Yesterday I ran the Lord Hill 20 mile trail run (check it out here)and it was the most educational run I've gone on in a while. Going into it I had mixed emotions (all of which I explained in great depth to pat the whole way there. Thanks, dude:)), the first of which was a lot of worry. The fact is, I have been running more or less every day for the past three weeks (is that all?!) and working out at least twice a week (a puny 15-minute routine of the mainline runner stuff), but nothing more than 6 miles- maybe 7, but a short 7 and usually a tired 7 that left me irritated the next day. I haven't even taken my confidence-building 10 mile joy run that I usually turn to in preparation for things like this. I've just had a lot of other things on my mind. And then suddenly the race was here. I took Thursday and Friday off because I was sore from Wednesday's 20 minute shuffle through my neighborhood. It did not look good.
And this all is very telling for me. I do need a lot of long run prep for longer races; I just do. But I have always suspected that the preparation was 40% physical and 60% mental. When the gun goes off (or the man hollers "GO!")and I start to panic my brain needs to know empirically that I can do what I have set out to do. Empirical data has been my MO for staving off panic for years and years in a plethora of situations. It's funny when I really consider it and think about me as a person and how I tend to behave in most situations...
but everyone has a place they go in panic and its not always something they're proud of. For me, the place I go is called 'frantically searching for hard proof that one can restabilize.' And running seems to be the only sure-fire way of encountering this sort of panic. I suppose it thankfully doesn't happen too often in my life and usually if it does, I can quickly disengage from whatever has brought it on. But races aren't like that. Somehow the thunder of footfalls, the upward twisting of the path, the warmth of the sun and my own gasping lungs transplant me to that prehistoric time when running meant survival. And here my own evolutionary code locks me in my place in the middle of the pack, and there's no turning back.
THE RACE- ONLY THE BEGINNING
Yesterday was no exception. It didn't help that the first 2 miles of the course were the worst, but before we'd even gotten into the woods, I was bottoming out. Why did I think I would be able to do this? I haven't been training, I haven't run this intense of hills (even the ones in Queen Anne just don't compare). The sun was already warm,I hadn't hydrated properly or eaten much. And I'll just be honest with you- I started my period on the way to the woods that day so those horrible stomach pains hadn't just been anxiety; they were here to stay. No one would blame me for dropping out. The the animal instincts kept me locked to the trail for a few more moments, but I felt bulky and strange, unused to running. My legs were already full of lead, and I was hardly able to catch my breath. Every time I heard the words '18 more!' in my head the panic was so huge I almost started to cry, my breath became so ragged that I thought maybe my old friend panic attack was back and my throat got tighter at the thought. Then we turned into the woods. This is where you relax, I told myself. This is where you find your peace.
And the woods were beautiful, and calm and the hills rolled out beneath me, little climb, little descent. I looked straight ahead and hung on.
And then a miracle happened. Though there were about 200 runners, the first brutal climbs had spread us so thinly that I was already mostly alone. There was the occasional flicker of color through the trees or the sound of crunching behind me, but mostly just the sound of my own breathing. Out of nowhere a woman came up beside me. We commented on the brutal hills, I asked her if she'd run with Evergreen before. No. Well, they don't mind throwing them atcha. We talked about races we'd run before. She's done a handful of marathons and even a few 50ks. Today she was running the 20 just like me. The light became beautiful through the trees and we pitter-pattered along, scrambling up single track hills, enjoying the wider fire roads. We talked about shoes, the state of washington, the stinging nettles on the trail. Then we hit the aid station. It had only been 53 minutes and here we were at mile 5! (I actually think the first aid station is about 4.5 miles in, but still) Could I do this three more times? I asked myself. And the answer was emphatically yes. The trail was beautiful and I was flushed with... not competence or even relief from panic, but just the happiness of being out there, of doing that animal thing: running through the woods, and doing that human thing, too: meaning.
And this is only possible because my running friend (I never learned her name) had one of those fancy watches that tells you how far along you are. Looking at my watch (which was counting minutes for me, but nothing more) I thought we might be nearing the ten mile mark. The course was set up as two ten mile loops which meant that when you finished the first loop you were right where you had started but also right where you would eventually finish. I wasn't looking forward to the temptation to pack it up and get out of there, but at the moment I felt hopeful. Anyway, I asked her if she thought we were almost there, and she told me we'd run only just over seven miles. This was a very helpful piece of information. I did not, therefore, spend the next three miles exhaustedly searching for the parking lot. I knew I wasn't going to see it any time soon. And I felt fine about it.
