I feel like I’m packing some kind of bag all the time lately.
Lunches for kids. My work bag. A gym bag. Changes of clothes for all of us for bike races. A constant search for my car keys/work phone/piece of random paper.
The entire rest of the world is more organized than me.
That’s why I laughed when Karen Lechtenberg said, “Comin’ in hot,” on Saturday morning as I rolled up to the starting line of the Glacier Hills 50K about a minute before she yelled “Go!”
I had been standing with Kelly Thurman as I debated which of the items I had crammed into a string bag at 4:30 a.m. were the right items to carry me up and over the hills, the roots and the path carpeted in leaves in the pitch black at the start. I had three different headlamps with me, two kinds of gloves, and an entire change of clothes.
In the end, I chose the lightest shorts I have, a pair of wool socks I’m hoping to wear on a multi-day backpacking trip through the Grand Canyon later this week, a Mizuno long-sleeve that was probably too warm for the day but felt right in the dark, and a Liv women’s cycling windbreaker I chose because it rolls up until a tiny little ball I could cram into my hydration vest.
I had on a pair of new Brooks trail shoes that probably would have been fine, but at the last minute I worried my feet slip in them too much, so I traded them for a pair of very old and very worn Asics trail shoes I can’t give up, even though they’re shot.
“Trails are soft,” I told myself. “These will be fine.”
I had driven down with Kelly and Jess Walhoff, and Jess and I lined up together. Neither of us is any stranger to long distances or to trail running, but neither of us had really put in a solid effort getting ready for this.
“There’s a difference between training and running,” Jess said, and she’s right.
Still, here we were.
“Is my light even on?” I asked her. It wasn’t, and I clicked it on just before Karen told us it was time.
I felt quiet and introverted and resigned to this race. I’ve signed up for a lot of trail runs this year I haven’t been able to do – snowed out of Zumbro, broken armed out of Black Hills, scheduled out of Afton and the entire Sioux Falls Area Running Club trail series, which conflicted with cyclocross races.
Adding another sport I love to my life has meant I have to reconsider when I do what. I think it means more spring trail races for me, and then keep bike racing to the fall. But I didn’t want to let the year pass without something that feels big, even if I didn’t have that much business being out there.
At the same time, I was anxious about a stack of things – I’ve never run an ultra essentially by myself, and I didn’t know if I had the mental strength to do it. I’m also a terrible nighttime trail runner, and I was afraid of tripping. And then I knew that I would go so slowly in the dark that I’d never have a decent time, accounting for slowing down on other loops as I got tired and the not-great training going into it.
“I hope these 30-minute bike races are working,” I joked to Jess at the start. We had done 18 miles out there a few weeks before, the most either of us had done getting ready.
We set out, and ran together for most of the first loop, with Jess pulling ahead and then waiting for me at the aid station we saw every few miles as the course winds back on itself, two loops of 2 and 4 miles, figure-eighting through the station.
“You don’t have to wait for me,” I told her.
“It’s OK,” she said. “It’s not like we’re racing this.”
Around mile 12, when I came through the station, I was feeling rough. I was cold – I had lost all dexterity in my hands and struggling to get any of my food open, and I had fallen twice on the trail – not getting hurt, but it forced me to go slower than the snail pace I already was running.
“What do you need,” asked Nate, who was volunteering at the aid station.
“Something hot,” I said, and he listed off several options. But I couldn’t think straight, and I didn’t feel like talking to anyone or making any decisions, so when he turned around, I just left and headed back out on the trail. “You have to eat something,” I told myself. “You’re going to crash.”
Nate knew, too, just like Karen did and Nancy and Natalie and every other experienced runner lovingly managing that aid station. When I came through again 2 miles later, Nate was standing there with a cup of warm mashed potatoes and another cup of noodles. I ate the potatoes. Natalie came over and crammed chemical hand warmers into my mittens. It wasn’t even cold, but I struggle with circulation issues, and sometimes it all just feels worse to me.
“Take some for the road,” Nate said, holding out more food, but I waved him off and kept going.
The next 4 miles I thought about those mashed potatoes – the next time I was going to ask him to combine the soup and the potatoes into one hot mess for me to eat. Then I thought about Natalie and how she wouldn’t take no for an answer as she took care of me.
We ran side by side for 12 hours a year ago, and she has a fairly good idea of how I just sort of shut down sometimes when I don’t know what to do. Patrick tells me I refuse help.
But that’s not it, not really out there at Newton Hills. It was more that I felt like an idiot – I’m at mile 12, I shouldn’t be this needy. It’s not like I’m at mile 40 or 60 of some race. I’m just two loops into five, and already feeling like a failure.
“How dead last am I,” I asked Nate as I ate the potatoes. “Don’t worry about it, it doesn’t matter,” he told me, in one of the gentlest voices I’ve ever heard.
I thought about that out there, too.
Who cares. I didn’t train for this. I came out because I like the woods. And because I know every runner out there and I love seeing them.
As I ran, I thought about this Facebook post a friend of mine had about being present, and I tried, really tried, to be present. About how Patrick tells me the heart of life is to be grateful and forgiving, and I tried to forgive myself for my piss-poor training, to be grateful I could be out there, to look at the leaves or the stars or whatever else I could.
