I was at work today, lost in thought. My mind was wandering and I spilled some water, and then I flashed on myself pouring water down my pants a couple of weeks ago because my pants were stuck to my skin. I started laughing because that's funny, but back in that moment I was thinking This genuinely hurts! and Umm, why do I do this again?! But let me back up...
I ran a trail race a couple of weeks ago--a 17 mile trail race that I was ready/not ready for. I hadn't run any races yet this year, but I am signed up for an ultra in June. I'm training, but at the same time I'm also kind of floundering. About ten days before the trail race I show up to a training session with my coach, and he's staring at me intently and says "What are you doing April 9th?" Ut oh. He's done this a couple of times before and I know what it means now: he's got an idea and it's going to hurt. And for whatever reason, I always already know I'm in before I even hear it.
And he did have an idea--a trail race. A 17 mile trail race. A gnarly, post Minnesota winter, who-knows-what-the-conditions-will-be trail race. On a bluff. With 2300 feet of elevation gain. He said I was ready for it, that I could do it. He said it would shake the rust off. He said it was good for the ultra. He said he was running it and his girlfriend was running it. He said he thought it would be good for me. Immediately I kind of knew he was right but I said I'll think about it, which is all I did for the next 24 hours. And then I signed up.
I spent the next nine days backing out, and then back in. Yes, I'm doing it. No, I'm not. Yes, I am. No, I'm not, but I'm getting my gear ready. Yes, I am, and thank god my gear is ready. I got an email from the race director with all of the logistics (and my corresponding thoughts in parantheses):
- Here is a map to the race course. Print it, because you will likely lose cell coverage on the way in. (Yikes, it's remote.)
- Here is an alternative route to the race start in case the roads are bad. (Hmm...)
- The race course is a 17 mile loop. There is one unstaffed water stop at mile 5. There is one staffed aid station at mile 13.5. Plan accordingly. (So, no DNF'ing this race. Once you start you can't stop. I mean, you can say you're stopping, but you still have to finish because it's one big loop. So I can announce "I'M DONE", but if a runner annouces I'm Done in the forest and no one hears her, did she even make a sound?)
- There is no cell coverage along the course, except possibly on top of the bluff. (Okay...)
- You should study the race course ahead of time. (That will not help me when I'm out there by myself--I won't remember what I studied.)
- The course is marked with orange flags on the left side of the trail. If you see flags on the right side of the trail, you are going the wrong way. (Noted.)
- There are a few exit/rescue points if needed. See map. (But, how will you know I'm there waiting to be rescued? see above: no cell coverage. And how will I even know I'm there? see above: memorizing map issues)
There were more scare tactics but I don't remember them. To be fair they weren't meant as scare tactics, it was race information, but I took them that way. I think it's called a gigantic lack of confidence. So in my head I waffled, but my coach wanted my decision by Wednesday morning before the race. I showed up to our training session Wednesday morning and said yes, I'm in. He said he was glad to hear I made the right decision (cheeky) and that if I had decided not to run the race he was going to have me run 17 miles for training anyway (even more cheeky). Of course, I continued to waffle privately, but did everything I needed to do to prepare for race day, including showing up to the start line.
I will not bore you with the details of the next 5 hours and 40 minutes, except to say there were (to me) epically steep and scary and rocky ascents and descents, and difficult to navigate muddy ascents and descents, and a single track full of sand that went on for a very long time, and the hardest fall that I've ever taken in my life that, unbeknownst to me, smashed the GU energy gel in the pocket of my running tights, which then dried and glued my tights to my skin over the next ten miles.
I came across the finish line in the time my coach projected would be a great time for me, considering the course and where I am currently in my running and training. I was completely dazed. I spent 5 hours and 40 minutes with my entire being focused on the trail--navigating every move, tripping, falling, concentrating, strategizing, then running, then tripping, then running again. The crowd was thin by the time I finished--I don't think you can even call it a crowd. I was numb and empty and felt like something had just happened to me. I've never been on such a hard course. My 24 hour race last year paled in comparison to this experience.
