"Now the gates of Jericho were securely barred because of the Israelites. No one went out and no one came in. Then the Lord said to Joshua, “See, I have delivered Jericho into your hands, along with its king and its fighting men. March around the city once with all the armed men. Do this for six days. Have seven priests carry trumpets of rams’ horns in front of the ark. On the seventh day, march around the city seven times, with the priests blowing the trumpets. When you hear them sound a long blast on the trumpets, have the whole army give a loud shout; then the wall of the city will collapse and the army will go up, everyone straight in.”. . . And he ordered the army, “Advance! March around the city. . .” (Joshua 6:1-7)
Seems like a crazy story, huh? But at least three major archaeologic excavations in the southern Jordan valley of Israel confirm the crumpled walls and destruction of Jericho by fire in about 1400 BC. Strange but true.
I had my own Jericho-like experience on Saturday, only instead of having Joshua at the helm, the
leader this time around (no pun intended) was Andy Jones-Wilkins, an accomplished ultrarunner with longevity in the field. The "Jericho" turned out to be the twisting, turny, tedious trails of Walnut Creek Park, a piece of real estate just south of Charlottesville, Virginia. Seven times around a nine-mile loop in one day. That was the assignment. That's what had to get done.
|Andy Jones-Wilkins shouting out to the troops (Credit::John Anderson)|
What made me think this was a good idea? Oh, I don't know. Maybe it was a yearning to race more since gone were the obligations of coaching every weekend. Maybe it was that deep-seated desire to test limits. Or, just maybe, it was the need to gain some odd sense of accomplishment.
|The start (Credit: John Anderson)|
After a night of hearing a steady drip, drip, drip on my camping cabin roof, and having to avoid the puddles on the way to the bath house, it was a given the trails would be wet. The misty morning at the 5 a.m. start confirmed the fact. But when the equivalent to Joshua's "Advance!" command was given, the pack of runners disappeared into the darkness, across a tall and wide dam, and into the woods, not entirely sure of what the day would bring.
A looped course can be a good thing. Once the sun comes up, each loop is met with increasing awareness of what lies ahead. It allows a runner to adjust for daring downhills or calculated climbs. With two fully-stocked aid stations on the course, the 4.5 miles in between becomes tolerable. There is no need to carry large quantities of supplies. Arriving at the oasis in the center of the loop permits the runner to carve another notch in the 'ol belt and jump ahead to conclude, "When I get back to the start, I only have ___ more loops to do."
But a looped course is also a bad thing. It makes dropping out very easy. The car is there. A warming fire is there. Food is there. A chair is there. The suffering can become a mere memory within a nanosecond of muttering, "I'm done." All that's left to do is pack your bag and drive away to a warm shower and hot meal.
I went into the race wanting an opportunity to learn lessons, live out perseverance, and waddle away a finisher. Settling into the first loop, I ended up leading a small train of runners. I controlled the speed (or lack thereof) and rhythm. I felt like the pace was very doable and conservative, but half-way through the course noticed a heavy feeling in my legs. Still, I came through the start/finish as the fourth place woman. From there, though my legs began to feel better, my pack position moved to the rear.
|Windy, wet conditions (Credit: John Anderson)|
A major goal was to stay positive. That was hard to do when people started passing me. I felt much stronger and more capable last month at a 50K race. Still, since I was alone the majority of the time (which is not a bad thing), I consoled myself to run when I should run and walk when I should walk. I prayed for an enjoyable patience to get the job done. The enthusiasm at the aid stations buoyed my spirits and gave my stomach a plethora of options. Still, when the lead runner passed me for the first time a little over 3.5 loops into the race, the realization he was already nine miles ahead was none too consoling.
Then came the rain. What started out sounding as sporadic rustling in the woods turned into a steady blanket of wetness falling from the sky. The already soaked trails became difficult to navigate, the mud taking on an ice-like slickness. The rain continued falling for hours. A garbage bag-turned poncho managed to put some heat back into my core. It wasn't pretty but it was effective. Unfortunately, what became ineffective was my ability to run downhills with any confidence. Each step on the sloppy, slick slopes risked a plunge down the mountain or, at the very least, a face plant onto one of the omnipresent rocks or roots. With less than a mile to go on loop five, the race leader pranced by me for a final time. He only beat me to the finish by 19 miles. That's head-hanging, soul sucking, mortally depressing kind of stuff. I think there should be a rule against that.
|One loop to go. (Credit: John Anderson)|
Given that the winner was already basking in the joy of a win and a leisurely evening ahead, I was nevertheless delighted to have Michelle Anderson join me for the next go-around. After refueling and heading back to the trail, I quipped, "Tell me your life story." She did. She talked, and I very gratefully listened. The time went by more quickly than before. She was the consummate companion, tending to my every need, taking charge at the middle aid station, assuring I was eating and drinking, and encouraging me along. The progress was better than the prior loop but the mud was becoming more and more intense. Two to six inches coated much of the trail. I sometimes ran into a tree on purpose to slow the slide. Other times, hanging onto branches was the only way to prevent a free-fall down a steep slope made treacherous by competitors' feet stampeding the same narrow ribbon of real estate seven times over. The going was tough, mentally and physically. And within a few moments of completing lap six, I could tell a toe nail on my left foot decided it had enough. I would have to deal with it.
Arriving at the start/finish, I was both surprised and delighted to see two of my "Shindigglers" waiting to go out on the seventh and final lap. The Shindigglers are a group of five college students-turned ultrarunners, four of which I coached during their high school years. I love these girls. They give me life as we train and adventure together. There is nothing they wouldn't try. The prospect of their company made my heart sing.
|Michelle, Rebecca, and Sarah. (Credit: John Anderson)|
A quick toe taping and sock change re-energized both body and soul. Off we went. Though I was on pace through three loops for a sub-14 hour finish, we had to count on losing light half-way through this final circumnavigation of the park. If all went well, I was looking at a finish a full three hours slower than anticipated. Still, there was nothing to do but put one mud-logged foot in front of the other.
The muck was a full 50% worse than the previous loop. Around the lake and in the weaning miles of the race, I changed my mudding technique to stand sideways and literally rode the wave of mud down each incline, a precarious procedure at best. Once, the mud took my legs in different directions. The short ascents were just as difficult. Gripped foliage was a necessity to navigate the incline. Sometimes, though, that wasn't even enough. A step forward often meant a big slide back down. It was exhausting. A few times, it was all I could do to hold back the tears. The girls sensed it, knowing when to fall silent, and when to encourage.
Finally, the last section of trail was behind us. We ran under the finish banner with little fanfare, save the presence of the time keeper and the race director. The parking lot was nearly empty. Gone was the happy banter of racers and crews. Little remained at the aid station save some still-steaming tomato soup. It was delicious and welcomed. The day's "Joshua," aka Andy, handed me the reward for a finish: a crisp $2.00 bill graced with the likeness of Thomas Jefferson, the namesake of the competition.
Part of me wanted to bemoan the fact of being the fifth to last finisher. It was odd, a little lonely, and a lot humbling. And yet, I must remind myself that the task was to complete seven trips around my Jericho. It didn't always make sense. It wasn't always pleasant. The "why" wasn't always clear. But the directive was well-defined. Seven times. Success must be seven times. 67 folks signed on for the trips around the park. Only 54 runners started the journey. A mere 40 stayed the course to completion. I must keep perspective. 7 loops is 7 loops. Mud or not, 62.3 miles is 62.3 miles.
By the grace of God, I advanced. By the grace of God, the walls of Jericho came tumbling down.