The first race of 2011 is in the books, and two days later … I’m still wondering how I survived.
Let me back up a couple of months. January. January in Minnesota. In case you don’t live here, I’ll put it into context for you. It’s the time where you start to wonder if hell really is hot. Make it “January during the fourth snowiest winter on record,” and well … a dark depression starts to seem inevitable. A fellow runner and colleague stops by my desk at work to talk about this “team trail race” she and two others do every year, but they need a fourth person. She’s one of those incredibly friendly and persistently upbeat people who you can’t say no to, even when you know that maybe you should.
I found myself, improbably, agreeing to running 7.75 miles in the middle of April.
At a park preserve that promises plenty of hills and a strong likelihood of mud.
[I know better than this. I struggle in the winter. I can’t/won’t run outside. I’ve broken enough bones that there’s no need to tempt fate by trying to run on snow and ice, assuming I could breathe and run when it’s below 0 degrees. There’s an internal carrying capacity of treadmill running that tops out at forty minutes, on my best day. Added to which, I tend to do a very good impression of a bear who wishes to hibernate during winter. I’m grumpy and unmotivated and mostly want to sleep away the cold. Running that distance in April is far more than I’m going to be ready for.]
Time passes. I mark the changing of the calendar pages and tell myself I really need to get my act together. Once a week at the gym isn’t going to cut it. A month left. Three weeks. Ten days. Panic begins to kick in. I find myself running at 5:45 a.m. at the gym, getting a twenty-five minute run in one morning before work. The weekend before that, I’m at the gym late, running, then hopping on the bike. Grinding out another twenty minutes. Anything to build up my endurance. One small drop in the bucket against the rising tide of panic.
Perversely, the only thing really keeping me from a total meltdown is the fact that I survived the half marathon I ran last July. Underprepared [I’m starting to notice a pattern…], I did freak out the day before that race. My patient big brother talked me off the ledge, shamed me into action with the very sage and simple advice: “the only way you’re guaranteed to fail is if you never start.” And I ran. In the pouring rain and through cramping muscles, I finished – under my goal time.
I know I’ll finish this race. It won’t be pretty. But I’ll do it.
I’m still nervous.
The weather forecast takes a turn for the worse. After a picture perfect mid-60s spring day on Tuesday, they’re calling for snow/wind/sleet on Friday night into Saturday.
Race Day looms. I stop at Dick’s on Wednesday night; pick-up some GU – a race day staple. I have dinner at Noodle’s & Co. between work and class on Friday night. Just like I did the day before the half. The race day playlist is tweaked and loaded on the iPod.
And when there is no doubt that “Eye of the Tiger” will be the first song… I start to realize, that I’ve become one of those superstitious athletes. [At least I’m in good company].
It’s race day. I drove through the cold, grey light of Saturday morning, thinking the snow-coated trees would seem a lot prettier if it were November, not April. Park my car in the park’s overflow lot and jog back to the visitor’s center that’s been selected as the meet-up spot. Shiver in the wind and wonder if I’ll stay warm enough during the race.
The race starts and almost immediately dumps into hills. HILLS. Not even a mile in, and I’m wondering how the h-e-double-hockey sticks I’m going to pull this out. Splash through an icy puddle of standing water that stretches across the trail. Watch my shoes slowly turn black with mud as I struggle to find a rhythm and organize my muscles into some sort of functioning unit.
I have no idea where I am or how far I’ve come. There was no map posted, as they change the course each year dependent on condition. I don’t know if I should be thankful that I don’t know how much I still have to go? Finally, finally, we hit a paved trail and I pick up the pace, my body infinitely more comfortable with the hard stuff. Some part of my brain recognizes that I’m trying to figure out how to write about this, while a separate piece is noting and recording the distress signals various other areas of my body are sending up.
At the second water stop, a girl hands me some water and tells me that I’m “in the home stretch, only 2.2 miles to go.” Thank God. Part of me is surprised I’ve already cranked out 5.5 miles. The trail continues back into the woods and loops around a peninsula. The wind whips off the lake and it’s muddier here. I hit a mud patch that is inches deep and stretches a good twenty feet down the trail, from edge to edge. I charge in, think inappropriate thoughts about the profitability of mud wrestling. As my feet make contact, my trajectory changes with the slide of the mud. It’s not unlike being a human Plinko chip.
A mile from the finish, a cute guy [running the 50K Ultra] passes in the other direction. He looks over, nods, and shouts “looking good!” He is possibly the kindest man I’ve ever met.
Quarter-mile from the finish. The two guys on my team are waiting. Cheering. Letting me know it’s one more hill and I’m done.
It was cold. And hard. And most definitely, not pretty. But somehow, some way, I
find a perverse sort of pleasure in beating the crap out of myself with this run, on this wintry day. I think other people call it “runner’s high.” I still think it might just be masochism. But I’ll take it, superstitions and all.