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The Rhythm of the Night

Part 2: The Ul(timate)tra Experience

" the beat of the rhythm of the night, dance (RUN) until the morning light, forget about the worries on your mind, you can leave it all behind..." Rhythm of the Night by DeBarge

The wind was blowing so hard and the rain was pelting the tent so strongly that at times we couldn't hear each other speak. It was the middle of the night and I was eating Poptarts, elevating my legs, and waiting for the race director to walk through the camp and announce that we could go back out on course. I was over halfway through my ultra--exhausted body, burning feet, and blissed out. I spent the entire summer walking and running, and this unexpected, ongoing ultra bliss was my reward. I like to think I earned it. 

Three weeks ago I ran my first 24 Ultra Race. It was a looped course--2.28 miles, with a long out and back first loop, and a short course at the end to help the 100 milers get even miles, they said. Don't ask me how all of that adds up, but that was the set up, and it was perfect for a first timer. You ran, or walked, as many loops as you wanted--it was that simple. You just had to complete the loop for it to count, so there was a short course set up for the last hour so that racers could get as much distance as possible when they didn't have enough time to complete a loop before the race was over. 

There was a camp set up at the start/finish of the loop, and the lap counters were in a tent. The racers had a race bib with a number and timing chip on a strap around the ankle that made it look like we were all on house arrest, except our house was this 2.28 mile loop. As you crossed the start pad you passed the tent with the long table of lap counters, and they yelled out your number so you knew that they had counted your lap. In addition, they cheered and hollered and rang their cow bells, all day and all night, through the oppressive heat and humidity, and into the epic wind and thunderstorm to come. The more hours we piled on, the stronger their encouragement got. That in and of itself was worth the experience. Every person who came out to cheer or run a loop with me was moved by the lap counters; myself, of course, included. 

It's funny, but I am having a hard time recounting the tale. There was so much magic, internally and externally, that I feel stumped to do it justice. I thought about this ultra for a good part of the summer, but did not pull the trigger until a week before the race. I was looking for a nice button finish to my 1,000 mile quest, so I did not expect nor anticipate that this race would be a gift of a blissed out 24 hours because the summer, frankly, sucked. I did have good moments and lots of gratitude, but what I didn't know going in is that it would be such a grind. My summer felt like 92 days of ultras, full of some highs, but many, many, many more lows.  It was an invisible journey to the outside world, but inside my world it was one, long physical & mental slog. It was the relentless pursuit of a mile, regardless of whether or not I felt like it. It was the constant surrender to discomfort, ranging from heat, to blisters, to leg pain, to a surprise medical issue that didn't require me to stop, but made it so much harder to go. But all of that paled in comparison to not ever escaping myself. How many ways there are to abandon ourselves these days!  After the first 500 miles I had burned out on music and podcasts, and I spent the next 500 miles with me--no distractions, no entertainment--just step, step, step, step, step, step, step for miles per day. I had set out to get my mind right around running again. Or maybe just to get my mind right again? At any rate, it's all woven together, and I needed my mind to quit attacking me about running so I could move forward instead of going around in circles. As it turns out in the end, running in circles is what set me free. 

Running a 24 hour ultra in a loop is a good set up for a rookie. I had watched dozens of ultra trail racing documentaries and done a lot of reading, and I had a pretty good idea of what I needed and how things might go without ever having had the experience. Plus, we were at a state park 20 minutes from home and my crew could run out and get what they needed if we came up short. And every 2.28 miles I would be coming back in to camp so I didn't have to strategize much of anything and I didn't have to carry anything with me. All I had to do was run. That's it--just pay attention to my body and run. 

