The race info claimed the distance to be 101.7, but on race day, Garmins were recording longer distances, and at the finish, the RD said the distance was close to 105.
One thing is for certain: in the end, at least for me, the actual distance didn’t really matter. It is as they say, all about the journey.
By the end of 2012, I had learned to apply one of life’s most important lessons: that in any endeavor, friends–in this case especially of the ultra running variety–are essential. Somehow, they found me. And so it came to be that I started running less often by myself, and more often with these good friends–some of them seasoned toughies. They are jewels–crazy diamonds. They are family. Like good friends do, they inspire by example, and they encourage. They, um, convinced me that I should try for this distance. Always keen on a new adventure, it seemed a realistic bet. A starter “100.” Nice’n flat. Virtually no technical trail. Close to home on a surface my feet already knew. 3 months to train. I had only to sign up, run long, plan, and work up the nerve.
Our start/finish line was a conveniently positioned rotted log on the edge of a field near a pavilion on a hillside in a camp called Manadokin, several feet above the Potomac river, just north of Harper’s Ferry, WV.
From here, we bounded down over the hill, switchbacking through the woods on a newly laid path to the river. The last portion of this was a gully so vertical it required the aid of a rope to get back up, but over-all the whole decent to the river was short, and took about 10 minutes to traverse. (Going back up was a different story, and we did that at the half way point as well as the finish.) From there, it was tow path. Tow path. Tow path. Tow path ad infinitum, it seemed at times. But we knew what to expect in that regard.
The rain held off, and the weather was good, around 40F at the start and climbing to around 70 Saturday afternoon, then dropping back down into the 40s again at night.
It is a newly organized race, and knowing that that meant a crap shoot when it comes to aid, I packed all but the kitchen sink in my drop bags, and carried half a gallon of water, 1300 calories, electrolytes and first aid on my back at all times. This proved a wise move. Though the stations proved well-stocked, and the volunteers stellar in their enthusiasm and helpfulness, there were some long stretches between aid stations, including one particularly long stretch where an only partially manned station ran out of water when the sun was at apogee and the temps were at there highest. This proved problematic for some runners, but was a short-lived problem, and many volunteers quickly rushed to man the station, and by the second quarter of the race, had found it a better location, and restocked it well.
I knew but one other person racing, my friend Tom, and he was too speedy for me to run with, so I had figured I was in for running most of the race alone. Typically I race alone, but for this distance, I thought some company might be a benefit, and hoped to maybe find a pacer later on or at least make some friends along the way.
At first I ran with a group in tight formation. We joked and talked about the course, shared names and tidbits of our lives and race experiences. Many of the names escape me now, but there was a Jim and a Paul and John, and a couple of Marys later on.
Then we fractioned, falling into smaller groups organized by pace, and I ran mostly with John, who turned out to be a neighbor–living but 3 miles away from me and right along one of my regular running routes. He and his wife, like my husband and me, are musicians and we had a lot to talk about. We quickly made friends and wound up running together for around 60 miles.
At the half way, I climbed the hill to the camp where we started, with plans to change clothes, eat, and call my husband. I was making good time, and arrived earlier than I expected. As I climbed the final portion of the hill, I saw Tammy, an amazing runner I knew from the Reston Runners club, and from the JFK. She was there to pace a friend, and to log in some miles in her training for Badwater.
And then another surprise, my dear, dear husband showed up with hugs and kisses and a jeep full of good food. He arrived almost exactly when I did, his timing perfect as usual. He helped me change clothes, and fed me well. I would have never thought I could be lured out of a race, but I was so overjoyed to see him, I wanted to stay. He kindly refused to take me with him, and sent me back out to finish.
From the half, John and I continued to run together for a while, but as night was coming on, he was having stomach issues, and not feeling so hot. And being a night runner, I was just getting a second wind.
Around that time, mile 60+ something, at an aid station, Tammy showed up, offering pacing services to anybody as her friend had had to drop out, so from there, I ran with Tammy. An experienced pacer and seasoned ultra runner, she was extremely accommodating, and soon had me in stitches with crazy tales of the trail. The last 40-some miles are a bit of a blur. I ran strong at first, but my walk breaks grew longer and longer. The temperature dropped rapidly after midnight, and my good pacer made certain I donned more layers, changed my shoes and ate enough calories. My stomach grew squeamish, and I stuck mostly to gels and water, occasionally choking down some fresh fruit or a quarter pbj.
The trail was dark despite the moon, and would have been desolate for long stretches had Tammy not been there. At one point, we saw the headless body of a rabbit, freshly killed, on the trail, and pondered what had eaten it. Then we made jokes and stories about it for miles.
She kept with some silly bathroom stories to keep me focused, light-hearted and smiling. She played a trick on an old running friend at an aid station to conjure laughs from the volunteers.
At mile 90ish, I called my husband with an eta. It was a rough time. There were runners at the aid station who didn’t look like they would carry on. It was cold, and I was feeling it now. One of my gloves had gone missing from my drop bag, and my other pair were over 10 miles back. Tammy gave me hers.
We pressed on, and she told me about many of the things she had learned from the 13 100-milers she had under her belt, about what it takes to be a good pacer or a good aid station volunteer, about training for Badwater and running Western States, about being stocked by a cougar on a training run, and about her mountaineering husband falling off a mountain. The miles ticked off. The night grew colder. Dawn came. I watched it grow lighter until I could take off my head lamp. I hallucinated, seeing furniture and statues in the forest. Once a log became a bronze ram, beautiful and shining. My mind drifted.
“…Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music: – Do I wake or sleep?”
— “Ode to a Nightingale”
I laughed at myself, and ate another gel.
When we rounded the bend into Harper’s Ferry, you could see the road, and just then my husband drove by. He saw us, and waved, pulled off up ahead, and ran down the trail. I still had miles to go, but it was so good to see him. We stopped for a picture, and he left to drive a few minutes to the finish, while Tammy and I would still be running–mostly walking by then as my left foot had blistered up pretty badly–to the finish.
Tammy planned to take me as far as the hill, but she refused to climb it. She’d run Western States, but refused this hill? I laughed. We made jokes about the 100-miler plus tough mudder hill challenge at the end. She would instead, run back to the last aid station to pace another runner in to the end. It made for a good 50 miles worth of pacing duties. I was so grateful for her help, I didn’t know how to properly thank her. She said she usually has people do her laundry. In a final gut-busting laugh, I raced up the hill to be greeted by the RD, buckle in hand, smiling finishers and volunteers, my friend Tom’s family, and my beaming husband.
After enlightenment, the laundry.
According to the race recap, 101 had registered to run and 90 toed the line at the start. 49 made it to the finish line. It took me 25 hours and 24 minutes. (I had estimated it would take me somewhere between 23 and 26 hours, but I was aiming for 101.7 miles.) I came in 18th over-all, and 6th for the women. My friend Tom took 4th place.
The hard knocks and growing pains of a poor running year; it brings to mind for me, somewhat melodramatically, the cold, unforgiving north face of K2.
Ah, I looked back at 2010, what a great running year! In the Spring I PRd at Boston, and by Fall ran two 50-milers two weeks a part, one of them my fastest 50 ever, and all year ran fast and strong. When the new year rolled around, I was ready to tackle 2011 with a renewed confidence. But 2011 proved a rather rough running year. I trained diligently, but noticed little gains other than a little weight, and instead felt the drag of constant fatigue. I raced, but not so well as the year before, ran some enjoyable races: a mountainous 50k early in the year, another Boston, but this year more slowly, 36 miles of a 200-mile relay, and a slow all-night 50 miler in the summer. Everything seemed just a bit less energized than in 2010, and then in November, I even experienced my first DNF. The race, a mountainous 50-miler, started alright, but I was feeling seriously low on energy, and was barely making the cutoffs. I had to make a critical decision to pull out half way, rather than continue lest something be really wrong, and I’d end up stuck for a long time in the mountains or worse. I made the best of it. Even inwardly applauded my courage at hanging it up for safety. I met other runners–some plenty more seasoned than myself–who just weren’t having a good race day either. We swapped stories, went to the finish and saw the winners come in. Outwardly, I was feeling alright about it. DNF is par for the course when the number of races goes up, especially long distances, but part of me was still having trouble dealing with it. That night, I cried myself to sleep.
