[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
I wasn’t in a talkative mood. Race day jitters still get to me, even though I've been racing a long time. I stood on the starting line with the first wave of runners, each of us different but similar. There were men and women from across the country, ready and waiting. It’s easy to get swept up in the excitement of the moment and start too fast. I promised myself to keep the pace controlled and steady for at least the first half of the race, and as I jogged into the darkness of the morning, I did just that.
Tushars is a notoriously difficult mountain race, starting at 10,000 feet and gaining about 17,000 feet over 62 miles. Last year, I ran it somewhat on a whim and the race got the best of me. This year, I trained, hard. I spent a month in Colorado acclimating my legs and lungs. I drove to the mountains every weekend, relishing the views, the difficulty, the terrain, and the comradery. I knew what to expect, and I trained hard and smart.
For the first 28 miles, I felt good. I was following my nutrition and hydration plan, taking liquid calories alongside Gatorade chews, salt tabs, and hard food at the aid stations. Fueling has been my biggest challenge since I started running ultras, and the struggle would unfortunately persist later in the day, the altitude getting the best of me. At one aid station, my friend handed me an avocado wrapped in a tortilla and I could only stomach a few bites. I drank some ginger ale instead, hoping it would provide enough energy to get me up a long climb. A few miles later, I pulled out a cliff bar and gagged as I tried to swallow a bite. I deferred to my liquid nutrition and kept climbing. From there on out, I relied heavily on liquid calories. I was simply too nauseous to eat, and I didn’t want to risk throwing up like I had the previous year.
In most races, I hit a low point. This time, it was after mile 48, as I was ascending a 4,000-foot climb. I call my low point my dark place, and my dark place wanted me to quit; it wanted me to question myself. It could only focus on physical pain I was in, which was quickly becoming all-consuming. But I've been to the dark place before. I know its tricks. So this time, when the dark place came, I thought about my mantra, “I am strong,” I told myself. “I am capable. Nothing can bring me down.” I said that last part out loud to myself a few times, “Nothing can bring me down. Nothing can bring me down.” And the more I said it, the more I believed it.
Sometimes, in the dark place, I try to think about anything but my body. Instead, I thought about my running life; from running around corn fields as a kid, to competing on the national stage in college, to running ultra marathons. And I realized something profound, which is that I would do this, run through the mountains, whether or not there was a bib on my chest. I would do this anyway because it makes me happy. The mountains make me strong. They are rewarding and terrifying and breathtaking and absolutely humbling. The mountains are where I feel most at home and at peace. And that thought, of feeling at home, brought me out of the dark place. I looked up at distant peaks glowing in the light of the setting sun. There was nothing to feel, at that moment, but gratitude. My legs brought me here. My body, this body, was strong enough to upset the limitations my mind had placed upon it. My body, this body, had been loved and hated; abused and held. My body, this body, was resilient and courageous and entirely capable of more.
Occasionally, someone will ask me why I run so much, or spend so much of my time training. I couldn’t quite articulate why until now, but here it is. I train so much and so hard because it’s real, and so much of life isn’t. There is no time or space for bullshit. No one to answer to but my own mind. No way out except pure grit. No expectations but my own. No agenda but the earth. It is raw and beautiful in a way that many things aren’t, and what more reason do I need?
By the time I arrived at the last aid station, I was 8 miles from the finish. It started raining hard, and I pulled my raincoat out of my pack. “The rain won’t quit for at least another hour,” a woman at the aid station told me. A few runners were sitting in the tent, planning to wait the storm out, but I decided there was no reason to try to remain dry at this point. With about six miles to go, I pulled out my headlamp, the dim glow of it lighting up my path. I could only see a few feet in front of me and I focused on making it from one flag to the next. I fell in a muddy gulch. I drank the last of my liquid nutrition. I muscled through fatigue, and by the time I crossed the finish line I was depleted; mentally, physically, and emotionally. I embraced my friends, and although there was so much to think about, my mind was blank.
Thinking back on races is both delightful and frustrating. I think I could have run faster. I think I could have dialed in my nutrition better. I think I could have had a perfect day, but I didn't and that's okay. There are dozens of factors that affect race day, and I cannot wait for the next one. 🖤