And that's precisely what I did. It took my crew (my crew being my 25 year old daughter and my husband) a little time to get their sea legs, but I reminded myself that was none of my business. I wasn't crewing, I was running. So I ran--nice and steady, rules out the window, feeling my way through. At some point fairly early on, my loops became Fartleks:  run to that tree, to that rock, until I feel like I have to stop, then count to 20, then walk...I was lost in this game. Run to that tree...walk...I think I'll change my shoes at while I sing Rhythm of the, the lap tent!..."Number 48, we've got you!" My day was an endless, bottomless, floating, flying repetition of this. It was blazing sun, high humidity, water, salt pills, rice, nutrigrain bars, chocolate milk, blisters, cowbells, change your shoes, change your shoes, change your shoes. Advil, Gatorade, I'll think I'll sit for 5 minutes. I'm up, grab a bar, oh someone brought some CBD cream, that's nice. My footsteps crunch on the trail; I like the way that sounds. I spent whole loops just listening to that sound, only to find myself at the lap tent again, "Number 48, we've got you!", then cowbells, encouragement.  People I know came out to cheer or run a lap, nine visitors in all. That was so meaningful to me that they came out on a Saturday and stood in the heat just to watch me change my shoes. The course began to clear out, the 6 hour racers were done, then the 12 hour racers. At some point in the evening I went in to the tent and changed all of my clothes. I had to peel them off, and then I stood there naked. I knew what to do--put clean clothes back on--I just couldn't quite seem to figure out how to do it, which I thought was really funny. "Mom, are you okay? What's so funny?" Yes, I was okay. I don't know if I had ever been more okay in my entire life. Emptying your mind is all that its cracked up to be. I didn't feel great, I felt right. I wasn't determined, I was surrendered. I wasn't fighting for anything, I was flowing. I wasn't trying to be positive, I was just all in

A little after the 12 hour mark, they pulled us off course. A storm was rolling in and the lightening was close, so we went in to the tent. I took my shoes off, put my feet up, ate, drank, and waited. Just waited. In my other life I don't give myself those moments--moments with no shoulds. But out in ultra world I just laid there, feet up, wind blowing, waiting. 

An hour and a half later they called us back out. The wind was still wild but the lightening was far away, so headlamps on and off we went. I thought I would be scared, but I wasn't. It was unnerving, but new and electrifying. My footsteps crunching on the trail and the wind whipping through the trees was music. And in that moment I began to understand, the summer worked. My summer of 1,000 miles worked. My legs were like steel and my spirit had taken back the reigns. My mind was staying in its lane, and this is what it meant to feel free.  

We finished the loop, past the cheery lap counters, and into camp. Had I headed right back out I would have bagged another loop, but I had to pee--just enough time to miss the cut off. It was a little before 11pm, another storm was rolling in and we were once again pulled off course. By all accounts it would likely be between 2-3am before we could resume. This storm was going to be a big one. 

I have little recollection of what we did for the next few hours.  I know that we slept a little. I know that the storm woke us up and we all just stared at each other and started laughing; it sounded like the wind would pick us up and carry us away. I know we snacked, a lot. I know there was a lull in the storm and we made a break for the car for blankets. I passed the lap tent when I ran for the car, and all the counters smiled and waved, coffee cups in hand. Back in our tent you could hear some racers packing up camp and heading out, while other racers were strategizing making up the lost time. We learned that the race director would come through camp with a bullhorn when we were allowed back out on course, so we wrapped up in our blankets and waited some more. Our tent was on loan from my coach, and it stayed upright and kept its' occupants dry through the whole night. I was so happy in that tent--happy to sit there, happy to be in the middle of the storm, happy listening to the plans being made in the tents around us, happy to hear the faint laughing from the lap tent; and I was equally ready to get back out there when we got the green light. Going in to the race I had a goal of 50 miles, and at the 12 hour mark I was easily on my way to surpassing that. But that was no longer on my mind. I wanted to get back out there, not to get miles but because I didn't want to miss anything. Imagine that--the only thing on my mind was that I only had 24 hours and I didn't want to miss any of it. 

By 3am we were back on the trail--some rain and wind, but no lightening. I know that first loop out was tough after sitting for so long, but other than that the rest of the night is much like the whole experience--a blurry, dreamy collection of moments. I remember runners hammering towards their goal but still connecting; race volunteers heading in the opposite direction on the loop to check on racers and give a cheer; the light from my headlamp hitting the path; and that intoxicating crunching sound of feet hitting the trail that I love. And I remember the hot coffee at the aid station at 4am--hands down the best cup of coffee I've ever had. 

