Exposed

A picture from the 50K trail race at Rockburn Branch Park.

You can do all the training in the world, but nothing prepares the mind for a longer race.

I have trained my body to be able to run 50K trail races. The one thing I was not prepared for was the journey my mind would go on during the races. I have heard so many runners before me say, “Running ultra-marathons is 90% mental.” I acknowledged this, but I didn’t really digest it until I experienced it.

At this point in my running journey, I have ran 33 half-marathons, three marathons, and two 50K races. Last Sunday I ran my second 50K; this time it was in Maryland. From my limited experience, I knew along the 31+ mile race that I was going to experience a low. It seems to be a natural occurrence once I am out there running for more than five hours.

This race was a 5.19 mile loop that we ran six times. The race wasn’t necessarily difficult. In past races, I have run up mountains and have started races at 10,000 feet of elevation. So this was not the most difficult race I have ever run. It actually had a nice balance of gradual hills and smooth down hills. There were places that the trail was level and felt like an open racetrack.

Before the race began, I stocked my running vest with snacks, water, and my Skrach Labs hydration drink mix. I wanted to run two loops before I stopped at my self-made aid station to refill and refuel. I also wanted to acclimate myself with the course.

At the beginning of the race, it was 25 degrees, and the ground was frozen mud. The course was easy to follow, so I was able to focus more on my running than making sure I wasn’t getting lost. I felt good about my first lap. I loved the way the trail surprised me. Each turn around the corner was a new sight. I loved coming up on a small creek crossing where the trail dipped down, crossed the water, and then rose back up. One section was what I would describe as the haunted woods. The tree branches were bent like crooked witch fingers that reached out intertwining with one another. They created an arched hallway to run through as the trail led me uphill. There was a washed out, rocky section that slowly wove up through the forest. I hopped back and forth over the crevice that ran straight down the middle of the trail.

It was these beautiful discoveries that had me smiling and grateful. Even when I was getting towards the end of the loop and the trail turned into a swamp, I gingerly found the non-muddiest route to pass through.

As I crossed over the timing mat to mark my first loop, I was happy with my time. I still had enough fuel to make it another loop without stopping so I continued on. The second loop continued much like the first. The trail was still hard and frozen, so the mud was crunchy and rigid. There were sections I was looking forward to, and I really began to understand the trail and her nuances. During the second loop, a hawk squawked and flew overhead disappearing into the shadows of the bare trees. It was a greeting from Mother Nature herself.

As I was nearing the end of the second loop, I was running out of fuel, and I was starting to crave my salmon jerky and something more substantial to eat. After I crossed the timing mat, I pulled over like a race car driver into a pit stop. I had all my goodies set up and ready to go. I refilled my bottles with water and my sports hydration drink mix, and I grabbed some additional food which included my salmon jerky and pretzels.

After I was stocked up, I started the third loop. Nothing much had changed on the third loop except it began to warm up, so the hard, crunchy mud began to soften and turn to mush. I also begin to walk for the first time in the race, but I still felt strong physically and mentally. I had no plans to stop again at my aid station until after the fourth lap, but I started to feel a blister forming on my foot, so I decided it would be good to stop to get some moleskin.

I finished an uneventful third loop and stopped by my bag. I quickly took my shoe off and put the moleskin over the blister that was starting to rub. It was at this moment I started to have my first doubts. Regardless of what my mind started saying, I begin my fourth lap. I spent the whole fourth lap alone except when I slid and fell on a muddy turn when a faster runner was running by. He was kind enough to stop his fast paced run to check on me. I waved him on and pulled myself back up to continue the run. From mile 15 to 19, I experienced one of the worst times I ever had during a race.

As I mentioned before, I am used to dealing with mental lows in a race. I have had them many times before. However, the lows usually last for a mile or two. Maybe up to 20 minutes and then it drifts away. I will experience a few of those moments throughout a race. This time the low lasted for four miles straight. I had never experienced a dark patch for that long during a race, but for some reason in this race, I only had the one longer low point. During ultra-marathons, I already feel vulnerable and exposed. It seems the negativity knows this and tries to pounce. While I was grateful I only had to deal with one low moment, it was a new experience to have to survive 50 minutes of negative self-talk and anger.

