When I sat down to write about my most recent race, I had all these ideas and thoughts swirling around in my tornado-like brain. I had all these directions I wanted to go and I felt conflicted, stuck, and unable to know which way to begin. Mostly because I wanted you to be able to FEEL what I FELT, grasp the gravity of the moments. I wanted you to feel like you were there. And while all that’s true, what I really meant was that I desperately wanted to be understood, to be heard in the most basic and yet profound of ways.
It’s not that this is the biggest, hardest, or longest race I’ve ever done or even dreamed of doing.
But I think it may be the first one I did with a real appreciation for the process, the struggle. My eyes were wide open (or are getting wider open) to who I am and what my motivations deep down really are.
I recently finished reading “Girl, Wash Your Face” by Rachel Hollis and she makes plain something I was struggling to pin down.
And she said it so simply. I think I was trying to make it more complicated in words because it is a complicated feeling.
She talks about others in her life not understanding her and so they often unintentionally muted the parts of her that made them uncomfortable. She goes on to write: “I cannot continue to live as half of myself simply because it’s hard for others to handle all of me”
“Have you spent a lifetime muting yourself for fear of what others will think?” she asks.
These concepts, basically three sentences, opened my mind to a truth I had never fully comprehended before. Yes, I do that!! I mute myself routinely, regularly and without giving it all that much thought anymore. It’s become such a habit in my effort to make sure everyone else is comfortable. I never questioned if I was comfortable. I often wasn’t but somehow that mattered less.
All of this came to my mind as I unsuccessfully attempted to write about myself. Writing, which often comes so freely and easily for me, had stopped. The cap was on the pen.
It was arduous and then I realized it was because I thought I wanted/needed you to hear me and understand me. I thought I needed your validation that what I had done was good enough, OK enough. But also not too much that it creates discomfort between us. I see now I will twist myself any which way to create comfort for you with me.
I have been muting myself so I would be appropriate for all time zones, acceptable in your eyes, likable enough to get invited to the slumber party of life.
God forbid my drive, ambition, and passion to do epic things make you uncomfortable and so I minimize, qualify and make less of what I have accomplished because I fear that it may be hard for others to handle all of me. That I may sound arrogant or overly impressed with myself. I am afraid I will be seen as too…. something; or possibly not enough of something else.
What would happen if I showed up shining the light I bring without concern for what that sparks in someone else?
What if I was unapologetic in my ambition to grow my comfort zone, expand my abilities, and to be a force in my own life?
What if I believed that what I had accomplished was, in fact, an accomplishment; something of which to be proud, and that was simply enough? What if I didn’t need anyone else to tell me what they thought because I was pleased with my effort? I don’t need to hold my candle next to someone else’s in order to determine how brightly it shines.
Now as I look back on Sunday’s race what I think is I covered nearly 50 miles and it was often simultaneously painful, easy, and grueling. The distance forced me to push through dark places, face fear, work through self-doubt and do something that many of you will never fully understand.
Most especially because races like this are experiences. They must be lived through, absorbed and wielded. They change us in the moment to moment living of them and it’s one of the few times in life that their impact is immediate and you are tangling with yourself, the distance, and the difficulty all in real-time.
And while I may pour it all out the best way I can it may not be something you can take in, understand, or even want to.
And I am learning to be OK with that.
Some of the people I admire most are those who have big, bold personalities. They are the “go big or go home” kinds of people.
This is not to mistake them for being unkind. But they are not pleasers. They will not mute themselves for others’ comfort. They will not become human origami in service of another’s fragility.
Truth be told, nobody is served by that. And yet the little pill of people pleasing is sharp and painful and I often forced it down my own throat. It’s taken me nearly a lifetime to spit it back out — to realize it was poison. I don’t have to smile. I don’t have to dress a certain way. I can be as strong, as tall, as bold as I choose. And when that critical voice inside my head demands: “Who do you think you are?” I am learning to be brazen and brave and tell it exactly who I am.
And I am going to tell you about who I was in this 12-hour race. And while I hope you can hear it, I mostly hope I can.
The truth is, I didn’t think I’d ever be here again. In the last two years, life has dealt me some soul-shaking, heart-breaking hands and I thought my running days just might be over. But worse, I was really starting to fear that I was over. The person that I had dreamed, imagined and learned I was — maybe wasn’t. And having an interpersonal crisis like this was, and still is at times, messy. It’s startling how destructive and terrifying rediscovering yourself can truly be.