I wanted to write about it, but every time I tried, I couldn’t muster the courage. I felt so much shame around it. Though I knew it was unrealistic, even childish, and something I needed to get over, I faltered. I tried to look at the bigger picture, reminded myself not everyone is able to run, let alone run in the mountains, and I would even get to do that another day. Running is such a lovely gift. DNF teaches that it should never be taken for granted. I assessed the year: there were good experiences that year, for sure, delightful new races and adventures, and the trying experience of running and acclimating during the summer heat wave. I tried to put a positive spin on it all, but the over-all assessment showed me falling short in nearly all my efforts. Fortunately, in the Fall, I studied intensively and received my RRCA coaching certification. The experience was invaluable. I was able to nail down a number of patterns in my training that might likely have soured my year, and it enabled me to help others to a degree I could not have before. One of the very best parts of running for me is being able to share the joy of it. I can’t help but get excited when I find out a friend has taken it up, or someone I know decides to run a marathon. Heck, in such instances, I can hardly contain myself. I must drive everybody crazy with enthusiasm. So more knowledge and confidence to help others was a major victory for the year.
But I still felt the DNF like a black eye.
“Did Nothing Fatal” some call it.
I bathed it in positivity.
D-ownright N-othing less than F-abulous, I dubbed it.
“DNF is par for the course in any ultra runner’s history,” I once wrote before I had ever experienced it, and now reminded myself, “because so many things have to come together to make a race that distance possible. Weather conditions and your health being the biggest, but also even tiny things can blow a race when you are going long: a blister can become a disturbing mess, a small sprain can become a major injury. Even a little chafing over a long enough period of time can take you out of a race, or at least reduce the experience to misery. When longer periods of time are involved, even tiny impedances wear like water on stone.”
To make the matter worse, my attempts to write about it proved more sorry than the actual DNF. I started, but never finished:
“I attempted my second MMTR on Saturday, and had some elusive low energy issues–was moving far too slowly and had no energy, though I was fueling well from what I could gather. I ended up dropping out of the race half way through and got my first DNF. I made all of the cut–off times and could have continued through the second half of the race, but knew I would be slower and not make the final cut off time, and worried something might be seriously wrong, so I made a hard decision to drop. I went through some strong negative emotions, shame, disappointment, and sadness, But it was a valuable experience–in fact I may have learned more from this race than any other so far. It was a good lesson that even if things don’t go as well as you had hoped or as you had planned, there is still so much to learn and positive things to experience. I made some new friends, got the perspective of others who had to drop out for various reasons–some of them far more seasoned and wise, and got to go to the finish early and congratulate the elites as they came in. And I still got a long run in the beautiful mountains and came out of it without injury.
I hope you never have to drop out of a race, but if sometime you do, please remember there is no shame in it. You will go on to race another day. Just thought I would share this as a reminder that there is a gift in every running experience–sometimes especially the failures. “
Afterward, though I believed what I had written, I realized my heart wasn’t fully in it. How could I tell others there is no shame in it when I still felt ashamed? I decided to wait. I simply had to get over the ill emotions first. That took longer than I expected. December is a rest month for me, and I didn’t race again until March. And then I ran a miserable marathon–managing to get sick with a virus and finish more slowly than I had ever raced in my life. But for some reason, I was able laugh this one off. In the process of overcoming the DNF, I had been trying to remind myself that running really had never been about racing for me. Racing was a new activity. I had run long before I had ever raced. And I could enjoy running without ever racing again. Maybe.
Then, jeez, what was I smoking??? I chased the thought with an announcement of a racing plan for 2012 to top all previous years, doubling up on 50 milers, securing my first 100, setting myself on a fast-track toward a big dream race like UTMB in a few years. And then I ran the horrible marathon. Right after my DNF. And then the April 50-miler I had signed up for and on which I was wait listed, turned out to be a no-go. I was the last one to be bumped up from the wait list. It didn’t happen. Then the 100 miler filled up early. All of my newly laid plans came crashing around my ears. Apparently I had not learned the DNF lesson well enough. Mamma said their’d be running years like this. I was beginning to think I would never race again. But I had signed up for the North Face Endurance Challenge 50 miler in June. Should I run it? Maybe I should quit racing for a while. I’m no elite. Why do I care? Weather was looking rough. Might be 90 degrees. Ouch. Oh, what the hell. The year already looked shot. I really needed a good race. I might as well give it a go. The pre-race anxiety grew to a fever pitch. Another DNF would not be good. I decided to go slowly, and just run to finish. And ah, it was so good to be racing again! The race turned out to be a beautiful gift. Heavy storms the night before made the weather lovely, but the course a serious mud bath. I slipped and slid through the muddy places, played on the short hills and loops, scrambling up, slaloming down, passing along my perma-grin to oncoming runners, and for not rushing, managed to finish 9th in my age group. (I usually manage the top third.) Not great, but not terrible. I made some new friends, and saw some old ones. It brought back my confidence, and I was reminded of the most important reason to do it. Races are fun. Still, I learned that for now, the primary reason I race is not for fun. Part of me has to do it. Something down deep is struggling to make itself known, and racing is helping it surface. DNF shame really had to do with something other than the race I didn’t finish. This eventual realization was the gift of the DNF. I still need badly to develop a sense of self worth. And though racing helps, it is the means, not the end; a surrogate for something more substantial: a practice that is more fulfilling and real that serves others that I have yet to find. I dream of starting a race in the third world. Somewhere where it will have a lot of impact to help transform individual lives and shape developing nations. For now, I will learn to coach. I will learn from the RDs I know. Perhaps one day I will realize these dreams. Perhaps others will take their place.
Running is a tremendous vehicle, especially for self realization. Most often it is all about the journey. But I hope that if I stick it out for long enough, I will get to where I am going.
Just one word, I thought: “Instinct.”
Er, well, maybe a few words. In writing a race report for the CMMM, I wanted to keep it short and to the point, not one of those wordy ramblings full of tangents and cryptic references I usually cough up.
So I thought about it for a bit. “In one word,” I asked myself, “what was this race experience to me?” Well, that was easy.
“The word is instinct. It was all about the return of instinct,” I thought, “But then aren’t all endurance events at least a little about that for me?” I always seem to have this on my mind before a race, but forget exactly what it means until I am in the thick of it. A long race for me is like hitting life’s reset button. Going into it, I know this, but in my heavy, pre-race anxiety I have to ask myself ”Why do I do this? Why must I tear up my body so in order to restore my soul?”
But in the thick of the run, there is that sweet recognition of the return of instinct; a deep, calming sense that guides and directs, that blows me back on course. Carried away are every worry and fret of unimportance, leaving me with–as–something of substance, something tangible and golden, truth.
Running in the mountains at night brings on a return of instinct unlike any other experience I have had. (But then I have yet to tango with a mugger or visit a war zone.) For me, running itself does this, running long does it better, running in nature–especially the woods and the mountains does it best, and running at night? Well, with all of these elements in place, it switches on senses I forgot I had.