My thoughts started to run rampant. I became angry. I really wanted to quit the race. I began to doubt why I was even running. I found myself swearing under my breath as I tried to navigate the now overly muddy trails. With every slip and slide, a “fuck” escaped between my lips, and then “shit” was spat out, followed by a forceful “damn.” There were also two races being ran: one was an individual 50K race, and the other was a relay team 50K. With the 50K relay team, most runners were running one 5.19 mile loop as opposed to six. As I angrily drudged along, cheerful, fresh, happy runners in clean, sequined skirts said, “Great job runner” as they passed by me. They continued on laughing in their conversation. I hate to admit this, but I wanted to push them all down in the mud. I felt so much anger boiling up. I was mad I was running the race. I was mad at how happy and chipper the relay runners were. I was mad at myself, and I started to doubt my life decisions. I felt like Pig-Pen from Peanuts, except I wasn’t surrounded in filth, I was engulfed in anger. I told myself I was going to quit the “fucking stupid ass race,” and “what the fuck was I doing anyways.”

Somehow in this melodramatic, yet real moment, I had a little clarity. Intuitively I knew if I could just make it through this fourth loop I would be okay. The fourth loop just felt like no-man’s land. I was too far along to still feel fresh and excited, but I was still too far from the end to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I was going to have to gut out that fourth loop.

About a mile before the fourth loop was about to end, I felt the angry cloud lifting. I was able to coax myself to finish the last mile and make it to my aid station.

I felt relieved. I had been caged in my own negative mindset, and I hid the key from myself. When I finally broke free, all I could feel was relief. I restocked and refueled my running vest, and I started out on my fifth loop. On the fifth loop, the temperature was finally over 40 degrees, and the sun began to dry out the muddy trail. I laughed to myself because I had been out there so long I saw the trail turn from hard and frozen to slippery and mushy to compact and dry. I experienced the whole trail cycle in one day and on one run.

By now, I knew I could run two loops. I had survived the fourth loop of nothingness, and I knew it would only improve from this point. With about 2.5 miles left in the fifth loop, a relay runner decided to run with me. At this point, I no longer hated people, and I wanted to give the woman a hug. I might have actually told her I loved her as well. It was so nice to have company. She kept me running as she told stories about her daughter and her job. I just blindly followed her and openly listened. Even when she picked the pace up faster than I really wanted to go at that moment, I just tailed behind her. As we crossed the timing mat to mark the end of my fifth loop, I reached out and put my hand on her shoulder and told her how much it meant to me that she ran with me.

At that point, I had one loop left. I didn’t stop at my aid station, and I just started right into the final loop.

During the sixth lap, two other individual 50K runners met up with me. They both passed me, but we were still all in the same vicinity. I could see their bobbing bodies moving along the trail. I had another hawk fly in front of me then weave through the trees, and a drum line of woodpeckers banged on tree trunks as I made my way through the forest. I felt my energy rise. All of a sudden around mile 28 I decided I was ready to go. All I could think about was my dog back at my travel trailer. I wanted nothing more than to be curled up in the bed with her. So I ran. I ran up the hills, I ran down the hills, I ran past the two runners who had passed me earlier, I ran through the remaining mud pits, and I didn’t stop. I watched my watch change from 28 miles to 29 miles to 30 miles, and I kept running. When I saw the finish line I couldn’t believe it. 7 hours, 5 minutes, and 21 seconds after I started this 50K trail race, I was done.

As I look back, I am so glad I finished the race. I don’t know if that fact was ever in doubt, but I was still happy and proud to have completed a race, of a half-marathon or longer, in my 26th state. I was proud that I overcame my own mental state. It is like playing a game of chicken but with myself. In the moment, I am never quite sure which side of me will win out. The negative, dark voice is loud and convincing. However, some part of me hangs on and reminds me that it is only temporary. It is free therapy.

