Monday, March 10, 2014

Mud, sweat, and tears

During the second loop of a trail ultra in Kentucky this past weekend, I came upon a runner standing in the middle of the trail crying. Two other runners and I stopped to see if she was OK—was she injured? Lost? Feeling discouraged? She never really said what was wrong; she simply shook her head and started running with us. The three of us (strangers up until that point) started telling cheerful stories about our running experiences to bolster her spirits, and mostly we ended up telling about the not-so-good things that had happened to us. This was not to be discouraging, of course, but rather simply because the not-so-good stuff tends to be really, really funny after the fact. One runner had gone on an “activities vacation” with her family—climbing, mountain biking, water skiing, trail running—and survived it all intact, only to trip in the parking lot on the way to the car and break her ankle. Another runner talked about how she got hopelessly lost during an ultra and ended up repeating nearly half of the ten-mile loop unnecessarily, cursing the whole way. (Yeah, that was me, but then you knew that already, didn’t you.)

Our teary companion didn’t contribute anything of note until we started talking about the current race. The course was lollypop-shaped, a short stem attached to a roughly 11-mile loop, and there were four different possible distances; the 23K runners did one loop, marathoners two, 60K three, and 50 mile four. I had signed up to do the 60K but I wasn’t too optimistic about that happening. The longest run I’d done in nearly three months was only 15 miles, not even half the 37-mile distance.
At this point our formerly silent companion made a sound that could have just been a snot rocket but I swear was a dismissive sniff. “I’ve only done 15-mile runs at the most too, and I’m doing the 50 miler,” she declared.

Well. La de fucking da.
The first two ultras I was supposed to have run this year so far did not happen. At the first, I had bronchitis and had to drop from 50K to half that distance. I finished in the bottom 10, wheezing and coughing the whole way. The second was this 60K, which took place on trails covered in snow, ice, mud, and deep puddles of freezing cold water. At times the path ahead resembled a Dairy Queen Blizzard with bits of Oreos and Reese’s; other times it looked like a river of iced cappuccino. These were the descriptions I came up with at the time of the race, by the way; you can see where my mind tends to go on tough trail runs. And as much as you may enjoy eating and drinking those things, I guarantee you won’t like running through them.

Funny thing about those conditions, though: all that slop was actually an improvement over the way trails have been most of the winter. At times my favorite courses were so packed with powder they were unrunnable, and at other times—when the snow had partially melted and refrozen—they were crazily slick. Later this month I anticipate every trail to be a mudslide. Many shoes will be lost in the quagmire, count on it.
Because of the lousy weather, my training has suffered a lot, and the sloppy conditions made me even less confident than I usually feel before an ultra. Yes, I have a reputation to live up to; in case you weren’t aware or had somehow forgotten, I was awarded Female Ultra Runner of the Year for 2013 by my running club. But I’m still a total amateur when it comes to running, and I mean that in a very literal sense of the word, which derives from the word for love. I run because I love it, not because I’m particularly good at it, and my fear wasn’t so much that I’d be unable to finish the race as that I’d push myself to finish it and be absolutely miserable as a result. I’ve spent more of my life being miserable than I have being a runner, after all, so my expertise is far greater there.

So I ran the marathon and not the 60K. I ended up being in the top ten women to finish the marathon—but just barely, if you know what I mean. Overall I was 60 out of 123. “Hey!” I exclaimed after seeing the results. “Check it out: I’m average!” The BF gave me a look and said, “Uh, no one who’s average runs a trail marathon under these conditions.”
Perhaps, but then 677 people ran anywhere from 14 to 50 miles under those conditions on Saturday. Nearly a third of them did as I did and dropped down a level, so I was in good company as far as wimping out. Yes, I realize how it sounds to call running a marathon “wimping out”; it’s as annoying as hearing someone say they’re running nearly twice the distance you are with just as little training.

Do I second-guess myself for not going after the 60? Not much. I know if I’d gone for it, I’d have had a tough, miserable time. Yes, there was that moment when I thought a third loop would be possible. Of course, there was a far longer moment when I thought even a second loop was beyond my ability at the time. The thought of repeating all of that sloshing through slush, trudging through muck, all those ice-slipping puddle-splashing miles yet again—well, let’s say I’d have bawled far harder than Little Miss Fifty Shades of Bitch.
Yet I did do that second lap, if not the third, which left me initially a little perplexed as to what I could take away from the experience. Should I rejoice or lament? Sometimes what you get from running is not simplistic and won’t make for a pithily inspirational slogan. Ultimately, I think, these things are true about running a long distance race: It will be at least as hard as you think it will be, and it may be even harder than that. You may not get what you want from it. You may not win, you may not get a PR, you may not even finish. And you may not want to hear this right now. But here’s the thing. You will get something from the experience, something you can’t get in any other way in your everyday life. I can’t tell you what that is, because it’s different for everyone. You may learn something about yourself, you may experience exquisite joy or bitter disappointment, I don’t know. One thing I do know is you’ll be changed. And maybe you’ll know why runners go on and on and on in the obnoxious way they do about running—and why they get so emotional about it, sometimes, even, to the point of tears. Just don’t let that be an excuse to be bitchy.


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