I chose to run this race for practical reasons. I am an ultra newbie. Though I have run some night races, they haven’t been on single track nor as far as 50 miles, and I hoped the experience would help me prep. for a 100m. I opted for one headlamp (with a back up and extra batteries in drop bags) to guide me rather than the head lamp/flashlight combo. For trail running, I like to keep my hands free in case I need to catch myself or scramble up a bank. Or in the case of this race, climb some spruces around a mud pit. The fog turned out to be thick on the trails, and the ferns nearly as tall as me at times. Visibility was spotty. Though I could have used the extra light, mostly I was glad I had my hands free. As the night wore on, I began to rely less and less on sight and more and more on other senses to direct me. How much progress were the runners up ahead making? I could judge by sound. Pretty good? Trail is probably smooth. It’s probably safe to pick up the pace. This was just the beginning. Even the plethora of smells along the trail told so much. After a while, I realized I could smell the mud ahead though I couldn’t tell the depth. I could smell the water when approaching streams. I could smell the woodsmoke of the campfires that promised aid stations. Through it all was the pervasive smell of spruce, thick-sweet blossoms, the acrid ferns, the pungent forest floor: the fungus, the rotting wood and leaf mold, the moss. Oh, the moss! Like none I had ever seen! At stretches, so thick it would swallow my feet! There was such beauty in the smells, in the velvety silence. After the constant din and choking smells of city life, it was like a balm for the soul.
At one long, lone stretch, I turned off my lamp and felt the darkness. It was magnificent.
For the first half of the race, I wore these lovely Merrell trail gloves with Vibram soles which offered no rock plate protection from the rocky, gravelly road stretches, but were fantastic on the trails. Six ounces of grippy rubber and soft slipper upper, they put less between my feet and the ground than my house slippers. I knew it would be a crap shoot to wear these on this rough terrain, but after training a couple hundred miles in them, I didn’t want to go back to regular shoes. They are amazing. I received so much sensory input from my feet, I felt at times I could have run without a light. Surprisingly, it doesn’t hurt much to run on the gravel or the rocks in them. However, when I got to the mud, I was in for some problems. I liked to tie them loosely which meant they were like giant spoons when I dipped my feet into the shin-deep mud. It felt pretty good oozing between my toes, but I nearly parted with the shoes several times. At the first drop bag (mile 23) I opted for my old, beat up Newtons. These are great shoes, but after the Merrells, they rendered my feet blind. It was a tough adjustment and turned out to be an interesting experiment. I was shocked at how much information I had been receiving from my feet and responding to instinctually.
A couple of days after the race, I received a call from my dear grandmother. My grammie is 81, blind, and loving her independence, insists on living alone. She has been partially blind for most of her life, has never seen color, and though she doesn’t see at all now, knits beautifully. She says she always knits with her eyes closed. That way she can see better. She never ceases to amaze me. She told me of her recent knitting exploits, blue and white hats for Joe Paterno and his wife, and nearly two hundred hats for the soldiers in Afghanistan. She said she couldn’t fill the orders fast enough, that she wished she could knit with her feet. She went on to explain the she no longer wears shoes in her house, that her feet have become her eyes. Without telling her about the race, I told her I understood.
After this, I thought about my experience again, about the little oddities, the serendipitous coincidences of life. One of the things I carry with me on long races is a little white linen kerchief edged in lace crocheted by my grandmother’s grandmother. It is a practical thing. I use it to wipe the sweat from my face. But it also serves as a reminder that I am part of something greater, that I am but a thread–albeit lovingly knitted–into this reality. The kerchief was handed down to me from my mother. It is a fine gift, though it seems my great, great grandmother crocheted so frequently, there were pieces of her lace everywhere around when I was growing up. In race prep, I had picked up the kerchief for practical use only, without a thought to its heritage–to MY heritage.
Maybe more than instinct, the word to sum up my race experience is “gift.” It was a gift to be able to run it in the first place, to enjoy it so thoroughly, to finish, though slowly, without injury. It was a gift to be in those beautiful mountains, in the heart of that splendid, dense, silent pine forest at night, a gift to see new friends and old running acquaintances, Jim and Doug, and especially the awesome Jenny Nichols who took 2nd place for the women!, and to make even more. It was a gift to be so graciously looked after by cheery volunteers and considerate fellow runners. It was a gift from Adam, the race director who put together such a fabulous race, a mountain of hard work. It was a loving, selfless gift from my husband who knows so well how much running means to me that he would take time out of his busy schedule to haul my butt down to the mountains to do it, to offer kind words of loving support and encouragement even when I barked and fretted with pre-race anxiety, to be there with me at beck and call, waiting for me at the finish to congratulate me on a job well done. I don’t ask him to do this. He volunteers. He is a rock, that man. And it was a strange and unexpected gift to have had the opportunity to feel around in the darkness, and finally get a sense of what it is like to take a walk in my grandmother’s shoes–or shoelessness rather—to be reminded that we are privy to so much more sensory input if we but open ourselves to it.
Is it over already?
I tried and failed once again to keep myself from making that rookie mistake of going out too fast. Every time, I try to care about the splits, but I am bad, bad, bad. The adrenaline is simply too much for me. I indulged my inner horse, and just let it go. I am a terribly undisciplined runner. But luckily the crowd was thick and folks were forcefully elbowing for their positions, everyone struggling to press ahead. It never thinned throughout, so I soon settled back into a comfortable pace and just watched the shimmering, bouncing colorful snake we made as it stretched and writhed out in front of me. What a spectacle!
So I wasn’t spent by mile 16. That little bridge hill that used to give me such grief was easy this time, and I strongly powered up the Newton hills that closely followed. Even Heartbreak didn’t seem so bad. Sure I pushed. Sure, I slowed. But it just wasn’t so bad this year. And I flew down the hills just as I always love to do, an indulgence that I usually pay for later. But even now, my quads aren’t sore. Terrapin mountain has its gifts, it seems. A more competitive part of me surfaced briefly on the hills, and I was grateful to pass so many and still feel strong. But for some reason, I couldn’t harness that competitive edge. I just wasn’t fighting for speed. Just wasn’t pushing. Why?
Feeling a little dehydrated, I walked at several water stops to make certain I got a good drink. I ran very strong. But slowly. It was as if some part of me was rebelling. At some point after mile 20, I became most acutely aware of the state of my body. The skin on my face, neck and arms was being burned by the relentless sun (my sunblock rubbed off and lost to several dowsings at water stations) and now I could feel the numbness in my feet from the constant slapping of pavement, the achy joints and cramping calves I only get when running hard on pavement. I thought about running at age 80. I wanted to be able to. I reigned in and lightened my stride in an attempt to save my joints. Oh, where was my moxie today? Last year, I had felt it, had wanted to pull ahead, had elbowed my way through the crowd, and PR’d nicely. This year, even beforehand, I knew I would be slow. It wasn’t because of my training. I am stronger–even faster than ever, I know. But that friendly competitive spark, that push to give it my all was simply not there this year. Perhaps I had lost it somewhere in the mountains.
They say that three’s a charm. In finishing Boston #3, I learned a lot about myself, but in the end, it left me with more unanswered questions. I am still quite the newbie, after all. It was my slowest attempt at a race that is all about making a fast time. I blew it. What a shame, I thought.
At the expo, I felt like a fraud, alone in a sea of runners, a pony amongst the gazelles. What used to feel like a big family reunion to me now felt like someone else’s family reunion I had crashed. I felt set apart, a slow, roly-poly creature. I was so aware of that competitive spirit around me. There was a constant undertone of speed. It is all about the numbers, I was reminded. Numbers. I noted the 26.2 printed again and again on so many surfaces, a source of pride for so many, and to me, sadly, such an arbitrary number. Wistfully I looked about for hints and clues from the ultra world, but saw none. Then I bumped into a woman I had met before the JFK. It was great to see her. I felt a little less alone. She was running her 8th Boston, this time, with her brother who had traveled in from Oregon. He was far behind her in the seeding, but she was going to move back so she could run with him. It was so welcoming to hear of someone running Boston for an experience other than the numbers. Boston is a celebration of running, after all. It doesn’t have to be about numbers. I talked to some first-timers before the race. It was great to be able to answer their questions, give them tips about the course, and to tell them to relax and enjoy the experience. Most said that they were just there to finish; just there for the experience that is Boston–to feel part of it. But all of us hope for the best time, especially the newcomers. More than a strong finish, we want to finish fast. We want the numbers to reflect our effort, our hard work and training–to show what we know is inside of us–that steely core we know as runners we possess.