As I said, I didn’t think I’d ever be here again. Here, being the start of a race with a serious goal in my mind and my heart. And yet, there were so many things that were familiar. I found myself, as I had many times before, staring down the hazy and intoxicating barrel of fatigue and nausea that always seems to be on the nearside of a breakthrough. Hazy because after a while the time, distance and weight of it starts to wear you down. Intoxicating because even through all its trials there’s no place else you’d rather be.
This particular breakthrough was 2 plus years in the making. A breakthrough that came preceded by breakdown after breakdown, collapse after collapse to the edge of decimation. I have been through an emotional and physical roller coaster that I did not understand and that would have many false bottoms. Just when I thought I couldn’t get lower, down further I would go. This road back has been just like an ultra. I should have known. I should have recognized the pattern.
And that’s where this story starts, at the end. Some of the best tales do.
11 hours and 17 minutes into 1 Day for the KIA, I was on the brink. I had two choices:
Stop and end the immediate suffering
Keep going and see just how deep my well runs
But in reality, I only had one choice. I had stopped early many times before. I have frequently resisted going to the pain cave but as famed Ultra Runner Courtney Dauwalter says about the cave:
Don’t crowd the entrance
Go all the way in
Be a productive visitor and leave the cave bigger than you found it.
The pain cave, for the uninitiated, is when you go dark. When you go so far in that you can only really hear what you need to hear, see what you need and everything else is unnecessary noise and chatter. You are so committed that it’s going to be great or it’s going to be a disaster but either way there’s no backing out.
You go dark because everything sane tells you to stop, that you can’t do it, but your heart tells you maybe, just maybe, you can.
And that, my friends, is where I was with 43 minutes remaining. I had a burning heart to finish strong and possibly kiss the sky with 50 miles to show for it.
As the Rollings Stones say, ” You can always get what you want. But if you try sometimes you find you get what you need.”
And that’s just what happened. I didn’t get all that I wanted on Sunday but I did get what I need.
I did get what I need to stoke the fire to train harder. I did get what I need to know what needs improvement. And I got what I need to prove to myself that there is so much more that is right within me before I even embark on those “improvement projects”
But while the beginning and the end of every race are full of adrenaline, excitement and the thrill of personal victory or the agony of defeat, they are the mere slices of bread in a race. The true story is always told by what happens in the middle. The meat of the sandwich, if you will.
Mantras and Missteps
As I mentioned the beginning of races come packed with adrenaline, hope and possibility.
With that we have the tendency to abandon ourselves in a few ways:
We start too fast
We try to keep up with our competitors
We lose our focus
All of this happens in one degree or another in every race.
And in a 12-hour race going out too fast can be a real troublemaker.
Repeatedly in the first few hours I found myself pushing the pace too hard. My breathing told me so, my heart rate told me so but I was trying to see if I could “hang” at a fast pace. Then I had a thought. What if everyone else is doing the same thing and we are unwitting taking each other quickly on the road to ruin?
I started repeating to myself:
Run your own race
Stay in your lane
Keep on your plan
But the slippery one is losing your focus. This one appears in all sorts of disguises:
Spending unnecessary time at aid stations
Slowing down and talking too much
Not eating or hydrating because you don’t want to
Twelve hours is a long time until you realize you don’t have a moment to waste.
Let’s say you blow an extra minute every hour. That’s 12 minutes, that’s an extra mile (at my pace) and boom, you’ve missed your goal mileage by a mere 1 minute an hour. So from the opening siren, you are racing the clock in a million different ways.
How long can I tolerate this?
Do I have long enough?
How much longer?
How fast was that mile?
How slow was that mile?
Embrace the Suffering
You get the idea that if you train hard enough that you can somehow avoid the pain, the suffering.
It’s not true. Your training does two things:
It prolongs the time that you feel pretty good and it boosts your capacity to suffer. That is all.
Training is not immunization, it’s more like taking vitamins and hoping for the best.
But you forget and you get out there and the first hint that the pain is coming arrives and you flinch. And that’s how it was around mile 16.
I still felt good overall. I had just forgotten what it feels like when the harbinger sounds and there’s still 8 hours left!
This is where the race began for me. I had to make a choice, was I going to stay in my comfort zone, what I knew for sure I could do or was I going to go for it. We do this all the time in life. We pull back a little, we aren’t willing to risk going too far. I know I do all the time.
In retrospect, I see that I attempted to straddle the fence on this for a couple of hours. I didn’t necessarily back off but I wasn’t pushing the pace either. I wasn’t being as careful with my time. And then something happened. I saw another female participant and she had her game face on. She was in it. I realized that I wanted to be too. And that was it! I let her be my visual anchor. I couldn’t quite seem to catch her so my goal was to not let her put any more daylight between us, no matter how hard that was.
