Sunday, November 5, 2017

What was I thinking?

"I could probably run 9:30 in my sleep." Oh foolish woman. How could I have spawned such an idiotic thought?

Picking up my race number with granddaughter Addyson
It was in 2000 that Kathy Youngren and I crossed the finish line of the Mountain Masochist 50 Mile Run in 9:28:39. We had tied for third place, both of us feeling under-trained and not the happy recipients of races well run. Hence, if I could run 9:28 under those circumstances surely "I could run 9:30 in my sleep." I had, in fact, run under nine hours on one occasion and had a number of finishes between 9 and that 9:28. How hard could it be to continue to run this race in the span of what amounts to a typical work day?

I was 43 when I ran 9:28. Ten years hence at 53, I ran 10:18. Now, at 60, it's almost unfathomable to think I could ever break 11 hours again. My posted time this year was 11:28.

Time is not kind.

The goal was to make this year's race my 20th finish. I did not want to screw it up and have to
attempt a finish with another birthday under my belt. Two years ago I was shocked to have a whisker-thin two-minute buffer from being pulled at mile 41. I made up some time and finished in 11:45ish. Running panicked for the remaining miles was like being chased by the Grim Reaper in a bad nightmare. I had no desire to repeat chasing cutoffs this year.

Photo by Jay Proffitt
With course changes over the last couple years, the course had become harder and slower. I was ecstatic that race director Clark Zealand, in an effort to give the older set a fighting chance, initiated an optional two-hour head start for 60+ folks. The option was in place last year, and I looked forward to using it this year. However, my goal was still a "real" finish in under 12 hours. I just preferred not to have the pressure of running from the back of the pack.

There were four of us at the 4:30 a.m. start. Clark sent us into the night with a whispered "go." By the time we left the hard surface road to turn onto trail, I had left my fellow sexagenarians. Over the river and through the woods I ran. On two occasions I roused small herds of deer. I felt free and unencumbered. It was effortless. Pure bliss. The woods were mine and mine alone.

Though my finish time might refute, I ran with an illusion of speed. I hiked with purpose and power. As I approached the aid station at Dancing Creek after about a dozen miles, the little oasis with nary a spectator applauded my arrival. I was the first to partake from the tables and could have anything I wanted! The workers sent me along the trail wishing me the best. I ran back into solitude, caressed by the darkness and embraced by the silent forest.

My arrival at subsequent aid stations produced interesting reactions. I'm pretty sure they never got the memo that old people had been released early. Therefore, I often repeated, "Don't be too impressed. I had a two-hour head start."

Refueling at mile 38ish
As time rolled as I ran, I figured the lead male runners might catch me about halfway in. After all, they would likely beat me by 3.5 - 4 hours! Sure enough, my watch registered 5:01 run time when the #1 runner passed by. It was about mile 25. # 2 and 3 passed me around 27, with the next few catching me further up the Buck Mountain climb. Each were encouraging, for which I was grateful. Still, I braced myself for the emotional impact that might come as the lead women (and anyone who ended up running about 9:30 or better) passed me.

I started seeing women in the loop at approximately 36 miles. My legs could run flats and downs, but my engine lost power on any climbs. Though somewhat embarrassed to be caught at my weakest, I made sure that each knew they had nothing to fear from me. They were a whole two hours ahead! But goodness, the top five were separated by mere minutes. I recalled how stressful it used to be running scared to stay ahead, or pursuing relentlessly from behind. I did not envy them. Running under duress was never something I particularly enjoyed.

I tried hard to practice the lessons I teach the younger women athletes I work with: Embrace the pain. Enjoy the journey. Suffering is necessary for growth. Make God smile with attitudes and action. The magic of the first five hours vanished. Perfect temps and brilliantly leaf-colored vistas disappeared into the thick fog, heavy downpours, and falling temperatures. The race turned tough and hard, and I had decisions to make on how to proceed.

Finished in 11:38
It was necessary to have multiple discussions with myself about not giving up, not settling for a so-so finish. I needed to run when I could run. Hike when I needed to hike. Yes. I was tired. Yes. Going up steep grades was punishing. But there was really nothing wrong with me other than fatigue. I could
still run and run I must. It was a conscious decision to make my heart rule the body.

As I approached the finish line, which was set up under the protection of a huge circus tent, I was happy to be completing the course through the mountains. I was even happier to stop running.

I accomplished the task. No, the time I ran was a far cry from what I used to do. I'll never be in the top ten again no matter how hard I wish it to be. Time is not a friend to speed and endurance. But, it is only time that can offer perspective; perspective on reality, perspective on what's important, perspective on training, and family, and resources, perspective that nothing stays the same, and perspective that NOT staying the same is a very good thing.

I am blessed.

A walk in the park and a pink finish line

By the time I finish most races, I've figured out at least the first paragraph of my post-race story. This was one of the few where the ...