I was sadly failing at the number game this time. On the final 6 miles, I was ready to motor forward. But a painful ankle and slightly crampy calves–things I could have mentally powered through last year–kept me short. I ran in surges. My Garmin had died about half way into the race, so I was a little unsure of my pace once I started to stiffen and tire. At that point where all of the running strength is mental, I suddenly discovered my will had softened. Where in the Hell was my moxie???
As we made that hard last turn on to Boylston street, the part where I love to hotdog and floor it till I’m out of breath, I paused, even walked for a few seconds. Then I found it, the finish in sight, and ran hard. And ah, the relief! It felt so good to be done. This was new for me. Yeah, sure it always feels good to finish, but usually that sense of relief is overshadowed with a sense of accomplishment, with a joy that is giving it your best. But I hadn’t. I was sore, I was tired, I was burnt and dehydrated, but I was okay. Even talkative. Sheesh. I had turned into that chatty Kathy that running sometimes turns me into. It was so crowded this year there were several people finishing the same time as me, and we all congratulated each other. Then I spotted an Umsted100 race t-shirt in the crowd of finishers, and simply had to call out. Ultra=family, it seems to me. We talked ultra, and were instant friends. And it turns out we had a lot of mutual friends. He was racing for time, though half playfully in the way ultra runners do, having trained but two weeks, and I soon realized that finding that shared perspective was the highlight of the finish for me. Throughout the race, my mindset had really been elsewhere. I floundered to comprehend the loss of moxie, the change of mindset. I pondered: plenty of ultra runners still love to competitively motor through Boston as much as they love to competitively motor through ultras, races that are still to the newbie ultra me, lone, self-challenging ambles through the woods. I decided it was a temporary loss, a newbie adjustment, that my moxie would return. I would want to press through Boston again, and race for the numbers. But I had to go somewhere else first.
Still trying to shape my thoughts around this, today I picked up a book I had found on the giveaway table at work, and read my own feelings about it laid out in plain words, perfectly executed:
“A childish enthusiasm had prevented me from seeing that the marathon is really a spectator sport, and a false scale against which to measure our true capacity. What long-distance running is truly about is measuring ourselves against a challenge that exceeds simple arithmetic, covering miles that we had not necessarily foreseen. It is knowing how to cope when the world turns against you.” –Robin Harvie in “The Lure of Long Distances”
Slam! It all fell together then, and I breathed a big sigh of relief. I thought of the awards ceremonies at some of the ultras I had run, lighthearted mockeries of the pomp-and-circumstance-filled trophying that accompanies so many running events. There were awards for being the fattest runner and the runner who got bloodied the most on the course. Most of the awards were not trophies or medals, but fine outerwear. Ultra runners have a slightly different value system when it comes to running. They understand why they run, and that it has nothing to do with numbers or trophies. We all do it for ourselves. Sure there is competition, community, celebration and ceremony. But the proofing is mostly to ourselves and not to one and other. We crack wise about not training, not tapering or breaking all the training rules before a run. We run for the love of running and for what the untested distance and harsh terrain and conditions have to teach us about ourselves.
Any distance can be a challenge, be it 100 meters, 3, 26.2, 50 miles, 100k or 200 miles. The distance, the time, the numbers don’t matter. It is about pushing ourselves, about facing the unknown inside of us. Alone on the Boston course in a sea of runners, I had come face to face with myself, had called my motivations into question. I forced myself to not care about the numbers, because it shamed me to care about them. In the end, I realized I had run a good race. I may not have pushed to run my fastest, but I ran strong, I took care of myself, kept myself from injury and dehydration, mindful of the long runs for the decades to come. I hadn’t blown it after all. It is just that my values were different now. For better or worse, my goals had changed. It seems I had somehow moved beyond, to a different set of challenges. But even so, I knew this was but yet another step in some growth process as a runner. I had but to look at the plenty of seasoned and wise that traveled from all over the globe to run the Boston. And I knew I would be back.
March 20, five days before race day
“Inspiration, move me brightly light the song with sense and color,
hold away despair
More than this I will not ask
faced with mysteries dark and vast
statements just seem vain at last
some rise, some fall, some climb
to get to Terrapin…”
Though by now I probably shouldn’t, I still find it surprising and strange that at this late point in my life I would find such profound meaning imbued in every other line or so of an old song penned by Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia. Though I could never have been truly called a Deadhead, never worshiped and revered them as some of those fans I had known, I have marveled at that phenomenon that was the Dead. And I have certainly always worshiped at the alter of music’s mystery.
I have never found Terrapin a particularly strong or meaningful song. But even at his weakest, Hunter has a poetic way of dragging us through the mythic–of surreptitiously slipping us a cryptic line or two that suddenly reveals the bigger pattern some decades later when we are doing a bit of soul searching. And it seems for me that at this particular point in my life Hunter has with his song, come once again to pull the thread.
It is, in fact, both the first song I ever heard the Dead play live, and the first time I had ever heard it. At a particularly low point in my life, a college drop-out ostracized by family, hitting rock bottom depressive states, and recently displaced to a bad part of DC, thrown in with a few scary strangers I hoped at some point to call friends, I was spiraling down into despair and becoming more and more lost. I had come to this Dead show with a guy I was seeing, but had not known for very long. We were separated in the crowd, and I knew not another soul present. The crowd was huge, surprisingly rowdy and a bit frightening. Much like my place in the world, I didn’t know where to look to find my seat, where to stand, where or how to be.
The music meandered around loosely the way it does with the Dead, the way it does with the song Terrapin Station, without a strong rhythm, without much structure, and still the crowd sang and swayed. Then Jerry’s guitar refrain peeled through the din, and everyone together screamed the lyric “Terrapin!”
In the focus and intensity of the crowd, I suddenly found that I no longer felt lost, found it but a state of mind, an illusion that fell away with the music, and realized that I was exactly. where. I. was. supposed. to. be.
It was a solid if fleeting moment, and the recognition powerful. Music has always had a way of doing this for me, of bringing me back to myself, if but briefly, of reminding me of my place in the universe, of lighting the way so that I might not lose my footing on those dark and winding stretches.
Lately, I have been running a lot. In part, in truth, I have because I have needed to desperately. I have been passing through some great emotional challenges, and it has kept me strong. Also, I have been preparing for two races: in April, my third try at Boston, and this Saturday, a mountain trail race called the Terrapin Mountain 50k. Surely it is this race that has brought the old song back into my head. That, and it simply happened to coincide with so much else that made the song ring true.
“While you were gone these spaces filled with darkness
The obvious was hidden
With nothing to believe in the compass always points to Terrapin..
I have been writing. I write of where I place my faith. I try to focus on not what is fleeting, but on that which abides. But everything in this world seems to shift and change with lightening speed, and recently, if I do manage to pull myself out of that ticker tape stream of consciousness if for but a little, perplexed, I find myself standing on the edge of a vastness, naked and alone before the beauty of the universe. And it frightens me. I know, there are only but a few things that can bring me here.
“and I know we’ll be there soon
I can’t figure out
if it’s an end or the beginning
Not particularly conscious of the approaching race, that old refrain of “Terrapin!” and its message that had so long ago set me back on the path kept sneaking back into my consciousness until once again I sensed those mental bees at work, that subconscious stirring that goes on before a big change/challenge, and I awaited that familiar snap! That thunderous clap of the master’s hands that suddenly brings in line again the workings of the conscious and subconscious.