My eyes were focused ahead and I began running more intervals of the course that somewhere along the way I had started walking. I could see that my training, while not quite full inoculation, had provided me a gear I maybe hadn’t possessed before. I doubled down on squeezing everything out of the race I could.
My average pace began to speed up and I could feel the progress I was making and I recognized I was passing some of the same people over and over again.
And soon, the field was beginning to dwindle. There were fewer and fewer runners out on the 1.05-mile loop.
And then I arrived at 40 miles. I could remember just five years earlier that this had been the pinnacle. This had been a crowning jewel for me. But today it was a benchmark along the way to my goal. However, upon reaching it I was renewed. I started to revive in my mind the goal of 50 miles. It seemed like it might just happened if I didn’t make any mistakes.
Around this time, my husband, who had been at work the last 5 hours or so, returned to the course. As many of you know, he too is a runner and he brought with him all the wisdom and encouragement I needed. He told me when to run, when to walk and regardless of whether I thought I could do what he asked, I complied. I knew that if anyone wanted my goal nearly as much as me, it was him.
I was relieved that all I had left to do was follow his instructions. When he said I had to eat, no matter how bad that sounded I did it because I knew deep down he was right. When he told me to run, I did. When he told me I was doing great, I chose to believe him. He pushed me. I pushed myself. And as I got down to less than an hour, worry and calculations began to really kick in. Just how many miles could I feasibly run in the time remaining?
Twelve hours had nearly vanished and my 50-mile dream was fading so it became how close can I get? With 43 minutes remaining, I didn’t know if I could eek out three more miles.
When we came back around the clock was clicking off minutes faster than I’d like. Not long ago I was praying for that clock to move faster and now I was wanting to buy back time. Did I really have to take that extra bathroom break? Could I have moved a little faster this afternoon? All those choices come rushing back for review.
With a little more than 30 minutes left I wasn’t sure I’d have enough time for 2 more miles. I was at 46.3 miles roughly and the clock was not in a forgiving mood. So I began to run more and harder and around that time the rain that had been promised all day was delivered.
This race was offering up a veritable cleansing. This next time around I knew that the clock would determine if my race was over or if I could keep going. This time the clock read 14:54 and I made the automatic decision to keep going. If I was every going to bet on myself this was the moment.
This is also when I really stopped crowding the entrance of the pain cave. I went all the way in and I, for once, didn’t hesitate.
For the majority of the last mile there was the constant threat that whatever was currently in my stomach was prepared to make an encore appearance. But I kept pushing. The rain came harder and created a thousand little ponds for me and my fellow remaining runners to drown our feet in with every foot fall.
John was getting minute by minute text message updates from my sister who was standing at the race clock.
I assumed I was about .3 mile from the finish and I had about 5 minutes. I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it or not but I knew I wasn’t going to quit. Even if I ran in with no time left I was going to run it out.
The harder I ran, the more it felt like every emotion was rolling on the inside but this was not the time for emotional catharsis. I channeled all the frustration, fear, sadness, anger that I had experienced in the last two years and ran harder and harder and harder.
Then woosh, just like that I blew through the finish line with 2:33 to spare. I ran several feet past the finish (John says, 45 feet). I had my foot on the gas for so long it took a moment to downshift.
When I came to a stop I was overcome. The rain, the voices around me, the voices in my head, the thoughts. It was like being in slow motion. Everything was garbled and jumbled and it took me a second to check back in. And then just as quickly it returned to normal speed and so did I.
That’s how ultras feel. They are like being in an altered state and it’s not just the fatigue and the exertion. It’s having a simple goal all day long. You are only in the moment.
It’s hand to mouth
Moment to moment
Breath by breath
Stride by stride
You have long since released any concern about how you look, feel, you have let go of the past and the future. And you are wholly committed to this one cause. And then like the snap of a rubber band you’re back.
Back in your body, in your life, and it all catches up with you.
The sheer demand you put upon your body shows up.
The full magnitude of exhaustion descends upon you.
And you wonder how minutes before you didn’t feel any of this to the extent you do now.
But what comes with all of this is a sense of satisfaction. A satisfaction that’s so great that it makes all the rest of it worthwhile.
You know, I didn’t think I’d be here again staring down the hazy and intoxicating barrel of exhaustion and nausea… but I am so glad I am!
Sunshine & Sarcasm,
Lowi & G