By now I was alone most of the time, with the occasional runner ahead or behind me. Jess was long gone ahead of me. The runners in the other races were coming by, and I lost track of who was in what event.
I’ve never done this all alone.
“Think of it as a meditation,” I told myself.
“You feel like you never get any time to yourself,” I said. “Well, here you go. Hope you like it.”
At mile 18, I came through the aid station and saw Patrick. He had gotten the kiddos up in the morning, took care of them and dropped them off with their dad, so he could come and stand in the cold and see me every 45 minutes. We talked for a bit, and then I was off again.
Things perked up for me – I felt better after eating every stop. My hands warmed up and I was able to eat a gel as I climbed one of the three monster hills on each loop. I did the math in my head for how much more I had to go, and chose to not look at my splits or elapsed time. I knew it was a personal worst, but it doesn’t matter.
It can’t matter.
That clock can’t be the only thing I judge myself against, and nobody else is judging me about it.
It was a lot to let go out there. I asked myself if I was just making excuses for not trying very hard. I asked if I was letting myself down gently. Someone told me I had to learn to radically accept myself – with all my flaws, just like I would accept anyone else – and I asked myself if that’s what was happening out there.
At one point, my friend Adam came blowing by me, on his way to taking second place overall in the 30K and joked about how we would see each other later in the week, as we spend a few days with some friends in the canyon.
With each mile on the second half of the race, I felt better. I wasn’t running any faster, but I just felt better inside. With each loop I talked to the people I love at the aid station, ate something, set out again.
One loop, I missed Patrick at the aid station and wondered where he had gone, but as I came back onto the trail, I saw him waiting for me, and he ran with me for a quarter mile or so, pulling Nancy’s dog with him, but Sydney had other plans and dragged him back to the starting area.
On the last loop, I ran into Annie out there, knowing her by her hair and colorful running clothes as I came up behind her.
“I’m so glad to see you,” I said, and we ran together for about 2 miles, into the aid station, and then lost track of each other heading into the final loop. I did the next section. “This is the last time I have to hike up this hill,” I told myself.
Came through the aid station. Patrick had running shoes on this time. I ate more potatoes. Took a cookie for the road, headed out.
We ran for a bit, got onto the trail where I hiked and ate the cookie and talked about how it was going. At the base of the next hill, I told Patrick to head back and meet me at the finish.
“You only have 4 miles to go,” he said. “You’re doing great. Jess is a few minutes ahead of you, and she’s in the lead.”
What? How did this happen.
I kept going. Hiked the muddy hills. Ran the ridges. Stepped gingerly down some of the downhills, my quads killing me and wishing I could climb more instead because it hurt less. I talked to myself out loud a lot. I thought about music it might be nice to hear. I looked out at the leaf-covered hills and decided not to get my phone out to take a photo – it wouldn’t capture what I was seeing and feeling at the same time.
I knew I wouldn’t catch Jess, and instead was just happy for her – I’ve never won a running race, just my age group here and there. We learned later that several women didn’t finish, which pushed all of us in the back ahead a few places. You race against who shows up, and sometimes better people show up but have a worse day. It’s just how it goes.
I finished the race, came through the stretch behind the aid tent and stumbled a bit on a root. “Don’t fall there,” someone yelled and I laughed, thinking there should be more heckling in trail running, like there is in bike racing. It makes me laugh.
I was happy to still be running. Happy I hadn’t fallen again. Happy to be done.
A kiss from Patrick, a hug from Kelly and Jess and Jackie, who was behind me and took third place woman. High-fives from everyone I know. It’s a great community of kind, friendly people who are just so happy to see you.
I ran across one woman who was hiking the last few miles of her race and she said she was really hurting. I offered her everything I had, but she said she was OK. Later, when the race photos were posted, I was so happy to see her come across the finish line in one. I knew it wasn’t easy for her – it’s not easy for any of us.
I really considered dropping at mile 12, but I thought about a friend of ours who drops in races when they aren’t going his way, and I told myself I didn’t want to be that person. I wasn’t injured or sick. I just was having a hard time. And I remember what Stamp, Natalie’s husband, told me once about your body can do it, it’s your mind that shuts it down out there. He should know, having crewed her in a slew of 100-milers.
It was a beautiful day. I was present. I finished my third ultramarathon. I came home and hosted a slumber party for my daughter’s 8th birthday and wanted to cry every time I had to bend down and do anything.
“My mom moves like that because she’s old,” I heard Viv tell one of her friends.
Not quite, lady. I am – clearly a master’s runner – but that’s not why I was struggling.
It’s because I’m trying to show them what perseverance looks like. What an active lifestyle looks like. What surrounding yourself with supportive people who won’t let you quit looks like. What unconditional love of yourself and your friends and your lovers and your family looks like. That a Saturday morning alone in the woods is maybe just what you need sometimes.
It was what I needed.
It was what I got.
Jacqueline Palfy is a longtime runner, reader and writer, marathoner, mom and board member of the nonprofit Sioux Falls Area Running Club. Her contributions to the 605 Running Co. blog will appear every other Tuesday. You can follow her on Twitter @runnerJPK or reach her at email@example.com. Story ideas are encouraged.
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