Yes, I have been writing. I have been trying excruciatingly slowly on my wobbly new writing legs to learn to pen memoir. Cautiously, one foot in front of the other, painstakingly trying to figure out how to reach back into that darkness without losing myself in it again, I have been searching for the right balance of elements, for the correct recipe. I read others’ words. They all seem to be able to bravely open themselves up and lay it all on the line. I know that it takes immense courage. I read between the lines for what they don’t reveal. I feel it out for myself. How much detail? How much of the self do I share? Can others’ relate to this? How and when should I refrain to protect others? What can I brush over, where must I painstakingly tell all? I find myself writing then editing then deleting, then rewriting, and more often than not feeling like I am losing ground; Penelope forever weaving and then tearing out her fresh work on the burial shroud.
But in hopes of what? That I will at last be reunited with some long lost heroic part of myself returned to give me the strength to say what needs to be said? For the hope of saving myself from the past by recreating it as art, holding it up for all to see? Perhaps. For so long I had been awaiting the return of my instinct, for the return of my strength. It came in running. It is the light that scattered the darkness and with it, I have burned my own burial shroud. But now I must progress further. Now I must fund the courage to climb on, to lay it out for all to see in an effort to help others.
“Hold away despair…
The obvious was hidden…
In the shadow of the moon, Terrapin station…
So I will run long again. Up into the mountains where it works the best. Where I will find my strength again. Where I always manage to find myself.
“Some rise, some fall, some climb
to get to Terrapin…
I make light of it. It is not a race for me. I am slow. I do not compete but with myself. It is just a little run in the mountains. I’m doing it for fun. I’m doing it for joy. I’m doing it because I have to. I’m doing it because I can. I’m doing it because it saves me from myself. I’m doing it because it holds away despair. I’m doing it because running long is what creates that music of my mind that when played over and over lifts me out of the gray streets.
In my training, I sometimes run long from my house to the National Cathedral, its spires beckoning from far in the distance, glowing like the moon in the slanting sunlight, visible from many streets, from many angles.
“Counting stars by candlelight all are dim but one is bright:
the spiral light of Venus rising first and shining best…
From the northwest corner of a brand-new crescent moon…
But it is in the running, in the journey through the dismal streets that I reach its heights. My husband explains to people who don’t understand my love of long distance running, that running is for me a religion.
“Some rise, some fall, some climb
to get to Terrapin…
It has always been a spiritual journey for me, and I have been climbing in one form or another for years. It is different each time, each place. But it remains a constant in that it immerses me in nature, even in the city, in beauty, in the sacred, in physics, in numbers.
“crickets and cicadas sing a rare and different tune
in the shadow of the moon
and I know we’ll be there soon
I can’t figure out
if it’s an end or the beginning
but the train’s got its brakes on
and the whistle is screaming:
March 27, the day after race day
March 27, a very special day
The day after a race is always special in that you experience a release from tension, a clear-headed-ness that often comes with the long run and the finish of something monumental.
I completed my first journey to the Terrapin Mountain summit. An initiation come late in the game within the realm of my short running life, it proved like many races, to yield even more than I could have hoped. Mountains–like races–I was reminded, are all different, and if we listen each has something important, even life-changing, to teach us.
I never seem to do things in a natural order and in my pre-race anxiety, I had arrived once again at that place where I ask myself so many questions for which I thought I had already answers,
“Why? Why am I doing this? Why this 50k now? And why does it worry me so?”
I considered. I should be confident. I had completed two 50-milers as close as last November. I had even set some lofty goals for the year, selecting a few more 50-milers, one held at night, and considered maybe a 100k or a 100m before year’s end. I had been training hard all winter, but training for Boston. I am still new to ultras and the 50k worried me. Maybe mostly because I wasn’t sure why I had chosen it. It seemed an illogical choice. Ill-planned for my schedule, it was too early for use in training for a longer trail race, and smack in the thick of my Boston training. I thought again of the distance, and then of my marathon pace. For the 50k distance I worried about having to run faster than the nice, relaxed 50-mile pace. And I had been training for speed on flat pavement. On mountain climbs I am terribly slow. Would I go out too fast? Would I burn myself out or get hurt? And the mystery remained: why did I choose this one? What does this particular 50k hold for me? “
“More than this I will not ask
faced with mysteries dark and vast
statements just seem vain at last
some rise, some fall, some climb
to get to Terrapin…
I wrote about it, attempting to solidify my thoughts, attempting to draw the reason from my subconscious, reminding myself of why I run long trail races, of why I run at all, of what it teaches me, of how it changes me, of how it helps me help others. But the mystery and the anxiety remained.
“While you were gone these spaces filled with darkness
The obvious was hidden
With nothing to believe in the compass always points to Terrapin…
The turning over of the New Year had left me lost. I made solid resolutions, but fumbled in my discipline, felt weak in my resolve. I had somehow lost my footing, felt unprepared for the year to come. Now contemplating my choice in this race, I even pondered, “What is left in this for me? Would this be my last ultra? Have I come to the end of the trail?”
“I can’t figure out
if it’s an end or the beginning…
Came at last the fulcrum in the void–race day, gateway. The day moved like a lifetime, slowly at first, quickly at last, and as I traveled round the mountain, pivoted round the moment, I felt the new day’s fresh memories bend my old perspective as light though curved glass.
Now the word, that name that is also a mountain, a race, a song, a place, a lyric “Terrapin” took on new meaning with each fresh memory, each new layer of metaphor, with each newly burned connection of my pattern-finding brain. Among these, there was that familiar imprint, that weird hint I sometimes get when first meeting someone or someplace I later come to know well and for a long time. I would see this mountain again. Some portions of it felt like a race, felt a lot like other races, even like races I had yet to run.
“till things we’ve never seen
will seem familiar…
The race, the day was but one long, singular moment. There were long stretches with the field thick with many racers, even stretches with fellow racers whom I had met before. Sometimes we ran in conversation, sometimes in silence. At times it felt like one of those weird dreams one has of a family reunion where family and friends present could never coexist in a true time line. At one point, someone mentioned that we were running part of the notoriously tough Hellgate course, and “Oh!” a light went on in my head and I pondered, “Here is what my hidden brain has in store. Perhaps this will be the year I will run Hellgate. That is why I am running this now. I have already begun prepping for next winter.” And with that thought I realized that in the thought itself I had begun prepping for the challenges the end of the year would bring. Maybe I would attempt the aptly named Hellgate.
“Which of you to gain me, tell
will risk uncertain pains of Hell?
I will not forgive you
if you will not take the chance…
But a year felt like forever, and forever is a long time. I would not commit. Time will tell, I thought. The terrain shifted, and the group fell apart. I barreled down the mountainside. In the focus and intensity of the running, I suddenly found that I no longer felt lost, found it but a state of mind, an illusion that fell away with the music and cadence of the run, and I realized that I was again exactly. where. I. was. supposed. to. be.
Just after I found myself alone on the trail. Unknowingly approaching the Terrapin summit, I was but following the race streamers, following the path that lead up and up to steeper and steeper climbs until at last the rugged terrain shifted again, this time from loose rock and gray-brown trunks and dead leaves to a winding brilliant green, mossy way through a dense, twisted wood of emerald rhododendron foliage. They way was so steep now, I pressed my hands hard into my quads, occasionally reaching for trees to pull myself up. Heart pounding, up, and up, I climbed slowly until the trail leveled out a bit, and then I ran along the mountain’s crest, peering out now and again at the far reaches of the Blue Ridge and the green/brown patchwork of farmland on both sides below, until the trail ended and at last I found myself standing at the narrow, rocky point that is the Terrapin summit. Here I could see out in nearly every direction. On the edge of this vastness, I felt it again, that feeling that I had had before the run, of standing naked and alone before the beauty of the universe. But now I was no longer frightened. Now, I was here. And I know, there are only but a few things that can bring me here.
