a different place.  I had decided I was going to finish the race and I was not going to let this stop me.  I put the shoe back on and tried to once again take a step.  No dice. I tried to run. It still hurt but it was better than walking. Ironic, the thing I had wanted to do, that I had been unable to do for hours was now the only thing that I could do.  Thankfully it wasn’t too long before I had Dan back in my sights.

Together we dodged mud, rocks, bugs and sticks on our way to the 46.2 mile mark.  That was the last aid station and I knew that Katie and my friends would be there.  It was somewhere around 6 pm, 12 hours after starting the race, when we reached the aid station.  What a difference 13 miles and a new friend can make.  I was waving my arms in the air and shouting as we approached the stop.  Katie, Jenny, Don and Bobbie were there to greet me with smiles and cheers of their own.  I was truly a different person than the last time they saw me.  The excitement on their faces showed they recognized it as well. 


It’s Dan,” I said. “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for him.”

Somehow in my walking with Dan, I had left behind the hopeless frustration I had felt miles earlier.  It had been replaced with positivity, excitement and a “can do” attitude. 

Dan and I headed off toward The Mountain Institute. We had just under 4 miles to go and had 2 hours to do it.   Crossing cow pastures, scaling barbed wire fences and even doing a little running.  We were closer and closer by the minute. We knew what was waiting for us in the last mile. A half mile climb, pretty much straight up, fondly referred to as “cardiac” followed by a relatively runable path down to the finish.


This last hill was not going to get the best of me.  “Just remember, it isn’t as long as the rest of them,” Dan said.  It was true; this one was only a half mile long.  Then no matter what it was only a half-mile to the finish. 


Dan went on ahead as he is a much stronger hiker than I am. I was doing the best I could; my heart was pounding and I was huffing and puffing. As I got to the top of the hill I took a deep breath serving as both a sigh of relief and a means to return to a normal pattern of breathing. One half mile of grassy trail to go, I was running to the finish.

As I neared the left turn that would bring me down the hill to the finish, I saw Don and Bobbie.  I was so overwhelmed with happiness that I wanted to cry. Crying doesn’t work well while running; I did my best to hold back the tears.  I could hear my name called over the loud speaker as I neared the finish.  Now the tears were really starting to come.

I’ve never been one to throw my arms up in victory as I cross a finish line, but this time I did.  I didn’t even think about it.  With all that I had experienced that day I was so thrilled to have survived and crossed the finish that there was no way you could’ve kept me from doing it.  There, as the sun was setting Katie and Jenny were waiting for me and so was Dan, we had finished.  Not only had we finished before the 14 hour cutoff time, we had finished in under 13 hours! Twelve hours and fifty-nine minutes to be exact.  I couldn’t have been happier. 

Fifty-four people started the race, 28 finished.  It could have very easily been 27.  I had never wanted to quit so badly.  I just wanted to stop the misery I was feeling.  I wasn’t thinking any further into the future.  But now, after having crossed the finish line I was so glad that I did not quit.  I finished.  I did it. It was hard.  It was very hard.  It was the hardest thing I have ever done.  It wasn’t even what I had trained for.  I had trained for running, not mountain climbing. Without Dan’s company and his unknowing gentle encouragement I may not have realized that I did have the ability to succeed in this environment. Had this been any other race, I could have been left behind.  Not in ultra running.

Running isn’t about the actual journey itself, it is more about what we learn on that journey.  I learned that in life there are many things we encounter that we think we aren’t ready for.  Paths that we are sure should be different:  wider, flatter, and easier to traverse.  The thing is those paths don’t really lead us to our ultimate goals.  It is the narrow, steep, rocky path that allows us to really achieve great things, to conquer our fears, our doubts and ultimately ourselves. On these paths in life, with a little help from others we discover more than we ever thought we would.


P.S.

When you are climbing a mountain, literally or figuratively, find someone who has done it before and walk beside them.  Do not expect them to carry you, to do it for you.  You must do it for yourself.  It is only then that you will be able to walk with  the next person and encourage them.

Thank you to everyone that encouraged and supported me- I love you guys!

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