[side note: Patrick ran the 5 mile course. When we got there and he saw how pretty it was, and realized how long he would be waiting for me, he signed up. Dressed only in a jeans and t-shirt, he was determined to do it anyway, but a nice man took pity on him and gave him an extra pair of shorts. So sweet. It took him somewhere between an hour and 1:15 to finish and guess what? he got all of those brutal climbs in the beginning. Poor guy is sunburned and unhappy now, but I think pretty proud of himself also.]
So when I came down the hill to the parking lot there he was, in a billowing pair of shorts and looking awful. Kristin, I feel like shit! was his greeting and I hugged him hello. Good job! I said and rushed over to get a drink of water. Sadly my running partner decided to call it a day since her boyfriend and friend had already finished and were waiting. I told her that I couldn't have done it without her, and it was true. But another thing: I was not even remotely tempted to end my race here. I actually felt pretty fabulous. Pat had collapsed; I couldn't find him to say goodbye and start my trek back up into the woods alone, but I didn't mind. I set off. I had rolled in about 2:12 but with the bathroom and eating, it was about 2:20 when I left.
Here were the same climbs, the tiny paths twisting endlessly upward, and yeah, I walked most of the uphills the second time around, but I was totally transformed. HERE is where I relaxed. Every sense was glowing with peace. It might have helped enormously that Pride and Prejudice began playing on my iPod. Sweet minimal piano music that seems set to trees and flowers. I ran when I got to the woods, aware the my body was much weaker, but that feeling- that sort of broken feeling was gentle, even luxurious as I allowed myself to look up, around and just enjoy the scenery. Being alone was a luxury- being alone and not panicked was even better. This is what I love about running: how it totally breaks your heart and leaves you with compassion for yourself and the whole world. The kindness it allows you to inhabit.
Here is where I met the beast. After the aid station I felt pretty good. Mentally I knew I was nearing the end, but the trail was still pretty strenuous. It was amazing the loops I had glossed over chattering with a friend that totally exhausted me now. I followed a creek bed straight up for about a mile and a half and said to myself 'Okay, yeah, I probably shouldn't have done this race. I'm done and I can't really do any more.' At that point I looked down at my watch- it had been 4 hours exactly. And I laughed. Behind all that panic, I had four hours of running in my lungs and bones before I really felt done. And behind that I apparently had another hour of pushing some more. And this point the trail dipped down onto a fire road and I passed a lot of hikers. I rocked out to Regina Spektor on my headphones, a little Patty Griffen and before I knew it, I came upon the meadow where we started. I had about a mile left to go.
It was peaceful walking up the rolling hills, pattering down, shuffling along and watching every step carefully- I was very light-headed and prone to tripping. I was also extremely thirsty. Then suddenly ahead of me there was a man. He had hiking poles and got them out for every uphill, then picked them up and slung them in his pack for the downs. He looked totally cool, totally hydrated, like he could do this all day. I caught up with him. Are you done? I asked. No, he replied, I've got another loop. This didn't seem to bother him. You? Done, I said. Congratulations, he said so warmly that I almost choked up. I was feeling very, very relieved. He gave me some advice on running longer distances in the heat, I told him he looked very cool for having such a long way to go. Honestly,he said, I feel great, I'm just relaxed. I might go around two more times.
We ran in together chattering about the course and crossed the tape without a fuss. There were the remnants of the Evergreen support people offering us chips, watermelon, bagels and burgers all on reusable plates. Are you done? they asked me. Yes, I told them, and looked at my watch: 5:08:56. Just 56 seconds longer than my worst marathon time. Also 56 seconds longer than I've ever been out there before. But I've literally never felt happier after a run.
To sum up, the things I learned:
1. I can actually run 4 hours, so relax!
2. salt tablets are a must on warm days
3. a little chit-chat can go a long way
I recommend Evergreen to anyone. They are a great group of people who really care about their sport.