“and I know we’ll be there soon
The mountain looked as if it were encased in spun glass. Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun set a soft mood for a steady crawl over the icy, wind-whipped Cresson summit. I tried to focus on the flute and those beautiful, if stilted, glassy trees. Circumstance it seems had me making that lone drive once again up through the Pennsylvania highlands’ stormy weather for holiday with family. But in my head I was not driving. I was out in that wind and rain. I was running, floating over the mountain. Despite all of times I had spent navigating the perilous Cresson summit, despite all of my wonderings about these mountains growing up, it seems that after this November I would never view the mountains of Appalachia in the same light. My respect for them had deepened. This mountain, I knew, on which I was now traveling had taken many lives. Now I knew that in addition to taking life, mountains were capable of giving it.
November used to be the month I dreaded more than any other. The cold, short days, the leafless trees and gray-brown landscape; the time of year when many gave up the ghost, could be overwhelmingly depressing. But like it has done with so many other things for me, running has turned November around.
It is quickly becoming a big race month for me, and this year by Thanksgiving, in addition to my health, my wonderful husband, loving family, and awesome colleagues, I had even a great deal more to be thankful for.
The month’s two 50-milers came and went without DNF or injury, and left me with nothing but new friends, smiles, good memories, and a positive outlook for the season to come.
Saturday, I ran the JFK50, my last ultra of the year. It did not disappoint. It was enormously fun, even more so than last year. Knowing better what I was in for, I could relax a bit. And two weeks before, I had run the MMTR which gave me a great deal of confidence.
Since I am new to the sport and have but a few races under my belt, I cannot yet personally compare these east coast 50-milers to any of the vastly different races held elsewhere. But my experience of them and of two JFKs has solidified the notion that no two races are ever alike. So despite their proximity in time and place, it felt as though the only other thing they had in common was the distance, and a few of the runners. My experiences of them really couldn’t have been more different.
In addition to the difference in the terrain (JFK goes up over one mountain, climbing around 1200 feet over some rough, extremely rocky single track of AT , and is followed by mostly flat, river-side miles. MMTR has stream crossings and connects two mountains, climbs 9200 and drops 7200 feet with most of the serious climbs in the second half of the race). MMTR has a field of roughly 300 while JFK has roughly 1000. The folks racing the MMTR, though there were some first-timers and a few newbies like me, were mostly hardcore, seasoned ultra racers–an impressive if humble, welcoming, fun-loving group, but nearly all strangers to me (of course, I’d read about a lot of them–to me they were more legends than people). And though the aid station folks were extremely nice and helpful, I had no one crewing for me that day. I was in essence alone with my heroes and strangers in the mountains. At the JFK, in addition to many seasoned racers, there were plenty of newbies, and it seemed there were sooo many people I knew, either running or crewing, it was as much a reunion as a race.
Both were fantastic experiences, and I cannot say I preferred one to the other. It is a comparison of apples and oranges to be sure. Both tested me differently. While the vertical climbs of one were challenging, the continuous faster pace on the long, flat distances of the other was as well. But both managed to pull me out of the confines of self and make me one with the landscape. Both challenged my brain to grasp at wisps of that beauty and vastness that is the universe.
For the JFK, the weather could not have been more perfect. And since I was feeling strong, and had the support of so many wonderful people, spectators, fellow runners and crew, especially my Coast Guard friends and the Reston Runners, who are the most fantastic group I could have ever lucked into finding, I decided to race a little bit, and managed to shave 42 minutes off last year’s time. Coming in just under 9 and a half hours (9:29:15) placed me at 292nd out of 1014 finishers; not too bad for a slower runner like myself. I guess it surprised me. It gave me confidence. Sure, like all runners, I want to be fast. But at the same time, I don’t run to race, and I love the slower pace of the long races. It’s not that I’m lazy, but I just didn’t want to waste the race purely focusing on a fast finish. Maybe if I WERE fast, that would make sense. But I did feel a challenge to do better than last year, and to offer something to show for all of the loving support I was given.
Even though it was not the first time, it was still a great feeling just completing the race distance. I read in a fellow JFKer’s blog that less than one tenth of 1% of the U.S. population has ever completed a 50-mile race. While I’ve heard the stats before, I still find it shocking, after seeing the large crowd at JFK, and after seeing how the running boom has transformed marathons into these huge commercial running festivals. When I went to register for Boston this year, I was quick to do it, and just made it in, it seems. They had a record 8 hours before the registration filled. Last year it took 2 months to fill.
I find myself with mixed emotions about this running boom. Truly I want everyone who can to run, and to run far. I think running is one of the best things a person can do for their physical, mental and emotional health. And I think running a marathon (or an ultra) is a most worthy goal. I try to encourage everyone I know who shows even the least bit of interest to try it. Like with my own, running far has changed the lives of so many I know. It heals like nothing else. And setting a goal like a marathon helps make that happen.
Yet I see what the boom has done to racing. I worry about the commercialization of the ultra world and how that might change the closely-knit, selfless, ultra community. I wonder if eventually ultras will become the circus that marathons have become.
At the start of the race, I spoke with a runner who was running his 18th JFK. I asked him how it has changed over the years. I rather expected to hear how big the race has become, how commercial it is by comparison with previous years, but he said the that it ebbs and flows. He didn’t share my concern. Booms are faddish after all, and ultra distances are not for everyone.
While marathons can get up to as high as 20,000-30,000 in field size per race, only around 20,000 people total in the U.S. participate in all ultras combined over a given year. So there is a difference. And plenty of room for more folks to try an ultra. While many find the distances daunting, they are certainly achievable. And not as painfully as one might think.
Now that the racing is done for me a few months–well, maybe for a month–and winter is setting in, it is a time once again for me to focus on other pursuits, and to perhaps dream a little.
Maybe it is true I have lofty dreams, but I believe it would do us all good to run a little farther and dream a little bigger. So. Join me in dreaming this year of bigger and better things for yourself and for the world– things like democracy in Burma and running ultra distances.
If you haven’t run an ultra and are thinking about it, go for it! Shoot for the mountains and the moon. What you experience will be priceless, and you may just surprise yourself. : )
I had both feared and dreaded this day, had regretted ever signing up for this race. Now it was here, and I had to deal with it; had to live up to my own expectation. It is just one day, one race, I reassured myself, it would soon be over. But it turned out to be far more than I bargained for, and as it unfolded, it proved itself for me a profound and significant chronotope upon which I could measure the past and future events of my life.
At about an hour and a half before dawn on Saturday morning our buses arrived at the start. While some opted to stay in the warmth of the bus, I stumbled off with most of the other runners, and we lined up for the porta-johns. Then we gathered moth-like around a large spotlight and Clark Zealand, race director and ultra winner and runner extraordinaire, clipboard in hand, checking off names to make certain he and his volunteers had accounted for everyone that had not checked in on the bus.
The spotlight cut rather harshly through the predawn, its generator creating a racket and belching out chokingly foul smells. But every now and again a mountain wind would bring on the smell of leaves and snow, and remind me of just where we were and what was to come. I glanced around. It was hard to see the surroundings. Just feet from the light stretched that kind of absolute darkness you forget about after living in the city for more than a year. We were in the Blue Ridge Mountains in southern Virginia, at the very end of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Between the treetops and the moonless sky, there was a thick blanket of cloud cover. It began to snow.
It was a seemingly small crowd. I knew there were somewhere around 300 running that day, but in the brief pool of light and surrounding darkness it appeared to me to be about 40. Lots of folks still on the bus, I thought, seasoned runners who have the confidence to rest right up until the start. I shivered, feeling once again that I had bit off more than I could chew in signing up for this race.
The runners around me chatted nervously and shifted feet, trying to stay warm; the few of us out here who didn’t want to miss anything, or simply had too much adrenaline to stay on the bus or in our cars. Newbies, I thought. We are the newbies.
Cool calm and collected amidst our newbie fidgets, Dr. David Horton, the ultra-running living legend who had created this race some 27 years ago, leaned rather nonchalantly on the hood of a nearby car, arms folded, eyes smiling.
“So what’s your name?” he said to me.