I walked across the now mostly empty field that had been packed with cars 6 hours ago. My little Toyota Corolla sat all by herself, patiently waiting for me as she's done for countless races. Everything in me was shot, including my ability to think. I opened up the doors and the trunk and then sat in the drivers seat drinking water and eating fish crackers, one of the few remaining snacks at the finish line. After a few minutes I remembered I brought clothes to change into, so I got them out of the trunk and sat back down in the drivers seat. There was a picnic table not too far away full of men who had clearly been there awhile drinking their post race beer, but I thought That outhouse is way over there...I have my door open and I can change behind it quickly, so no big deal, I'm changing here. I should note--I'm not well coordinated nor am I moving fast after a six hour long experience like that, not to mention I'm a little shaky. I took off my socks and shoes and got my sweat pants ready, but as I started to remove my tights I felt a ripping pain on my leg. My tights were stuck to my leg. Let me be clear--it wasn't sticky, it was stuck. Like glued. Now my pants are halfway down, I am in my underwear and I have a car door between me and a bunch of dudes. My pants are truly stuck but I can't bear the thought of pulling them back up and driving 2 hours home like that. So I stand there, in my underwear, and say outloud "Why do I do this again?"
I finally realize that the GU packet in the pocket of my tights must have burst when I fell, so I decide I can pour water down my pants, rehydrate the GU, and unstick my pants from my skin. And after almost an entire bottle of water my pants were off. It took another bottle to get all the gunky GU off my leg, and then I walked around to my trunk in my underwear to get a towel to dry my leg so I could put on my nice, warm sweatpants because who really cares? Not me in that moment, that's for sure. Go ahead and look at me in my underwear--I've got bigger fish to fry. Like, how do I start for home in the right direction without my GPS? And, can I even drive for two hours? But mostly: Why do I do this again?
I thought about that all the way home. I had hit my projected time, so I must have been pushing? But we started with almost three hundred runners, and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out I'm one of the last runners across the line. Why do I do this again?
Miraculously I didn't get too far off course before my GPS kicked in, and I found my way to the main highway. I stopped to use the bathroom and to get something to drink, and the messages from my coach came through. He was thrilled with my finish and so proud that I showed up and gave it a good effort, especially after how unusually scared I was to do this race. He wanted to know all about it. We texted back and forth over the next day or so, and he assured me that it was a very difficult, technical course and that being on my feet and concentrating for that long takes a toll, and everything I was feeling was totally normal. He said that you can't push for almost 6 hours--that you have to ebb and flow. And I believed him. And I trust him. But I still felt undone.
I got home at 5:30pm, almost 12 hours from the time I left that morning. I showered and went to bed, and woke up at 11pm with the worst flu I've ever had. It was fast and furious for eight hours, and then retreated as swiftly as it had come on, leaving me wrecked from an epic 24 hours. I slept for almost two days, and then woke up changed. I appropriately felt as if I'd been hit by a truck, and I was grateful for it. I have felt for so long like it is a character flaw that I learn in the extremes, but something about this experience this time started to change that. I learn out on the edge; it's just the way it is. I'm beginning to get it, and I kind of think my coach already knows.
I still have not totally reconciled my end of the pack finish, but that's another post. As for Why do I do this again? It's simply because something always comes from it. Always. When I find myself on a Saturday afternoon in a field, in my underwear, exhausted and trying to unglue my tights from my leg, I know that I just gave my all to something. I know that I took a risk. I know that even though I just got beat up, I actually won the fight because I faced some fears and insecurities.
As I drove home I thought NEVER AGAIN, but now I'm wondering if I could finish in 4 hours and 40 minutes instead of 5 hours and 40 minutes. So I will keep going. I will keep training. And when I inevitably arrive another time at Why do I do this again?, my running angels (or my coach!) can simply say Because we said so and, in this realm, that's enough for me.