Out on the trails, I meet the demons of my own making. I am forced to see them and deal with them because there are no distractions and there is nowhere to hide.

Sacred Interaction

Race

My latest adventure had me on a plane to Phoenix, Arizona on May 26th to run my 24th half-marathon in my 18th state. I decided to run a trail race in Kaibab National Forest which overlooks the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. This race consisted of a half-marathon, a 50K and a 50 miler.

Running is one of my biggest passions, and trail running is a seductive extension of that. The trail is like a snake charmer, and I am the snake. I am lured into a trance. It makes me think of something my belly dancing teacher once said when we were learning how to do sword balancing on our heads. She said, “The sword, or whatever you are performing with, is your dance partner. You essentially become one with it. You have to feel it and move with it. The moment you take your focus off your dance partner, the sword, it will fall.” That is exactly how I describe trail running: Nature and I commune as one. It is a sacred interaction. The moment I am not giving the trail my full devotion she lets me know. (I can’t count how many times I have tripped, fallen or skidded up or off a trail). Once I am connected to the trail, I move with her over rocks and roots; in stride, I leap over fallen branches and logs, I wind up and over hills, and hop-scotch over washed away trail sections. Even though trail running is more strenuous and tougher than road races, the reward is much greater for me; trail runs and races are always an adventure.

Even getting to the start of this race was an adventure. Once I was at Kaibab National Forest, I drove 28 miles of rocky, dusty road that twisted through a mixture of Douglas Fir, Aspen and Ponderosa trees. Walls of tan and red rocks were the backdrop, and Kaibab Squirrels were scrambling about with their stark silver tails waving behind.

Once I arrived at the start of the race, which took almost 90 minutes, it was an intimate affair. Between all three races there were 425 runners. Trail runners are a different breed of runners but in a good way. There is an aspect of loving and respecting nature, possessing a certain amount of grit, and mixing in a little bit of bad ass. Trail runners and races seem to be greener as well. Case in point was the bathrooms. There were two rows of 10 “bathrooms” back to back. They were tall, skinny camouflage tents with zippered doors. Upon entering the tents, there was a large yellow bucket with wooden panels over the sides of it and a toilet seat. Instead of the typical blue chemical filled port-a-porties, these bathrooms offered buckets of sawdust and a scooper to cover up one’s excrement. It seems funny to be discussing the bathrooms at a race, but if you are a runner you understand the pre and post-race importance of the bathroom. I loved that this race was thinking and acting in the environment’s best interest.

The three different race distances all started at different times. The 50 mile runners had started their race at 5 a.m., the 50K runners had started their race at 6 a.m., and the half-marathon runners started their race at 7 a.m. The excitement around the starting line rose as the race inched closer to the beginning. Even though the half-marathon started later it was still chilly, which was putting it mildly. Runners were huddled around fires absorbing any warmth they could, and the Ponderosa trees allowed the sunlight to filter through as well.

The race announcer called everyone over and started the countdown to the beginning of the race, and his voice echoed above the crowd, “Three, two, one, Go!” And the 190 half-marathon runners poured onto the trail. I knew from the start I would have to walk parts of this race. We started at about 7,000 feet of elevation and in the first 1.5 miles we would be gaining about 1,000 feet of elevation. This ascent began almost immediately after the start of the race. I hiked this first part as hard and as fast as I could keeping a steady pace, and so did many of the other runners. When the hill, or what seemed more like a mountain, peaked we were met with our first water station and check-in point. One of the things I really love about trail running is the aid stations. Unlike road races that have water stations almost every mile or two with plastic cups, trail races are much more limited due to the trail space, and there are typically more solid foods to eat as well. Since most trail races are green, they don’t offer cups either. You are expected to carry your own bottle and fill it up. At this first station, I checked in and my race bib was marked, and I refilled my water bottle and was able to begin running.