He’s addressing me? I thought. Unbelieving, I looked about at the empty space around me. Maybe I had been staring at him. Giddy from lack of sleep, too much adrenaline, and well, more than a bit awe struck, I approached the legend.
“I’m Dani Seiss,” I announced matter-of-factly, in a tone that must have come off as “You know, Dani. It’s me, Dani!” as if he surely had heard of me, as if we had been close friends for decades. He needed no introduction. But I felt like we had a mutual understanding–a shared love of mountains and of running that revealed itself purely by our presence here in the Blue Ridge at predawn. Without thinking, I addressed him as David, not Dr. Horton, and he never corrected me.
Horton has held records for the 3rd fastest on the Appalachian Trail, covering its 2175 miles in 52 days 9 hours, 3rd fastest for the Trans-America Run of 2906 miles; fastest ever on the Pacific Crest Trail, 2650 miles in 66 days 7 hours, 3rd fastest on the Long Trail 272 miles in 4 days 22 hours , and not to mention is 1 of 7 finishers ever at the Barkley 100 Miler (a notoriously hellish experience), and 2-time winner of the Hardrock 100. And I was about to run his race.
“Danny? What, did your dad want a son?” he joked.
“No, he has sons,” I said. “I think he is more proud of his daughters, though,” I smiled.
I asked him what he favorite race is.
“Oh, Hellgate,” he said with gusto and without batting an eye.
“I would LOVE to run Hellgate,” I responded, sounding a bit too enthusiastic to be serious. But I really did want to run the aptly named Hellgate. I knew I would have to work up to that one, though, and it was the conditions and not the distance that I would most likely have to worry about. The race is a 100k in the mountains in December. It has more that 11,000 feet of elevation climbs, and starts in the middle of the night, so the temps can get pretty cold. Many years there is ice on the paths, and feet, numb and wet with stream crossings have trouble navigating this. Weather conditions can get bad. One year, runners had problems with freezing corneas because of the constant wind. Why did this sound like fun to me?
I flashed back to when I was a teen. Before I had ever heard of this extreme sport of ultrarunning, I had loved the challenge of the cold and the mountains and the peace they brought me. I spent a lot of time hiking around the Pennsylvania portion of Appalachia in every season, weather condition and every time of day. I even bivouacked at times. The mountains there are not the sharp peaks they are in southern Virginia, but as mountains, they could surely hold there own. And with more limestone, there are more foothills, so it was often even a challenge just getting to the mountains.
When I was 17, I had my wisdom teeth out over Christmas break. They were impacted, so they had to knock me out and smash the teeth before they could be extracted–the bottom set had roots wrapped around nerves and the top had their roots embedded in my sinus cavities. The surgery left me swollen, in stitches and in pain. After days of subsisting off nothing but Ibuprofin, broth, juice, books and television; home alone, I began to go stir crazy and long for the mountains. We had had some heavy snows, and there was about two feet of it on the ground. One morning, the sun finally came out but the temperature was still stuck at 0 degrees F. I decided that if I layered right, with that sun, I could tackle the cold. The town where I lived was about 4 or 5 miles from the nearest mountain, and with two feet of snow, I wasn’t walking anywhere but on the roads. But a plan began to develop. In the barn at my step dad’s farm, about 4 miles away, was a pair of cross country skis that belonged to one of his band mates. I had borrowed these before, and knew I could use them. So I layered properly, donned a heavy down coat, and tucked into it my Walkman and two cassettes: the jazz group Oregon, and a nice collection of analog synth songs called Deep Breakfast by experimental music pioneer, Ray Lynch. Adding the finishing touches, heavy hat, ski goggles and an oven-mittish pair of gloves, I took to the road and made the slow trek to the farm. Once there, strapped into the skis, I climbed the fire road to the top of Williamsburg mountain. I soon forgot the pain in my face, and spent the day skiing the mountain. It was sublime. The day was lovely. The snow sparkled in the sun. Ray Lynch’s song Tiny Geometries spilled colorful, bubbling synth noises all over the day. This was bliss.
The cold. The mountains. They made everything right as rain. And this was why I knew I wanted to run Hellgate. This is why I was here to run the MMTR. If I was able. Time would soon tell.
MMTR is no walk in the park. And it is no JFK. All 50 milers are not alike. MMTR climbs 9200 feet, and drops 7200, with most of the serious climbs in the second half. There are several stream crossings, and so the added joy of running in wet feet.
I told David I would be happy that day if I could simply make the cut off times. I was worried about the vertical miles, and how slowly I would take them. His demeanor softened. He pitched a few of his 50ks then, Promise Land he said was good. I have to run that one.
Why did I have no confidence? Usually when my confidence wavered about a race, others would bolster it. “Oh, you’ll be fine,” they would say. Not so with the MMTR. When I had expressed any doubts about this one, they would more often shrug. “Just give it your best shot,” was the best I got, even from my ultra running friends. To say the least, it left me with lingering doubts.
Now David–notorious for lighting fires under people and getting them, non runners even, to run ultras, either by convincing them they could do it, or challenging them that they couldn’t, was steering my attention to some of his shorter races. What have I signed up for? I thought again. Well, too late now.
Nobody I knew, not even the inspiring David Horton was going to tell me honestly what I could our couldn’t do. It was going to have to be up to me to light that fire under myself. So I drew on my favorite mantras and memories.
“Trust the process” Yassi Ghinsberg had told himself over and over, a mantra that had saved his life when he was lost and injured for three weeks in the Amazon. I reminded myself that 90 percent of everything is just showing up, and well, I was here. I was about to attempt my second 50-miler. This wasn’t even my first, I assured. And then I remembered what Reston Runner den mother Helen Hips had said to me when I flagged and fretted before last year’s JFK50: “Don’t fight it. Just let the mountain embrace you.” And back then, as now, I knew what she meant. And this reminded me of the most important thing that running and mountains had taught me. There is no clear line between you and the world, between you and those mountains. It is an illusion. That boundary is a Mandelbrot fractal. It’s a strange thought, but when you are out there running, you experience it. Hokey as it may sound, that line disappears. It simply falls away and you are one with the day, one with the place. You experience a true present. For some reason, this makes the running virtually effortless.
Just as that line disappeared that day I went skiing on the mountain–the snow, the sky, the bubbling synth sounds, my breath, the cold, the mountain, the pain in my face became all one and the same–so it would be I knew, once I was running the mountains of the MMTR, Dr. David Horton’s Mountain Masochist Trail Race. It sounded like a carnival act to me and began to take on a surreal quality. And now I prayed that I could make the cut off times at the aid stations just so I could remain out there, so that I would once more achieve that bliss.
We gathered on the road for the start, huddled together for warmth, and when given a quiet word to begin, suddenly bolted down the road. I knew well to pace myself at the start of any race, and of all races, I knew I would have to now. But within seconds of the start, we left the light behind, and it grew quite dark and cold. A Chinese dragon of bouncing LEDS and glowing white skeletal outlines of tech clothes, we glided swiftly down the road, padding along, soft running shoes on pavement, occasional sniffs and chatter, sticking together as a pack, trying to stay warm in the predawn snow flurries and wind. At one point, I glanced ahead and saw the sinewy built hams of a runner I was trailing, and I realized simply by her build that I was far too ahead in the pack. I looked at my Garmin and it said we were traveling at a cool 8mph. Yikes! This was much too fast for me to be starting a 50. But I wanted to get warm. I compromised that I would keep the pace up just long enough to get warm, then start backing off. Luckily there was a long up hill. This warmed us quite nicely and took the pace down. As we crested it, dawn came. Then we came crashing down the other side and crossed the James river. Here we hit the first aid station, and started on the first trail up a good steady, climb. We were all warm now, but still held a good pace.
I decided to try and keep up with the pack for as long as I could. I figured I wasn’t certain how much of this run I could do, so instead of conserving, I figured I’d just try to have fun.