At 6am we were on the last portion of the loop that ran along the road, and my daughter's friends drove up alongside us. They were here to cheer and run, at 6am. For the next hour they helped at camp and ran a lap. At 6:50am we crossed the timing mat, with an hour and ten minutes to go until the end. Back at camp I texted my coach:  What should I do? The short course opens in less than 10 minutes. I could probably make it another loop, but my legs are so stiff and heavy that I have not been able to will them in to a run motion for the past hour, and I don't want to risk not finishing the loop. Should I try for one more, or go to the short course directly? I immediately got a text back saying:  

“One more one more!!!!! You got this shit,Diane—1 hour!!!! 

So out I went, flanked by my daughter's friends, running out of camp. That's right, running out of camp! I don't know where it came from, but I was running. The sun was up, I was awake, and I was running. For the first time in 24 hours I was out of my flow state and pushing. Even out of flow, even 23 hours in, I knew the summer experiment had worked. I had changed. It wasn't just some one off, magical 24 hours--change had really happened. We came up to the lap tent at 7:30am. "Number 48, we've got you!" The girls headed back to camp, and I ran to the short course for my final 30 minutes. 

I crossed the timing pad on the short course and started my loop, assuming this last part would be anticlimactic since we were ending such an epic experience in a little parking lot, going around and around orange cones in a .07 mile lap. There were 3 officials in chairs and each time you crossed the timing pad one would yell out your number and the other two would write it down, making sure all of your distance got counted. There were 30 runners left in the race, and about 10 of us were on the short course at 7:30am. Every few minutes the parking lot got a little more packed with runners finishing their last big loop and joining in, and by 7:50am we had a full house: limpers, walkers, joggers, runners, sprinters, and pacers. The three officials were in full swing yelling numbers and counting laps; the volunteers gathered and so did friends and family; the race director came down with his bullhorn to shout encouragement and count down the minutes to 8am. The girls had run a few laps with me, then they jumped out and my daughter joined in. She and I started running again, and then she ducked out with about 3-4 minutes left, and I started to sprint. I don’t know where it came from, but I was full of energy and gratitude and I was hauling ass--sprinting and crying and empty and happy, running in circles with 29 other nuts thinking I JUST DID THAT! I'm 54 years old and I just did that!

At 8am sharp the air horn sounded and the crowd cheered. It was, hands down, one of the most meaningful moments of my life. I walked over to my daughter and husband and sobbed--not from relief or even exhaustion--I believe it was joy. When I calmed down I stepped back and looked around. I turned to my little crew, and said "What the f**k just happened?!" WTF indeed.

The sun was shining. It was Sunday morning. I walked back towards the camp, but as I got there the camp was almost gone. I sat in a chair eating the snack my daughter left out for me while my family finished packing up. We took the last load to the car and I turned around for one more look, but there was nothing to look at. Just like that, it was all gone; not a clue that anything had just happened. No lap tent, no aid station, no tables of food and water. No lights, no music, no cones. No little village of tents and canopies and chairs and runners and pacers and volunteers. It was like Brigadoon: we had stepped through some veil and all had this experience together—this hot and humid and sunny and dark and dangerous and stormy and painful and joyful experience together, with food and music and cheering and cowbells and loop after loop after loop…and there was no sign of it anywhere.  Well, except for the dirt on my legs, the smile on face, and my quiet mind.

"...come join the fun, this ain't no time to be staying home, Ooh, there's too much going on, tonight is gonna be a night like you've never known, we're gonna have a good time the whole night long..."

(Later that morning I got the official results:  

  • I ran 49.33 miles. I laughed, because that's funny:  .67 miles away from my goal. I was also very pleased--I got to my goal in 19 hours, leaving me wondering what I might have done with 24. 
  • 15 women (of all ages) finished the 24 hour run, and I got 6th. )