I remember when the first signs of the North Rim of the Grand Canyon began peeping through the trees. I shouted to the runner ahead of me, “Look to your left!” Then I felt a surge of energy and begin pushing ahead. Less than a ½ mile later the view of the Grand Canyon came into full view. All I could say was, “Holy Shit” which I did say aloud. It looked like a proud warrior with his chest puffed out. It was a rich shade of red, and it layered up like a tiered cake. I felt a deep sense of love and joy creeping up from my belly. I felt so grateful to be in this race, on this trail, in this moment. I heard a woman behind me exclaim to her friend, “Oh my God! I think I might cry! I saw the Grand Canyon before I turned 50! It is amazing!” I knew the exact feeling she was having.

After about a mile or so of a steep and slippery, yet rocky, downhill, I entered my meditative zone. My legs felt fresh and light; the trail was calling me to follow her. The trail gently rolled along for a few miles, and I ended up passing 10 people because I felt so damn good. The second check-in and water station was upon me which seemed so quick. I told the race volunteers I loved them because they had potatoes at the check-in station. Potatoes!! So when I am on long runs, the one food item I crave and actually dream of is mashed potatoes. So creamy, so buttery, so potatoe-y. So I happily grabbed a piece of boiled potato, made sure I checked in, and I filled up my water bottle and headed out.

The next section of the race was an out and back. The great thing was this section of the race was all downhill. I was able to coast and use different muscles in my legs. But what wasn’t so great was watching the people struggling coming up the hill I was now running down. I knew what lie ahead, but I stayed in the moment and enjoyed this part of the course.

At the end of the downhill was another steep climb which led to Crazy Jug Point. It was another lookout point, and it was a check-in station. The view just opened up and the vastness of the Grand Canyon could be seen. The red and tan layers of rocks spread out like a buffet. The base of the Kaibab National Forest was covered in green trees and reddish- orange dirt. I stood mesmerized just for a moment to take it in. The view, the air, the joy, the pride, the gratefulness. I said a silent thank-you to the Great Spirit and bowed my head. Then, I marked my bib with the red marker to show I had visited the check-in station, and I was on my way again.

Since this was the out and back section, runners were now headed in both directions, and all the different runners in each race had started to cross paths. The beauty of racing is the camaraderie. With every last runner I passed, we exchanged encouraging words, “Nice job! Keep going! You’re doing great! Good work! You got this!” Some people even offered heartfelt smiles and high-fives. There was a feeling of unity and understanding because we were all in this together. We were having the same shared experiences.

I knew the downhill I just enjoyed was turning into an uphill now. So I turned my run into a fast-paced hike again and just settled into my new pace. While the start of the race was cold and brisk, it was no longer the case. The sun seemingly laughed and was now showing how bright and hot she really could get. I had a hat on, but I pulled the hood of my running shirt up to protect my ears and neck. It actually trapped a nice breeze that flowed down my back.

The hill finally started to yield, and I was able to pick up my pace again. I ended up at the check-in station that I first checked in at before the out and back section of the race started which meant I had boiled potatoes waiting for me again. I made sure to check-in, fill up my water bottle and grabbed a potato. I started down the trail that would eventually lead me to the finish line.

A mountain biker who had unfortunately came out for a ride on this day was trapped among all the racers, but he offered me the best news I had heard all day, “This last part of the trail is all downhill.” I made him promise me he wasn’t lying, and he was convincing enough. So I trusted him, and luckily he was right.

My legs were tired and the day had turned hot, but this was a great section of trail. I had the whole trail to myself. I couldn’t see anyone in front of me, and there was no one behind me either. I was left with my thoughts, the trail, the shade trees and the sunshine.

As I continued my journey down the trail, I started to see runners who had finished the race already and were walking back to their campsites scattered throughout the woods. They shared words of encouragement, “You are almost there! Nice work.” I picked up the tempo of my feet and started to push even harder. I heard another runner who had completed the race say, “You’re almost there; it’s right around the corner. Finish strong!” Just as the runner had stated, the trail suddenly opened and I could see the finish line and the race tents.

As my sweat dripped down and the trail dirt stuck to me, I was covered in proof of my accomplishment as I passed under the finish sign while my fellow runners clapped.