The dragon, now colorful in the full morning sun, rose and fell and twisted and turned over switchbacks at a good clip. Everyone was fresh and energized, and when we’d crest a hill, some of the younger guys would let out yelps and warrior cries and we’d all barrel down the descents. It brought on bouts of laughter from some of us. At one point we flew down an incline, rounded a turn, and flew up over the steep banks of a water conversion ditch, launching into the air from sheer speed to their howls, BMXing without the bikes.
I stayed with the pack for just over the first 20 miles, then we all started to spread out.
From there, I started to relax. We were almost half way into the race, and I was making the cut offs with 45 minutes to an hour to spare, and feeling strong, so I figured I was good to go. Though it should have seemed far too fast to start out, I figured the slow inclines to come would use different muscles, and I would have to run as fast and hard as I could on those stretches that proved runnable. Then I hit the first major incline. Um, mountain rather. Wow.
It was going to be hard to keep a good walking pace up this, I thought. Under 5’2”, and much more practiced at running, I am a very slow walker. But I couldn’t run this.
At the last aid station, I had passed a woman, and we had chatted briefly. Now she caught up with me and we talked to the top of the mountain. With her holding the pace, we made good time. I introduced myself as Dani, and she said her name was Abi. Oh! I said, “You’re Abi!” She smiled. (There were only 67 women in the entire race, and only one Abi.) Abigail Meadows, that is. I had read about her. Abi races ultras competitively. She had pulled a hamstring the month before, so she was taking it easy today. But she wanted to finish this MMTR because it would be her 10th, and she would get a pretty sweet Patagonia jacket for finishing. This made me smile. Will run 50 miles in the mountains for a jacket. Hell, I was doing it for a tech shirt that claimed I finished. Sort of. Really, I was doing it for the bliss of the mountains and of running. And because I was there.
She told me a little about herself, and we found we shared histories in having grown up dirt poor in small coal towns in the rust belt of Appalachia. A tough life is its own reward, we decided.
She had been an Olympic kayaker before becoming an ultra runner, and she did fire and rescue for the Park Service for a living, which she loved. Her race schedule for the year lined her up for 22 ultras, and she was almost done. She had run Copper Canyon in March, which she said was great, and her next after the MMTR would be Hellgate. I smiled wistfully. Here was a woman living my dreams. And she had sponsors courting her for her running. I told her about my book, my own Hellgate, and we both agreed that writing often made running ultras feel easy. But the thing that really made her beam with pride was her children–her eight babies as she called them. She spoke mostly of the oldest, 16, who loved to run, and though she was careful about letting him run far distances at too young an age, he had just finished his first 100K, and she was quite proud. She talked of the youngest who is 7, and wants to be a climber.
When we crested the hill, I knew I would have to fly. I had to make up lost time at something I was strong at, and for me, that is flying down the hills.
So I told her I’d see here when she passed me later, smiled and promptly flew down the hill. I was on my own again.
I would meet several other runners this way. But for some long stretches, I was on my own with the mountains to experience that blissful state I’d hoped to catch up with again. And I did. The day was lovely. I thought of my mother who had lived in Lynchburg for several years. This very place, these mountains, and particularly the area around the start of the race, were quite special to her. On her deathbed, she told me of a place she had claimed for her own where she used to go and sit quietly and just be alone in the forest. She never said pray. It was the most important place on earth for her, and she wanted me to take her ashes there. I have searched for this place for years, but have never found it.
Before the race, I dreamt I found it during the race. I even considered taking her ashes along. But I knew it would be dark as we passed through that area, that I would be focused on the race, and that the chances were incredibly slim. But the specialness of finding myself in this place was not lost on me. II thought of her dying, how hard she had fought. She pushed and struggled to stay alive in ways I could only imagine, and when she took her last breath, her heart continued on as if it could alone sustain her. These mountains somewhere held her sacred place, and now I was here in a hightened state, a running state. Right then, I knew I would find it when the time was right.
It was pure coincidence that I happened to be running a race in this special place. Last year’s JFK 50 miler was my first official ultra, and a lot of the first leg is on stony trail (largely AT) that takes you up over a mountain. The rest is mostly flat, C&O tow path along the river, and some paved rolling hills of farmland at the end. After the race, I realized I had enjoyed the mountainous climb most of all. So I sought another race with more mountains. I looked for something recommended for newbies, with plenty of aid stations, and for something close to home.
Headquarted in Lynchburg, VA, a sub 4-hour drive from home, and in a part of the country I was at least familiar with, MMTR seemed like a good fit.
I read as much as I could about it. I asked around my corner of the ultra community for recommendations. Everything and everyone said give it a shot. So I registered. And then I worried. And started training early. Too many hill climbs too quickly and a tendon in my foot knocked me out for a good three weeks. I bounced back rather slowly.
The race proved to be a stresser of a goal for me. When I worried aloud to my husband, he offered me sage advice and insights only a person who has known me for so long and so well could have offered. He reminded me of my tendencies to worry needlessly over things. He reminded me how I always stress before a race. He told me that I was strong and in decent shape, that I could handle it, but also to remember that I had nothing to prove, and didn’t have to run it, and also that I could run part of it, and that there was no shame in dropping out. DNF is par for the course in any ultra runner’s history, because so many things have to come together to make a race that distance possible. Weather conditions and your health being the biggest, but also even tiny things can blow a race when you are going long: a blister can become a disturbing mess, a small sprain can become a major injury. Even a little chafing over a long enough period of time can take you out of a race, or at least reduce the experience to misery. When longer periods of time are involved, even tiny impedances wear like water on stone.
For this race, other than making the cut off times, I had two major worries. It had some pretty serious climbs late in the race. I knew from experience that my concentration waned after 40 miles, and I didn’t know how nimbly I could manage mountain trails at that distance. Also, there were several stream crossings that would undoubtedly soak my feet, and there were no quick opportunities for a change into dry shoes. So I wasn’t certain if blisters would be an issue. I had one drop bag at the half way point, so if I could make it for the first 26.9 miles, I could change shoes there if I had to. My shoes were relatively new, and I hadn’t had the opportunity to run over 20 miles in them wet, so I had to take my chances.
As it turned out, the stream crossings did soak my feet, but they stayed fairly warm, and blister free. I made all of the cut off times without a prob, and other than a brief stint with hyponatremia (fluid/sodium imbalance) at mile 43-44 that was corrected quickly with some sodium/potassium caps lent from a kindly and well experienced former tri coach, I raced problem-free.
I took it easy those last eight miles as I had enough time to walk the entire way and still make the cut off time. But as I started feeling better, I was able to pick up the pace. When I hit the final stretch of pavement running, and when I rounded the bend for the last quarter mile stretch, I decided to walk. Here I caught up with a couple of seasoned-looking fellows, one sporting military hair, who greeted me with smiles, and protested that with only a quarter mile to go, I couldn’t walk now. In fact, they said, I should run it with them. And if I didn’t they threatened, they’d carry me. I laughed, but it got me going, and I ran the last quarter mile with them. About an eighth in though, one of them jokingly said, “Well, this is the part where we sprint.”
Of course, I had a sprint left in me and ran the last 8th full tilt to crowd shouts, slapped my husband and then Clark Zealand five, crossed the finish, and David grabbed me and gave me a congratulatory bear hug, and said “You made it!” I’m not sure which of us was more surprised. Then he gave me hell for having too much energy at the end to sprint, as he has been known to do, expecting racers to give it their all until there’s nothing left at the end.
I never had the chance to explain to him that I always sprint the end. The sprint is not for me. It’s for everyone else. It is out of love and respect for my mother and her painful struggle, and for her yet unfulfilled dying wish of a final resting place. It is for everyone, my husband and the race planners and volunteers, who has stood around and waited in the cold for hours, for everyone who gave their precious time and energy to make the day possible, to take care of us runners so that we might run. We were all running this race together, after all. There are no lines separating us, no boundaries. Running makes them fall away.